Torres could be out until decisive United contest

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The Independent Football

After the euphoria, the home truths. Liverpool are revelling in a 1-0 win over Real Madrid but Fernando Torres may not play again until the title-defining clash with Manchester United on 14 March and there are also suggestions of intensified conflict between the club's owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, over the course to take on Rafael Benitez's future.

Only if Gillett were to sell his stake in the club would Hicks be able to offer Benitez the freer reign on transfer policy which he desires, since the management agreement each signed up to during the purchase of the club means that one cancels out the other if they disagree. Hicks now appears to be determined to maintain his shareholding for the medium term at least though Gillett's plans seem less certain. If a purchaser could be found for Gillett's 50 per cent stake in the club then Benitez's future would be secured and that of chief executive Rick Parry far less so.

Torres seems certain to miss tomorrow's visit to Middlesbrough and Benitez will know today whether the 24-year-old, whose first taste of victory in the Bernabeu was tempered with the first-minute ankle twist which he played on with for an hour, will also miss Sunderland's visit to Anfield next Tuesday. Liverpool certainly cannot contemplate falling further behind United in the title race before their Old Trafford encounter and though the FA Cup weekend provides a natural break, it will be a challenge for the Spaniard to pick up momentum immediately after 17 days without competitive football.

Benitez could at least reflect on the importance of Yossi Benayoun's late winner for his own contract talks. Those anxious for them to be resolved include Javier Mascherano, whose defensive resilience in the Bernabeu was matched only by Fabio Aurelio's. The Argentine spoke yesterday of how Benitez had salvaged his career after the torrid time he had at West Ham in the first half of the 2006-7 season, barely playing as the Hammers went on a run of eight defeats and one draw.

"It is hard to explain exactly how much he means and how much [Benitez] has done for me," Mascherano said. "When I came to Liverpool I did not have any confidence at all because I hadn't been playing for West Ham. But now I find that I am always calm when I am playing because he has such trust in me. All I can say to Rafa is 'thank you'. He has taken me from my lowest point to this. Obviously I am delighted he has said he is staying."

Benitez rejected the opportunity on Wednesday night to say so in precisely those words, though his language suggested he believes a contract breakthrough is achievable.