Fiat, which has run into problems recruiting a new chief executive for its auto unit, is pursuing "realistic opportunities" in its search for a manager, group CEO Giuseppe Morchio said in comments published on Friday, according to Reuters.

The news agency noted that Fiat wanted Martin Leach, the former head of Ford Europe, to take Fiat Auto's reins from Giancarlo Boschetti, who is due to retire next year but sources have said Ford will not loosen a clause in Leach's contract that will prevent him from moving straight across to a competitor and one source close to Fiat said earlier this week that the whole deal looked as if it could fall through.

"Our plan is to strengthen management with top-flight professionals. That's not easy because you are dealing with top positions," Morchio told la Repubblica paper in an interview cited by Reuters.

The news agency noted that most motor industry managers have non-compete clauses in their contracts, which force them to wait for months before moving to another car company. Media have reported that Leach could be blocked for between six months and two years, Reuters added.

"We still have 12 months (until Boschetti retires) and we are looking at all the practicable options," Morchio reportedly said in his first published comments since the Leach saga began in August, adding: "The opportunities must be realistic, do-able. We don't want to get involved in relations between managers and their firms."

According to Reuters, Morchio reiterated that Fiat should break even in 2004 and make an operating profit of two billion euros in 2006 and said Fiat could do better if the economy picks up.