Gerrard to kickstart Liverpool's recovery
LONDON: Rafael Benítez has denied Liverpool's season has punctured prematurely but believes the next six days at Anfield, when Lyon visit in the Champions League and Manchester United renew domestic hostilities on Sunday, are key to restoring their flagging confidence and title aspirations.
Liverpool entertain Claude Puel's Group E leaders tonight and defeat would see them lose four consecutive matches for the first time since April 1987. Captain Steven Gerrard is fit to lead the side having missed Saturday's bizarre defeat at Sunderland with an adductor strain, although Fernando Torres has not recovered from a similar injury and remains a doubt for Sunday. Albert Riera is the latest addition to Benítez's absentee list having suffered a hamstring strain in training.
The pressure is mounting on Liverpool domestically and in Europe, with the side third in their Champions League group and seven points behind Sir Alex Ferguson's team in the Premier League. Benítez, however, insists Liverpool have proved under his tenure they can never be discounted, and believes their campaign will recover, not implode, at Anfield.
"I have some experience in difficult situations, all managers do," he said. "But at this time we have lost four [league] games and people are talking about the quality, the depth of the squad. But again, like last year, the main thing is to be calm, work hard and find solutions to the problem. That is the only way in football. If you lose and don't play straight away then you think about it for a week, 10 days, but this week we have an opportunity to change everything. This week can change everything for the positive."
Benítez conceded it is "my obligation to be positive" but his optimism was not purely for the benefit of a squad disrupted both in terms of personnel and self-belief. "I think we have more quality than we are showing now. As soon as we play well twice, hopefully this week, people will start saying maybe I am right," he added.
The Liverpool manager claimed injury to central defenders, as well as Gerrard and Torres, explain a mediocre start but denied those defeats have highlighted the lack of strength in depth at Anfield. "We are talking about five players at the same time, it's a big number," he said. "It is easier to give a young player a chance if the team is doing well. If you play with five or six young players at the same time in the Premier League it is not easy for them. Four or five players of the eleven starters? It is too much."
Liverpool may boast a proud record of blossoming under siege but that attribute is in danger of losing its lustre when required yet again in the October of a season that demanded a title challenge. An added concern for Benítez as he awaits a necessary response against Lyon is the lack of spirited leadership from his players. Last season Liverpool stirred whenever they fell behind, overturning deficits to beat the likes of Middlesbrough, United, Manchester City and Wigan Athletic. This term they have only achieved that feat once, away at Bolton Wanderers.
"When a team is losing games in a row then it is always fair to criticise," said the Liverpool defender Daniel Agger yesterday. "It is not only one thing, it is a lot of small things we need to change. I don't think it will take us that long to get there; a few good results and confidence will go up, and a team with confidence also gets the luck. I think we are together as a dressing room, that is my feeling and my opinion. There is a positive atmosphere in the dressing room and I can't see any difference between this time and a year ago."