Benitez to quell crisis by focusing on league

Liverpool manager knows top-four finish can deflect heat from European failings
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The Independent Football

There was some grim ironic timing to Liverpool's announcement yesterday that they have struck a deal with a local BMW dealership, which will become their official supplier for this season. Road may soon replace air as this club's most significant mode of travel.

Though Pepe Reina revealed his personal frustration with the 1-1 draw in Lyons which leaves Liverpool needing another act of escapology to go forward to the Champions League knockout stage – it was "disgraceful" that Liverpool's fate was now in others' hands, he said – Rafael Benitez has reason to be more worried about domestic encounters: the Premier League fixtures at Anfield against Birmingham, on Monday, and Manchester City 12 days later. Should Liverpool fail to take at least four points from them, the Spaniard's wellspring of support among fans and the club's hierarchy really would begin to run dry. Even the support he still has from the managing director, Christian Purslow, who fist-bumped with Benitez at his pre-match press conference in France on Tuesday night, has its limits.

Whether Fernando Torres will be available for either match remains uncertain. The 25-year-old visited a private Merseyside hospital with Liverpool club doctor Mark Waller yesterday ahead of a flight to Valencia, where Liverpool will seek a second opinion on the inguinal hernia which has been causing him severe pain during and after games. If medics there, who are known to Benitez, say surgery is required, then the club will hope to nurse him through the Birmingham match and make use of next week's international break to carry it out.

Surgery is the more common solution to the condition and would leave Torres out for two months, though nothing can be read into the flight to Spain or yesterday's hospital visit. Steven Gerrard underwent a light training session on Wednesday and Benitez was assessing whether his adductor strain will need surgery, too. With the possibility of both players missing, Benitez faces a possible rocky ride before Christmas. The Everton derby at Goodison Park and a home match against Arsenal are among Liverpool's next five matches.

The chances of Champions League football remaining a distraction amid such challenges are dreadfully slim. Just look at the world through Lyons manager Claude Puel's eyes. He promised Benitez on Wednesday evening that he would "play fair" and make every effort to defeat Fiorentina 18 days from now, leaving Liverpool with the chance of progressing by defeating the Tuscans 3-0 at Anfield. But what possible incentive do Lyons have to store up the opportunity of meeting Liverpool again in a knockout stage of the tournament? And which club side, two points off their own domestic league summit, will not make the most of qualification to rest players? Fiorentina's journey to Anfield in December will surely be academic.

The question Liverpool's hierarchy will have been asking when the dust settled yesterday is how serious a blow Champions League elimination is at this stage. Reina was the only Liverpool player willing even to consider the issue but he was clear on it. "I do not accept that not going through will be a disaster for the club," he said. "We have been in the Champions League now for several years. One failure is not a disaster."

He has a point. The issue of elimination has been under discussion since the defeat to Lyons at Anfield two weeks ago and, though the estimated financial loss of such an outcome is around £10m, that money could be recouped were Liverpool to win the Europa League.

Werder Bremen probably felt last season like Liverpool do now, when they exited the tournament at the group stage while Bayern Munich progressed to the quarter-finals. But the German clubs' respective European revenues reveal that while Bayern earned around £35m by progressing to the last 16 of the Champions League – where Barcelona brutally finished them – Bremen amassed only a few million less by playing the Champions League group stage and then clinching the lesser trophy in Istanbul. Their €2.4m (£2.15m) prize-money from the final was half the TV rights revenue. The message for Liverpool is that they can cancel out the financial deficit of elimination at this stage by embracing the lesser tournament.

Though absence from the Champions League is not what Liverpool's commercial director, Ian Ayre, will want in his pursuit of sponsorship deals, absence from next season's tournament would be the real catastrophe.

The £30m hit Liverpool would take from not making the 2010-11 competition at all would force owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett to take new shareholders on board at least, and very probably force them into a fire sale of the club. Some financiers say that prospective buyers have been waiting in the wings for just such an outcome, convinced that the prices Hicks and Gillett have been demanding will then radically drop.

If Liverpool labour towards qualification Benitez really will have need to fear for his job. The Americans' ability to make £30m debt repayments depend on qualification. Reina was sticking to the company line yesterday. "We know we have enough good players to sort this out," he said. But Benitez knows he needs the right players for domestic journeys. The Champions League adventures can wait.

Broken men: Key to Liverpool revival

Steven Gerrard May yet need surgery on an adductor muscle strain which has troubled him since he limped out of England's match in Ukraine. He underwent light training on Wednesday as Liverpool prepared to face Lyons and the international break will provide more recovery time. Aquilani will need time to adapt, so Gerrard will be needed to face Manchester City.

Alberto Aquilani Liverpool have waited two months longer than independent medical assessors had predicted for the Italian to recover from an ankle injury. Laid low last week by a virus which affected several squad members. Benitez accepts that he will take time to adjust to the pace of the league though looked good in cameo role in Carling Cup. Time to deliver is nigh.

Fernando Torres Will fly to Valencia before the end of this week to consult a clinician who will provide a second opinion on the state of his iguinal hernia. If surgery is needed, it will be carried out in the 12-day break between the Birmingham match on Monday and Man City's arrival at Anfield. His visit to a private hospital with the club doctor yesterday was not indicative of a worsening of the condition.

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