RAFAEL BENITEZ will be at the top of West Ham United’s wanted list if, as looks increasingly likely, the London club decide to part company with David Moyes in the summer.

West Ham issued a statement earlier today refuting reports that they had already decided to trigger a break clause in Moyes’ two-and-a-half-year deal, which will become active at the end of the season.

However, the Hammers hierarchy still intend to sit down with Moyes at the start of the summer to discuss their future plans, amid concerns at the former Sunderland manager’s struggles since being appointed as Slaven Bilic’s successor in November. West Ham are currently three points clear of the relegation zone, having suffered a damaging 3-1 defeat at Brighton last weekend.

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West Ham’s position will be influenced by the potential availability of a viable successor to Moyes, with Benitez set to be at the heart of their plans.

The Newcastle United manager was on the verge of joining West Ham in the summer of 2015, only for a late approach from Real Madrid to persuade him to back out of a verbal agreement to move to Upton Park in order to head to the Spanish capital instead.

West Ham’s joint owners, David Gold and David Sullivan, accepted Benitez’s actions, and the Spaniard was discussed as a possible replacement for Bilic when the Hammers were looking for a new boss in the autumn.

At the time, Benitez’s contract would have meant West Ham having to pay £6m in order to prise the Spaniard from St James’ Park. It has also been widely reported that Benitez would have to shell out £6m if he was to walk away from his current employers before the end of the season.

Crucially, however, the clause expires when Benitez enters the final 12 months of his deal, and he will pass that threshold at the end of the current campaign.

That would make it much easier for West Ham to make a move in the summer as they would not have to pay a compensation fee to release Benitez from his contract on Tyneside.

That perhaps explains why Newcastle owner Mike Ashley has been so keen to start new contract discussions with the Spaniard, even though the long-term future of his ownership of the club remains uncertain.

Amanda Staveley’s PCP Capital Partners group will not be making a new offer for the Magpies before the end of the season, but the North Yorkshire financier remains interested in taking over from Ashley and will reassess her position once it becomes clear what division Newcastle will be playing in next season.

Staveley has made Benitez’s continued presence as manager a pre-requisite of her interest in a takeover, and sources close to the former Liverpool boss claim he would be reluctant to walk away if he thought there was a realistic chance of Ashley being replaced before the start of next season.

Tellingly, though, Benitez, who has rejected Ashley’s offer of immediate contract talks, refused to commit himself to Newcastle beyond the end of the current campaign on six separate occasions during a press conference last month. Having been bitterly disappointed with his employers’ transfer business for most of January, he was relieved to see Islam Slimani and Martin Dubravka arrive on deadline day, but major concerns about Newcastle’s future transfer plans under Ashley will inevitably remain.

West Ham would represent an alternative option in the Premier League, provided they retain their top-flight status in the next three months, although the London Stadium club are hardly without their own problems with their fans set to protest against Gold and Sullivan’s ownership, and the contentious decision to leave Upton Park, ahead of this weekend’s home game with Watford.

Meanwhile, Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford has emerged as an early injury-doubt ahead Sunday’s trip to St James’.

Rashford damaged his leg muscles in the closing stages of last weekend’s 2-0 win over Huddersfield and has been sent for further assessments with his participation in Sunday’s televised encounter in serious doubt.