Liverpool face test of squad and character

Benitez must juggle depleted resources to achieve another backs-to-the-wall victory
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The Independent Football

Talk about the walking wounded. Such is the delicate state of Daniel Agger's back that the Denmark international spent most of the flight into a rainswept Lyons yesterday standing up in the aisle to keep it stretched.

It was the signature note of the morning which was heavy with the knowledge of the missing names. No Glen Johnson at Liverpool John Lennon Airport and no Fabio Aurelio, either. Rafael Benitez's side has headed into winter fixtures before knowing they need to win to preserve a Champions League place – and Marseilles in 2007 and Olympiakos in 2004 are, respectively, the most recent of Liverpool's four consecutive wins in France and the two prime examples – but never with so few on board to help. It means that in Stade Gerland tonight, the manager who is always so quick to ascribe explanations of his side's fate to those out there on the pitch, must look deep inside himself for some answers. The master conjuror needs tricks of his own and progression in such circumstances, after six defeats in the last seven games and a painful exposé of what happens when you fail to buy and keep back-up strikers, would eclipse all his previous achievements in the tournament.

The pressure certainly does not compare with the brief moments he shared with his players before sending them out for the second half in the Ataturk Stadium in 2005, with Liverpool 3-0 down in the European Cup final against Milan. Liverpool had reached the final and earned their money then. Privately, the Liverpool hierarchy have suggested since the 2-1 defeat to Lyons at Anfield two weeks ago that elimination would only cost £5m, but the club also face the prospect of losing at least the £10m income they had budgeted for, in expectation of reaching the last 16.

Defeat tonight would send Lyons through and leave Fiorentina needing a point from the French side in three weeks to join them in the knockout stage, while a draw would leave Liverpool relying on Lyons to win or draw in Florence on 24 November.

Here were grounds for the same kind of gloom that Benitez displayed after the recent league defeats to Sunderland and Fulham but, true to previous form on occasions like this, Benitez was the calmest man in the storm last night. "I think we have some experience and with the staff we try to manage under pressure. When you are under pressure you have to show some character," he said. "If you are nervous you make more mistakes. We have some experience of doing things in the way we have to do it."

What Benitez does not have so much experience of is an occasion when the playing potential of so many of his players are unknown to him. Fernando Torres looked nimble enough as he skipped down the steps at Lyons- Saint Exupéry airport but he is, Benitez confirmed, carrying a hernia. Any temptations to deploy Alberto Aquilani behind him will probably be limited by the fact that he does not know how much playing time the Italian has in him either. He cannot risk being forced to withdraw two players before the interval.

How badly he needs someone to operate in the hole behind Torres. Andrei Voronin continues to demonstrate that what he possesses in footballing touch he lacks in heart and workrate. Ryan Babel is a player Benitez may turn to so as to release Dirk Kuyt to operate with Torres. Never has there been a better moment than this crisis for the 29-year-old Dutchman to demonstrate he has arrived as a player. But still Benitez is waiting.

Kuyt is the player the manager always feels he can rely on most and it was fitting that he – an important part of the win in Marseilles – was alongside Benitez yesterday. "We've been in the same situation two years ago and had a bad start," the striker said. "We have a lot of respect for [Lyons] but we need the three points and we will give everything. We've done it before and we have the belief we can go for the big results." Never has the need for belief been greater.

Reds feeling blue: Liverpool's sick list

Fernando Torres Playing through pain barrier with a hernia – may require surgery that would put him out for two months.

Steven Gerrard Hurt a groin playing for England against Ukraine. May need surgery if rest does not heal the problem.

Alberto Aquilani Travelled with squad to Lyons despite suffering with a virus.

Glen Johnson Right-back will be out for another week with a damaged calf muscle.

Fabio Aurelio Calf strain, expected to return after the weekend.

Martin Skrtel Sidelined with minor muscle problem.

Albert Riera Out with a hamstring injury. Return date not yet set.

Daniel Agger Included in tonight's squad but nursing slight back injury.

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