Benitez backs Keane for pivotal role

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Robbie Keane's immediate future is at Liverpool as the Anfield club continue their stuttering chase for three major honours.

But when Keane returns to the squad at Wigan tomorrow for a crucial Barclays Premier League clash, he knows he must start to prove that his stay with the Reds can last for more than just the next few months.

The £20m Irish striker has been the subject of transfer speculation ever since boss Rafael Benitez left him out of the 18-man squad for Sunday's FA Cup fourth-round draw with Everton.

Tottenham, Manchester City, Newcastle and even Everton have been linked with the 28-year-old who has struggled to hold down a first-team place since moving from Spurs last summer.

Benitez significantly stopped short of saying that Keane was not for sale today when he revealed that after two days of "excellent" training, the striker was back in the squad for the JJB Stadium.

The nagging feeling remains, however, that if Benitez could get his money back on Keane and buy a replacement, then the Republic of Ireland captain would be on the market.

But with the transfer window closing next Monday and Benitez not interested in any player-plus-cash offer from Spurs - which would take into account the money the Merseysiders still owe for the player - Keane looks certain to stay at the club until the end of the season.

Benitez said: "Everyone is now important for us. We have a lot of games to play in the coming weeks, in the league, cup and Europe.

"We will need everyone. People may not always play but two weeks later we may have an injury and then we need them.

"Everyone, including Robbie, is training well. He has experience and hopefully he will be an important player for us.

"When Fernando Torres was injured, Robbie was working hard and doing well. If he can continue to do this we will not have any doubts over his quality."

Benitez revealed Torres is now training normally after his persistent hamstring problems, but if the Spanish striker was to break down again after the transfer window had closed, Keane would become a vital player over the final months of the season.

That fact alone will surely dissuade Benitez from selling him now.

"People are talking too much about Keane. It was just one decision about one player, he wasn't in the squad," Benitez said.

"He had a day off on Sunday like the rest of the players who were not involved in the game. He trained on Monday, he trained today and he will be in the squad at Wigan.

"It is nothing to do with whether he talked to me about the situation. Every player has trained very hard this week, as has Robbie, and he will be in the squad.

"He will be in the squad and if he can score goals then I will be happy.

"He is expensive and high profile, yes. But Manchester United have bought plenty of players who cost £20m or more every single year. Sometimes more than one player. But nothing is said about them being left out.

"If you want to be in a top side then you must have this mentality. You have to accept that some players will play and some will not."

Benitez added: "Robbie is a good player, we knew that when we signed him. Maybe he is not playing at his best level, but he wants to fight for his position.

"He must be available and ready for every game. To do that he must work hard and then if we consider he can give us something then we will use him, no problem.

"And I will be very pleased if Robbie can score goals. There has been no row, he is just one more player in the squad. Nothing else is happening, we are just thinking of using him at Wigan."

The Spanish coach has no injury worries for the Latics game.

He said: "It doesn't matter the name or the price, we have to think about the best player for each game.

"The manager and staff has to decide whether it is Torres, (Steven) Gerrard, (Dirk) Kuyt or Keane. We can see the players every single session.

"If we are to push for the title we will need all the players that we have now in the squad.

"A lot of clubs have been asking about some players, to buy or loan. But we have said we do not need to lose anyone, we do not need to sell anyone now.

"We do not want to lose players now if we cannot replace those players later. We need all of them for the race for the title."