Rafa Benitez has been left reeling from the loss of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard at the start of a critical week which will shape Liverpool's season. Not only are the influential pair out of today's difficult test at Sunderland, a game Benitez dare not lose with his side six points adrift of the summit, but they are also doubtful for Tuesday's Champions League encounter with Lyons.
After losing their last European game against Fiorentina, Liverpool, who host Manchester United in eight days' time, must win against the French side to ease concerns they could be one of the sides to drop into the Europa League.
It is a crucial period for the club, as well as Benitez, yet the Liverpool manager's preparations have been left in tatters by the loss of key personnel and the return of jaded international players from South America. In addition to injuries to Torres and Gerrard, Javier Mascherano, the Argentina captain, only arrived back in England late yesterday afternoon. He made his way straight to the team hotel and will play at the Stadium of Light without having trained since the 1-0 victory over Uruguay in midweek which secured Argentina entry to the World Cup.
But it is the loss of Gerrard, the captain, and leading scorer Torres, both to groin injuries, which has really rattled Benitez. He has grown accustomed to Torres reporting back injured from international duty but the pain of losing his match-winner does not hurt any less.
Gerrard only returned to Merseyside on Tuesday, despite aggravating the problem in England's defeat at the hands of Ukraine last Saturday. There is anger at Anfield that the midfielder was kept within the England training camp despite the problem. Benitez, though, made it clear he does not want to become embroiled in a row with national manager Fabio Capello by giving a diplomatic response to the suggestion yesterday.
"They are not serious injuries, but it's too early for them," said Benitez. "They cannot play, it's not a question of being able to risk them. I think they will be okay for Tuesday but it depends on their rate of recovery. They are very close but they still have some problems." Asked whether either player would have had more chance had they been sent home earlier by their respective countries, he added: "I don't know. It's difficult to say.
"It's a handicap when the pair of them don't play, but we showed last season that we can win games. We have the quality in the squad and I have confidence that the players we have can win the games.
"Sometimes when you have some small problems it depends on the training sessions or games. In this case, both players were playing with us, and after they went to the international teams they came back injured.
"I have my opinion, but I prefer to think about Sunderland because it's the only thing I can do now."
If there is any positive from the loss of Gerrard and Torres, it is that Liverpool have the opportunity to prove they are not a two-man team. One glimpse at last season's statistics prove that notion to be wrong. Liverpool defeated Manchester United 2-1 at Anfield last season having started the match without Gerrard and Torres.
Gerrard came on in the 68th minute with the score 1-1, Ryan Babel netting the late winner. The difference at Sunderland today is that this is the first time Benitez has been deprived of using Gerrard and Torres in the same Premier League game. "It's true to say we have won a lot of games without Gerrard and Torres," Benitez said. "We can do the same now. We have enough quality in the squad and we can do it."
*New Sunderland midfielder Boudewijn Zenden has been cleared to play in today's game against his former club. The 33-year-old Dutchman, who has signed a contract until the end of the season, has been included in the squad after receiving international clearance.Reuse content