Agger blow is wounding for Benitez

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The Independent Online

Reading ended Liverpool's unbeaten league record three months ago but Rafael Benitez will still be glad to see them at Anfield today.

The Champions League draw has ensured that Liverpool will have three meetings with Arsenal in seven days, with Everton and Manchester United as warm-up fixtures. Benitez learned yesterday that he will be without the centre-back Daniel Agger for the rest of the campaign.

The Spaniard can be maddeningly inscrutable at times and yesterday, as usual, there was little sense of how he feels ahead of such an extraordinary sequence of matches, other than envious of Sir Alex Ferguson's greater strength in numbers.

"[Manchester] United rested three players [two weeks ago, against Fulham] because they had an important match in Europe against Lyons," he said. "If you have a good squad maybe you can change players and you can continue winning. But if you make mistakes and they don't make mistakes, the difference will be big."

David Moyes, especially after his side's unfortunate European elimination at the hands of Fiorentina the day after Liverpool beat Internazionale this week, is peering over Benitez' shoulder and a slip up at Anfield today could see Liverpool back down to fifth place by the time Everton have finished their match at Craven Cottage tomorrow.

This is, then, a time when Agger is sorely needed. He last played at Portsmouth on 15 September and the metatarsal which he broke in that match has not healed, despite his wearing a specially made boot and, on the advice of three doctors, working through the pain in two reserve team outings. An operation to set the broken bone will now be needed and the Dane's season is over.

Benitez will have Xabi Alonso back in his squad today, the midfielder having missed the Milan trip to see the birth of his first son. "I have told Xabi I have prepared a new contract for his baby son, because Xabi's father was a good player too," Benitez said. "It is important to sign players early."

The only player seemingly surplus to requirements is Harry Kewell, whom Benitez has waved off to play for Australia's second string in Singapore. "It will be more difficult [for him to win his place back]," the manager said.