Soccer / As the Eternal City Waits for Benayoun, His Agent Insists Midfielder 'Isn't for Sale'

Israeli soccer star Yossi Benayoun and his current club, Liverpool F.C., are both denying rumors of his imminent trade to A.S. Roma, but the Italian side's coach, Lucianon Spalletti, said yesterday that signing the midfielder is one of the team's foremost objectives.

La Gazzetta dello Sport reported yesterday that Spalletti is interested in acquiring two players this summer, and that he has set his sights on Benayoun as well as A.S. Monaco's Jeremy Menez.

"I won't hide the fact that Benayoun is our preferred target," said the coach. "We hope the Israeli midfielder signs a contract with us in the coming days, and that Menez does the same."

British media have also recently reported that Benayoun may be headed to another English team, such as Manchester City or Tottenham.

Gazzetta estimated that Roma could raise Benayoun's salary by 20 to 30 percent, after Spalletti pressured team president Franco Sensi to place a significant investment in acquiring the Israeli, despite the team's current financial straits.

The Italian coach expressed hope that Liverpool owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks will put pressure on coach Rafael Benitez to release Benayoun so he can pack his cleats for the Eternal City.

Benayoun's agent, Ronen Katsav, said yesterday that his client would not be leaving Liverpool because the team's management was not interested in releasing the player.

"I say this in the clearest manner possible - Yossi Benayoun isn't for sale. Liverpool isn't interested in selling the player and he will play this year with them," he told the sports Web site ONE.

"It's flattering to us that other clubs are interested in Yossi, and we've received substantial offers, but from our perspective it's just not realistic. Yossi will stay at Liverpool and will be a contributing player to the team."

Meanwhile, the working papers of Argentine midfielder Sebastian Leto have expired, forcing the team to release him. Sources close to the club estimate that this loss only bolsters the team's necessity to keep Benayoun onboard.

Benayoun, 28, is captain of Israel's national team. Born in the hardscrabble Negev town of Dimona, he was a standout talent even before the age of 12. At 17, he began playing for Hapoel Be'er Sheva before moving to Maccabi Haifa.

In 2002 he signed with Spain's Racing de Santander before leaving for England's West Ham United, then Liverpool.

With his creative play, goal-scoring ability and feisty on-field demeanor, he has earned a place among Liverpool's fan favorites.