Gerrard's timely return raises hopes for Liverpool

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From Telford to Monaco via Teesside, Steven Gerrard's week has taken him from a tentative comeback on UniBond League territory to a place at the heart of Liverpool's midfield in the Stade Louis II tonight as they strive for the victory that would guarantee their progress to the knock-out stages of the Champions' League in their penultimate Group A match.

From Telford to Monaco via Teesside, Steven Gerrard's week has taken him from a tentative comeback on UniBond League territory to a place at the heart of Liverpool's midfield in the Stade Louis II tonight as they strive for the victory that would guarantee their progress to the knock-out stages of the Champions' League in their penultimate Group A match.

Eight days after he played 44 minutes for Liverpool's reserves, which he followed with another substitute's cameo at Middlesbrough, Gerrard will return to Rafael Benitez's starting line-up against Monaco. Didier Deschamps, who came up against the Anfield captain with Chelsea before coaching the French club, would rather he had delayed his return, whereas Benitez was understandably excited by the prospect.

"When opposing teams see Stevie running out, they say 'Phew, we have to be careful here'," the Liverpool manager said after his squad exchanged grey skies over Merseyside for Monaco's almost summery sunshine. "For us, it's crucial to have him fit again. His mentality and attitude are very important."

Didier Hamann, whose place could well be in jeopardy because of Gerrard's availability, echoed the Spaniard's sentiments. "It's never good to lose your captain," Hamann said. "Everyone knows what an important player he is to us, and he is looking very sharp in training. We've been lacking goals over the past few weeks and I think he can bring something to the side in that respect because he is very good going forward - both in terms of scoring goals and creating them."

Deschamps saw Gerrard as a "typical modern player", making it clear that he did not use the phrase pejoratively. He spoke of the "leadership, charisma and technical qualities" which make the midfielder "one of the best players in Europe". With a mixture of ruefulness and reverence he added: "Liverpool aren't the same team without him."

Gerrard's reappearance is timely indeed given that Liverpool have lost both their first-choice strikers, Djibril Cissé and Milan Baros, to long-term injuries. Benitez will probably go for a single frontrunner, with the choice likely to rest between Luis Garcia and Harry Kewell. Garcia has reserved his best form for Anfield while Kewell has too often failed to live up to the vast promise he demonstrated with Leeds. Benitez avoided giving a straight answer when pressed as to how many forwards he might deploy. "It doesn't matter whether we have one, two or three strikers," he said. "What's important is to have people arriving in the box."

With their patchy form and lengthy casualty list, Liverpool may be reassured to find Monaco in some disarray. They have won just one of their last eight domestic fixtures, and on Friday lost 3-1 at home to Sochaux before just 2,000 spectators. That said, tonight's contest is a 15,000 sell-out, and Monaco are a formidable proposition on the pitch built above a car-park. Since losing here to Rangers four years ago, they have won nine and drawn one of their 10 Champions' League matches.

A draw would suit Liverpool well - and even defeat would not be a disaster - in view of the fact that they finish Group A at home to Olympiakos. The section has been conspicuous for its dearth of goals, only 10 being scored in as many games and Liverpool conceding just one - a trend that Benitez will be happy to see continue.

Monaco (4-4-2, probable): Roma; Maicon, Givet, Squillaci, Evra; Kallon, Zikos, Saviola, Plasil; Chevanton, Nonda.

Liverpool (4-5-1, probable): Kirkland; Josemi, Carragher, Hyypia, Traore; Finnan, Hamann, Alonso, Gerrard, Riise; Kewell or Luis Garcia.

Referee: C B Larsen (Denmark).

The Lowdown on... Monaco

How do they beat you? Didier Deschamps, the coach, has installed superb organisation and a rigid defence that grinds out results. Even with the loss of the forwards Morientes, Prso and Guily, they still have four energetic young strikers who can pinch goals. They are strongest from set-plays.

How do you beat them?Outgoing transfers severely dented Monaco's ability to score goals as freely as they did in the last campaign. Any side who have matched Monaco's aggression this season have enjoyed success.

Key man? Javier Saviola. The Argentinean striker on-loan from Barcelona has scored two goals in three Champions' League games. Nicknamed "El Conejo" (the rabbit), he is strong, skilful and a deadly finisher.

Any familiar faces? None.

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