Benitez puts Gerrard with greats for 'sacrificing' central role

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Rafael Benitez placed Steven Gerrard in the exalted company of Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldinho yesterday, only to temper any pride the Liverpool captain took from such a prestigious honour by insisting that, like those greats of the modern game, he must continue to sacrifice himself for the good of the team.

Gerrard has started only one game in his favoured central midfield role for Liverpool this season, at home to West Ham in their only Premiership win so far.

Despite Liverpool's uncertain start Gerrard is only likely to revert to the middle against Newcastle at Anfield tonight if Benitez elects to spare Mohamed Sissoko from a fourth game in 12 days. However, the Liverpool manager has countered suggestions the 26-year-old will be become disgruntled with his rotation policy by comparing the midfielder's predicament to those faced by World Footballers of the Year past and present.

"We are not losing anything by moving Stevie around," Benitez insisted yesterday. "He has played for Liverpool for eight seasons and which was his best season? Last season, when he scored 23 goals playing mostly on the right. Zidane had to play a lot on the left even though he preferred to play in the middle and Ronaldinho, the best player in the world, would like to play behind the strikers but plays on the left with the freedom to go inside.

"I still think of Stevie as a central midfielder but, with [Jermaine] Pennant, [Xabi] Alonso and Sissoko, I have to find the balance. He has played the last three games for England on the right. Why? Because Steve McClaren needed balance."

With Harry Kewell expected to be absent for several more weeks with a foot injury the Liverpool manager is not prepared to give any assurances to Gerrard that he will return to central midfield long term.

"I promise you I'd like to play him in the middle but I cannot right now," Benitez said. "He would like to but he is the captain and must be an example for the rest of the players. If it is a risk then 23 goals a season is a risk I am prepared to take."

Kewell was diagnosed with gout before Australia's World Cup defeat to Italy but will have an exploratory operation later this week, having sought a second opinion in his homeland.