Benitez to make late decision on Torres

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The Independent Football

He will adorn the match programme cover in the strips of both clubs and his manager says the decision is his, so it seems Fernando Torres will get the emotional return to action that he has craved against his old club Atletico Madrid at Anfield tonight.

The Liverpool manager, Rafael Benitez, said he would not let Torres' heart rule his head and allow him return prematurely from the hamstring trouble which has so plagued him. But Torres, declared 70 per cent fit by Benitez yesterday, will make the decision when the two Spaniards talk today and the 24-year-old, who scored 102 goals in 243 appearances for Atletico and was captain at the Vicente Calderon by the age of 18, is likely to feature on the Liverpool bench.

While Torres holds the limelight, the less fashionable striker who has matched him goal for goal this season, was reflecting yesterday on when a new contract might come his way, with just 18 months left on the current one. The five goals which make Dirk Kuyt Liverpool's joint top scorer have, as ever, been only part of his contribution this season. Benitez hardly seemed to be garlanding the 28-year-old yesterday – "technically he is not bad; he's not bad in the air, he's not bad in his movements and the work rate is amazing," he said – but the manager's more significant observation was this: that he will always pick Kuyt when he can because he trusts him "100 per cent."

Benitez said that Kuyt's contract situation, as well as central defender Daniel Agger's, "has to be" resolved by the new year. "I want them here for the future," he said. But discussions with the Dutchman have not even started yet – a product, it seems, of the current state of inertia Liverpool are in, with no clear sense of who will actually own the club in a year's time. Their best start to a Premier League season this might be, but the ownership issue remains the millstone around the club's neck.

Rumours abounded over the summer that Kuyt might leave Liverpool, with Martin Jol's Hamburg among those keen to secure his services. But while the compatibility of Liverpool's £40m front line and Robbie Keane's as yet unfulfilled quest to score freely in a Reds shirt have been occupying so many, Kuyt has been quietly delivering finishes when they have really mattered and never more so than in Europe. Liverpool might not even be facing Javier Aguirre's Atletico tonight had it not been for his late strike in the qualifier against Liège at Anfield and his early goal against PSV set Liverpool on a path that could see them qualify for the knockout stage tonight if they win and PSV lose in Marseilles.

The kind of form Kuyt has found has taken him far from the travails of early last season, when the loss of his father, Gerrit, was affecting him deeply. "As everyone knows, I had a really hard period at the beginning of last season with the loss of my dad," Kuyt said. "It is more difficult when you are in a different country. But lots of people helped me [and] I have left that spell behind."

Kuyt knows that his value to Liverpool lies in more prosaic qualities than the thrilling pace and finishing that makes the sight of Torres removing his track suit so keenly hoped for this evening. "They know I am always going to be there for the full 90 minutes," he said. But the man who seemed to have been bought as a stopgap until a better striker came along has made himself indispensable to Benitez by taking any role going. He was far more potent in the lone striker's role against Portsmouth last Wednesday than Keane was at Spurs on Saturday.

The contract is in Kuyt's mind. "I am not worried about [it] at the moment – but hopefully the contract will come in the next couple of months. In football, you know the decision will be made before you enter the last year of your contract – but I definitely want to stay."

In the meantime, Benitez hopes for progress which will enable him to focus on Liverpool's title challenge, for the time being. Liverpool's recent home record has not been formidable against Spanish opposition – two wins and four defeats in the last 11 – but they are unbeaten in seven European home ties and Benitez can draw hope from the poor domestic start for Atletico.

"We're out of intensive care but we're still in hospital," Aguirre said after a first win in five league games against Mallorca on Saturday. Argentina's striker Sergio Aguero is likely to start, despite lacking full fitness, and that has given rise to suggestions that his new international manager, Diego Maradona, may be at Anfield. But even he could not upstage Torres.

Liverpool (possible) (4-2-3-1): Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Hyypia, Aurelio; Lucas, Alonso; Pennant, Gerrard, Babel; Kuyt.

Atletico Madrid (possible) (4-4-2): Leo Franco; Antonio Lopez, Heitinga, Perea, Pernia; Maxi Rodriguez, Paulo Assuncao, Maniche, Simao; D Forlan, S Aguero.

Referee: M Hansson (Swe).

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