Benitez places Liverpool hopes on Gerrard

Rafael Benitez believes a fit-again Steven Gerrard can lead Liverpool out of the slump that has seen them lose three games in succession.

Meaningful involvement in both the Premier League and Europe is now under threat and boss Benitez is fully aware of the importance of a victory at Anfield tomorrow when Group E leaders Lyon must be overcome in the Champions League.

Anything else, and the balloon really will go up for Benitez, who is still shaking his head in despair at the freak goal that saw Liverpool lose at Sunderland.

That Darren Bent's winner went in off a red beach ball bought by a fan from Liverpool's own club megastore just about sums up Benitez's difficult season so far.

Now Liverpool face back-to-back Champions League clashes with the French league leaders, as well as a visit from champions Manchester United over the next fortnight.

The return of Gerrard from a groin injury, despite the fact Fernando Torres is still out with a similar injury, can be the boost Benitez believes his squad need.

He said: "With Steven around, it has an effect on the other players. He is an inspiration to them.

"Steven is a winner with the right mentality. But we have to see these players on the pitch, they cannot win games when they are injured.

"The team knows we are not playing at the right level, but they also know that we are good enough.

"They know we must start playing again at that level, their response in training has been positive and we must repeat that on the pitch. One good result will change everything.

"I am confident in my team, we are trying to improve and the response of the players this week has been very good and back to our best.

"We have gone from winning five on the trot to losing three in succession. We were scoring lots of goals and now we have not scored in three.

"But I do not believe there is much difference in all these games. We have played well, created chances and won praise for our attacking play.

"We have not changed our tactics, it just shows how close teams are to each other. We lost to Chelsea but were in control for much of the game and then we lose when the ball hits a beach ball.

"We have virtually the same group of players as we had last season, and that ended up with us finishing second.

"Hopefully we can start to win again, the atmosphere will be better and the mood will change as confidence improves.

"We have Gerrard back now, and we have players who are fresher than they were after the international games. I hope that the Champions League will create a special atmosphere that will inspire the players, as it usually does in games like this at Anfield.

"In training this week I can see the team we were in the past. They are almost the same players as last season, we need confidence and some wins, there is no need to start worrying.

"I believe we are strong enough to compete just as we did last season. These players have the quality, they need to play one or two good games and everything will improve.

"It is not the end of the world, it is a bad position but we will come back and start fighting again."

Benitez will be able to pair Gerrard with Javier Mascherano against Lyon, the Argentina midfielder only a late substitute at the Stadium of Light following his international exertions.

Benitez said: "It is important to have Steven back, we have had some problems with injuries right from the start of the season so it is a big boost for us to have him back.

"Torres is not ready, so we have to wait a little longer but hopefully he will be okay for the weekend against Manchester United.

"The problems we have had this season have been too many to solve. We have had problems with our centre-backs, then there was Gerrard unfit and now we also have forwards out.

"There have been too many things all at once. We have to wait for our injured players to return, then things will be a lot better.

"We need people fit, we need the end of the international breaks and then we can all work together to improve.

"First we must win against Lyon, that will get us back on the right road."

The beach ball controversy, though, will not go away for Benitez, who is still fielding questions about the incident.

He says: "We are not blaming or worrying about the goal at Sunderland, there is nothing we can do about that now or change the situation, we just intend to move forward.

"It was unusual and hopefully it will not happen again. It was something that could not be avoided, certainly from the players.

"At the time I felt it was just a balloon, it was not until afterwards that we saw the replay and realised it was more than a balloon, much more.

"But it is clear now that the goal could have been disallowed. Maybe in the future that would not be allowed to happen again."