Benitez ready to preserve Gerrard for big occasions

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If Gerrard's treble, the first of his Liverpool career, has earned him a night off at The Racecourse then it is a situation he will face more often this season after Benitez yesterday revealed he needs to preserve his captain if he is to create a genuine title challenge.

The 25-year-old is to be used only when absolutely necessary in the new campaign, a development that will delight Sven Goran Eriksson ahead of the World Cup as much as puzzle Liverpool supporters who want their most influential player available at all times.

Benitez believes he must adopt the same strategy that paid such dividends in the Champions' League last term to the Premiership calender if Liverpool are to discover the consistency that has eluded them for so long.

He explained yesterday, "We're looking to protect the players. It's not about using them as much as we can, then giving them a month to recuperate at the end of the season. We have been talking about using the whole squad and telling the players that much - not just Steve, but Xabi [Alonso], Didi [Hamann] and Momo [Sissoko]. It's about selecting the right players for the right games, and using them the right way.

"Sometimes I know we'll make big mistakes but it's my responsibility. At the end of the season I hope we've made more right decisions than wrong ones. Sometimes Stevie [Gerrard] will play five times in a row... Momo's signing will give us options."

Gerrard, meanwhile, cites his match-winning display against the Welsh League side on Wednesday as a new start in his Liverpool career, one that will remain free from uncertainty about his future for the four years of his new contract and with a stronger relationship with the support that helped sway his decision to remain at Anfield after all.

"It was perfect, to get a hat-trick. I couldn't have asked for better," he reflected yesterday. "I don't think I had anything to prove to the fans because they know what I can do.

"I hope it can draw a line under what happened. I suppose there will always still be one or two who don't agree with what happened, who will blame me, and say I should have left. But the majority of fans have always been behind me, and I feel grateful for that. There were standing ovations around the ground, but that has happened for some time now, and it shows the bond I have with the fans.

"It is incredible really, and I want to give them so much more. Scoring a hat-trick is a start. It's the first in my Liverpool career, and probably the last. I haven't scored one since I was seven or eight, and I don't suppose there will be too many more opportunities to get three goals for Liverpool.

"It is the start of a big season, I know that. I have told the manager he hasn't seen the best of me yet. I am coming to the stage of my career which people say is the prime, and I am getting to the stage when I think I will develop even more."

Sporting Lisbon are the first club to register an interest in Jerzy Dudek since the Liverpool goalkeeper was omitted from the squad to face TNS. The Polish international, who saw his first-team place taken by the £6m signing Jose Reina on Wednesday, remains eligible for any club in European competition as a result of Benitez's decision to leave him in the stands.