Mascherano holding all the aces

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The Independent Online

With a mere five goals in the past six encounters, Liverpool against Blackburn has become one of the grimmest fixtures in the Premier League. For Rovers, and all neutral TV viewers hoping to avoid a repeat of the goalless game in November, the best news ahead of this afternoon's return match is that Javier Mascherano, Argentina's Makelele, will be absent.

The epithet is not applied lightly. Mascherano describes his Chelsea counterpart as the supreme exponent of a holding midfield role so crucial in the modern game that many teams now field two players there to protect the central defenders: tackle, intercept, win the second ball, give a simple pass. When Liverpool come up against Chelsea again in the Champions' League semi-final, Mascherano and Makelele will be critically important figures.

Mascherano is sitting out three domestic games after his uncharacteristic loss of composure in the recent defeat away at Manchester United. Liverpool's manager, Rafa Benitez, was annoyed at the negative effect on his team in the loss to Unitedand though happy to have Mascherano fresh for the latest great European adventure, he must be aware that his absence is never beneficial. Losing, when he was missing, to Barnsley, West Ham and Chelsea (in the Carling Cup) is proof of that.

With two strokes of good fortune – the penalty decisions that went against Arsenal at the Emirates and Anfield – this is turning into another familiar Benitez season: a poor start in the League, amid criticism about rotation, is improved with no threat of winning the title, then redeemed by a thrilling run in either the FA Cup or Europe.

Last autumn, Liverpool gave a poor display at Ewood Park and were left in seventh place in the table, only to set off immediately on a run of five successive wins, starting with the 8-0 demolition of Besiktas. But rumblings of discontent between the owners and the manager, then the owners themselves, were reverberating across the Atlantic.

As Mascherano admitted: "We haven't had the best season in that way, we've had problems, but now mostly it's calm and quiet and everyone is confident. We always believed in the coach and the squad, we didn't have any doubt. Sometimes you have to read in the newspaper or watch on TV things that are no good for the club, but it's football. We know he's a good manager. It's not easy in three years to get to two [Champions' League] finals. Now the team is again in the semi-finals, so Liverpool is at the moment one of the best teams in Europe. And the manager is one of the best in Europe. Of course you need to be a good manager to do that."

The trick is to make sure of fourth place in the Premier League without having to rely, as Benitez did in his famous first season, on winning the Champions' League to qualify for it again. Neither the players nor the manager can take their eye off the domestic ball, which a tiring Everton are still chasing.

When Liverpool go to Fulham on Saturday, for instance, three days ahead of the home leg with Chelsea, they cannot be allowed last year's luxury of fielding nine reserves – a ploy that effectively delayed Fulham's relegation for 12 months when they won 1-0.

There will be minor changes in personnel today, but Benitez's new maxim of "confidence and belief" must remain the same.

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