Mascherano uncertainty hits Benitez plans

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The Independent Online

Rafael Benitez enters the new year with Liverpool's destiny, and his own, resting on the next few months. The Spaniard sends Liverpool out to face relegation-threatened Wigan at Anfield tonight knowing victory is required to keep his side in touch with the Premier League leaders and clear of the chasing pack.

Whatever is being said publicly about Benitez by the club's American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, or by the chief executive, Rick Parry, the Spaniard's future remains uncertain. He is not to be allowed to spend widely this month, and the future of Javier Mascherano is no nearer conclusion, with his loan ending in the summer.

The Americans will not now spend 17m, and that could prompt Mascherano's agents to tout the Argentine around Europe, with Barcelona waiting.

Mascherano said: "With the time that has passed, it will now be more difficult for me to stay here because I need to do something about my future. I have done everything to stay but the owners have to decide if they want to buy me."

The level of uncertainty on several fronts at Anfield ownership, new ground, finances and transfer budgets will heighten as the season unfolds. Benitez made it clear results must improve. "We must beat Wigan and then keep on winning," he said.

He must also improve Liverpool's overall record. At the beginning of 2007, the Reds were third in the Premier League. They moved into 2008 in fourth, with a 12-month record of winning 19 out of 36 league games with a points haul of 68 15 short of Manchester United over the same period and adrift of Arsenal and Chelsea.

Their neighbours Everton, who are quick to emphasise their lack of financial muscle, amassed only eight points fewer than Liverpool in 2007. This lack of genuine progress will not impress Hicks and Gillett.

Benitez expects to sign defensive cover in the transfer window. But he is focusing on cheaper, younger options, and expects still to be without Sami Hyypia (ankle) and Daniel Agger (broken metatarsal) against Steve Bruce's side.

It means the full-back Alvaro Arbeloa, a stop-gap centre-half against Manchester City, is likely to partner Jamie Carragher again as it is unlikely Benitez will risk the rookie Jack Hobbs.

Peter Crouch returns to the squad after a three-match suspension, and Xabi Alonso may be back in the line-up after being on the bench against City.

John Arne Riise and Andriy Voronin are pushing for recalls as Benitez faces Bruce, a manager he has never beaten in league action. For Wigan, Emile Heskey is expected to face his former club after recovering from an ankle injury. Jason Koumas also returns after a groin problem.

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