Benitez can only call on team spirit for £20m tie

Manager prepares to 'walk through the storm' as injury-hit Liverpool fight for European survival
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The Independent Football

Rafael Benitez last night invoked the legend of his football club as he prepared to enter the toughest battle of his five-year Anfield reign, shorn of defenders, with his captain back at home and his prime striker nowhere near full fitness.

Benitez's use of Anfield's most famous anthem was faltering as he prepared to face Lyons in a Champions League game which he admitted saw him more ravaged by injury than on any other European occasion in his career. "When you walk through a storm with your head high... so I will try to keep high," Benitez said, after asserting that he believed he would be Liverpool manager well into the future. "I'm really pleased to be here and I want to be here for a long time. We try to win."

If the use of the anthem sounded at all cheesy then it was a reflection of Benitez's knowledge that this time it is down to him more than ever to conjure some spirit, after the 2-1 defeat to Lyons at Anfield two weeks ago left Liverpool on the edge. His job depends on it: defeat tonight and a failure to make up ground domestically will surely lead to his departure.

Fernando Torres is in less pain than he was yesterday as he seeks to recover from the effect of his 63-minute role at Fulham four days ago on his "sportsman's hernia", as Benitez described it. But the manager's real crisis is at right-back, with Glen Johnson's failure to demonstrate fitness to travel probably forcing the manger to deploy Jamie Carragher in that position tonight.

"We have some options. We are preparing a team [and] our game plan and I'm sure we will play with 11 players," Benitez said. Daniel Agger, whom Benitez hopes he can slot in to central defence to release Carragher, is "doing well" despite a back injury.

However, it is a measure of how bereft of choices Benitez is that he suggested last night that Alberto Aquilani, his £20m summer purchase from Roma who has only 14 minutes of Carling Cup experience to his name at Liverpool, might play a significant role. "Why not?" said Benitez, when asked if Aquilani, one of three players to have been laid low by the virus which has hit Liverpool, might actually start.

Benitez is relying on his players to deliver in spirit where the body is lacking. Among the experiences he is drawing on here is the 4-0 win in Marseilles two years ago, which sent Liverpool into the knockout stage after an even more disastrous start to the campaign had left them with a point from their first three matches. "Yes, we've been talking about this, we have the experience of the last game we had to win," he said of that game.

Dirk Kuyt, one of the goalscorers on that December night in southern France, admitted that the degree of difficulty on this occasion was greater, considering Liverpool's limited personnel. "Maybe it is [more difficult] but it is more or less the same situation. We have a good squad and I think it is good enough," Kuyt said. Benitez was positive in his assessment of Torres, whose struggle for fitness may persuade the manager to deploy Ryan Babel or Andrei Voronin alongside him to share his workload.

"We have the communication every day, that is the advantage," Benitez said. "After [the defeat to Manchester United] he needed four days to be ready again; after Fulham he told me he was much better, still feeling something but much better. Yesterday he was much better and hopefully tomorrow much better. We will see how he trains."

Benitez is still unsure whether Steven Gerrard will need an operation on his troublesome strained adductor muscle. "He was working with our physio and fitness coach improving but we have to wait two or three days and see his reaction. He is doing well."

£20m: Failure to reach knock-out stages would cost Liverpool eight-figure pay-day

If Liverpool fail to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League, they could easily find themselves six points off second place in Group E with just two games to go, all but eliminating them from the competition. They will miss out on the potential to earn around £20m more in Uefa prize money than they have so far. Reaching the group stage has already earned each club €3.8m (£3.4m), plus £492,000 for each group match, plus £714,000 per group-stage win and £357,000 for each group-stage draw.

Teams who reach the last 16 then get an extra £2.7m, plus another £2.9m if reaching the last eight, another £3.6m for getting to the semis, another £4.6m for being runners-up or another £8m for winning. Cumulatively, this means £2.7m extra for getting out of the group, £5.6m for reaching the last eight, £9.2m for the last four, £13.8m for being runners-up, or £17.2m for winning. But there's more.

The 32 group-stage teams also share a "market pool" pot of £302m TV money: last season, the four English clubs split £50m. This is divided by a formula based on last season's domestic performance and this season's European progress. So Liverpool, League runners-up in 2008-09, already have most of their market pool cash in the bag.

Liverpool's market pool income will increase by only a few million pounds at most if they qualify. Thus the maximum they could "miss out on" is about £20m.

Nick Harris