Gerrard's hopes fade for crucial qualifiers

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The Independent Online

The broken toe that will force Steven Gerrard to sit out the second leg of Liverpool's Champions League qualifier against Toulouse at Anfield tonight may also restrict his involvement in England's Euro 2008 qualifiers against Israel and Russia next month with Rafael Benitez admitting that there remains a doubt over the midfielder's chances of playing in the crucial Wembley fixtures.

Having missed the friendly defeat by Germany last week as a result of the injury suffered during Liverpool's 1-0 first-leg victory in Toulouse a fortnight ago, Gerrard had been expected to return to club duty before the two games that could decide England's chances of qualifying for next summer's European Championship.

However, with the 27-year-old definitely out of tonight's game and struggling to be fit for the Premier League encounter with Derby on Saturday, Liverpool manager Benitez has issued caution over Gerrard's chances of facing Israel and Russia on 8 and 12 September respectively.

Benitez said: "We need to check on Steven during the week. We are optimistic and I think he will be better next week, but I still have to talk to the doctor and check if he is really fit or whether there is a small risk or not. At the end of the day, we are talking about a broken bone.

"He can train, but he can only run at the moment. He cannot train with the team yet and if he touched the ball, he would have to take care.

"If Steven doesn't play against Derby at the weekend, whether he joins up with the England squad depends on him. If he is fit, I don't have any problem. I would always prefer to keep the players here, but it is impossible. He wants to play every game though, that's why my decision is always more important because he would play every game if he could."

With Jamie Carragher also absent this evening with a rib injury sustained against Sunderland at the weekend, Liverpool must defend their first-leg lead without arguably their two most influential players.

And despite a European pedigree that has seen the club reach two Champions League finals in the last three seasons, Liverpool have been forced to endure nervous nights in the qualifying round. Graz AK claimed a surprise victory at Anfield three years ago, while Maccabi Haifa took an early lead in Israel last season before ultimately losing out.

While Benitez is aware of the dangers posed by underestimating Toulouse, he remains confident that his players possess enough experience to overcome the French team without Gerrard and Carragher.

He said: "The job is not done against Toulouse, so we need to show them a lot of respect and play with a good mentality. They are a very good counter-attacking team, so we have to be fully focused. A 1-0 lead will help us to concentrate, though, because it is obvious that the risk is still there. I will tell them that they must be careful.

"We have the experience to cope without Stevie and Carra though. We have Sami Hyypia, who has great experience, Daniel Agger has played a lot of games now and Xabi Alonso is also very experienced They can handle the situation."

Peter Crouch is set to start tonight after being omitted from the squad for the trip to Sunderland. The England forward, who played in the first leg in France, has played just seven minutes in the Premier League so far this season after falling behind summer signings Andrei Voronin and Fernando Torres in the pecking order.

Liverpool (probable) 4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Hyypia, Agger, Arbeloa; Pennant, Alonso, Mascherano, Benayoun; Crouch, Kuyt.

Toulouse (probable) (4-1-4-1): Douchez; Paulo Cesar, Ilunga, Cetto, Mathieu; Dieuze; Bergougnoux, Emana, Siriex, Gignac; Elmander.

Referee: W Stark (Germany).

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