It takes a brave man to tell Rafael Benitez he should rest Steven Gerrard at the moment. Hit by injuries in every department and variable form in most, Benitez knows the Liverpool captain will be as vital a component at Blackburn this evening as he was in his unanticipated appearance at home to Cardiff in midweek, and the Professional Footballers' Association chief executive Gordon Taylor's suggestion that "the RSPCA would be on the case" if Gerrard were a racehorse earned short shrift yesterday.
Benitez suggested that Taylor might care to examine the toll taken on Gerrard by the back-to-back outings for England against Israel and Russia while a broken bone in his foot was healing – games which resulted in a dip of form, the Spaniard claims.
Gerrard's own innate desire to play, whatever the contest, may also have something to do with him playing six games in the last 18 days but Benitez conceded some self-interest when he admitted that Liverpool simply do not tick when Gerrard is not playing. "We were missing those surging runs from midfield, now he is doing that," Benitez said. "He ... has meant the team is playing better."
With Mohamed Sissoko admitting with unusual candour yesterday that his own form has been poor, Benitez will need every ounce of Gerrard's energy against a Blackburn side which has stolen into a position one point and one place ahead of Liverpool.
A run of seven successive victories gives Mark Hughes cause for optimism, yet he is aware that the next two games – Rovers go on to face Manchester United the following week – will tell him more about what his side can really achieve. "The same clubs always seem to be in the top four so the games against them are a marker," he said. "We want to make a statement against Liverpool."
Hughes, whose side have taken points off both Arsenal and Chelsea, is not talking up his team's chances of cracking the top four but he has David Bentley and Aaron Mokoena fit, despite their injuries against Portsmouth in midweek.
Benitez has most grounds for relief. Javier Mascherano, masterful at times against Arsenal, has recovered from the foot injury sustained in that game, while Fabio Aurelio and Alvaro Arbeloa also return. Fernando Torres, Daniel Agger and Xabi Alonso – arguably the team's most vital components after Gerrard – all remain three weeks away from consideration. Harry Kewell – challenged by his manager this week to earn himself a new contract at the end of this season – is in line to be drafted into the squad.
"The key for us is to keep being consistent," said Benitez, who is conscious of the chance to make ground on Arsenal or Manchester United this weekend. But against a side who have lost only once in the league, at home to Portsmouth, some of Gerrard's invention may also be a prerequisite for him.Reuse content