Benitez occupied by Liverpool's forward planning

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The Independent Football

Rafael Benitez wrestled with a striking problem as he returned to his native Spain for the first time with Liverpool yesterday.

Rafael Benitez wrestled with a striking problem as he returned to his native Spain for the first time with Liverpool yesterday. In tonight's Group A fixture against Deportivo La Coruña, he must choose between Luis Garcia and Harry Kewell as the replacement for the injured Djibril Cissé. With an eye on the longer term, Benitez is monitoring the form of Real Zaragoza's David Villa.

His scouts were present last weekend as Villa - an Under-21 international who is contracted to Zaragoza until 2008 - netted twice against Sevilla. Since arriving from Sporting Gijon in 2002, the 22-year-old has built a reputation as a pacy attacker with a good scoring record, as well as a tendency to go to ground too swiftly. Liverpool had identified Fernando Morientes as a possible signing during the transfer window in January, but Real Madrid's asking price of £8m is beyond what they are prepared to pay.

Cissé's broken left leg, sustained in a tackle by Blackburn Rovers' Jay McEveley in Saturday's draw at Ewood Park, was still very much on Benitez's mind as Liverpool reached their base in the overcast port on Galicia's Atlantic coast. Quite apart from the pressing issue of who might operate alongside or just behind Milan Baros against Deportivo, the Liverpool manager was clearly troubled by the contrasts between the English game and its Spanish counterpart that the Frenchman's misfortune had exposed.

"In Spain, if you have a player injured for six months or more, you have the chance to buy another player, and that is logical to me," said Benitez after explaining that Cissé had set the personal target of a comeback in the final month of the season. "But in England we have to wait until the next transfer window. Those are the rules, and if we find someone who is good enough, and not expensive, we will try to sign him."

Without criticising McEveley specifically, the gently spoken Spaniard also expressed his bafflement at the kind of challenges that are permitted in the Premiership. "I don't understand," he said. "Sometimes I think that referees must control the game more in this type of situation. Perhaps in Spain you see different injuries. In England, when a player receives a tackle as he crosses or shoots, it is very dangerous because you can't change your momentum in mid-air. In Spain, you win a free-kick when that happens. In England, nothing."

Benitez hinted that Kewell might be used in a more central role, though it seems inconceivable that Luis Garcia will be omitted on his reappearance in Spain. The likelihood, however, is that playing two touch players might be considered too much of a luxury away from home in a match that could be critical to Liverpool's prospects of qualifying for the knock-out stages.

Xabi Alonso, the £10.7m buy from Real Sociedad, is hopeful of recovering from a calf strain in time to play against a side he has not beaten in nine attempts, the most recent being the barren stalemate at Anfield. "Xabi says it's OK," said Benitez before Liverpool trained in the rain, "so we're optimistic."

Deportivo, semi-finalists last spring, have struggled to recapture their form and have won only twice in seven attempts at their Riazor Stadium this season. Nor have they scored in three Group A fixtures, a predicament which may tempt Javier Irureta to fit Diego Tristan into his line-up.

"They need to win more than we do," Benitez said. "Both teams need to win and both will still have options if we draw, but ours would be better."

Deportivo La Coruna (probable 4-2-3-1): Molina; Hector, Cesar, Andrade, Romero; Sergio, Duscher; Victor, Valeron, Luque; Pandiani or Tristan.

Liverpool (probable 4-4-1-1): Kirkland; Josemi, Carragher, Hyypia, Traore; Finnan, Alonso, Hamann, Riise; Garcia; Baros.

Referee: W Stark (Ger).

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