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Europa League round of 16 draw

Europa League

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Hamburg SV

Transfer Rater: Walker to Barca, Benzema to PSG

By ESPN Staff

Benitez still determined to keep Mascherano

Rafael Benitez insists he will sign Javier Mascherano permanently despite growing speculation linking the on-loan midfielder with a move away from Liverpool.

The Reds boss is upbeat about the prospects of completing a £17million deal for the midfielder but is fully aware he has no control over a third-party's ownership of the Argentinian and any desire they might have to tout the player around Europe's richest clubs.

Mascherano, who caused West Ham so much trouble with his contract there, has a similar loan deal at Liverpool, the key difference being that the Anfield club's agreement is within the regulations the Hammers breached last term with near-catastrophic consequences.

But that means Mascherano is now being linked with Barcelona, Juventus and Manchester City, while Benitez's own attempts to buy the player were blocked by Liverpool's American owners in their well-publicised recent fall-out.

But Benitez remains confident the 23-year-old will eventually sign a permanent deal with the Reds.

He said: 'Clearly, I hope Mascherano stays here. We are talking now about this but I have confidence because he tells me he wants to stay.

'I am confident he can be persuaded to stay here. When I spoke to Javier, he told me he wants that, so I have confidence that we will sign him.

'He is playing well and everyone knows he is a good player and there are not too many world-class holding midfielders around.

'He wants to stay, our supporters like him and we will try to keep him.'

Benitez's renewed confidence could have sprung from what is a clear thawing of his relationship with Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

The fact the Spaniard watched his reserves win over Everton earlier in the week, with Gillett's son Foster by his side, underlines that normal service has resumed.

Foster was installed at Anfield to work alongside chief executive Rick Parry, and it would be inconceivable now to suggest discussions about January transfer targets are not ongoing.

Mascherano, rested for last weekend's 4-0 win over Bolton, is now set to play a key part in a critical week that will define Liverpool's season.

After Saturday's Barclays Premier League trip to Reading, Liverpool face a make-or-break Champions League tie in Marseille on Tuesday, where only a win will keep them in the competition.

The following Sunday, Manchester United visit Anfield, while a trip to Chelsea in the Carling Cup quarter-finals comes three days later.

Benitez will be boosted by the likely return from injury of four key stars for some or all of those four vital games.

Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger, Xabi Alonso and Fabio Aurelio are all back in training and are likely to be involved at some stage soon.

Benitez said: 'Jamie is fit after his rib injury and he can play at Reading. Alonso is training and is very close to a return. Agger is closer as well and Fabio could be back.'

And it seems Spanish striker Fernando Torres may well have played himself out of Benitez's rotation system, such has been his recent impact.

Torres can expect to start at Reading, where he scored a hat-trick in the Carling Cup earlier this season and it is unthinkable he would not lead the attack in Marseille.

Benitez is also highly unlikely to leave his in-form record signing on the bench against United.

Skipper Steven Gerrard has joined those hailing the 23-year-old, who has hit 11 goals in 17 games to help Liverpool to a 21-goal haul in five matches and an eight-game unbeaten run.

Gerrard said: 'Fernando is getting a lot of praise at the moment and rightly so because the way he has settled into English football has been amazing and the way he has played is frightening.

'It can be difficult for players from abroad to settle into English football but at the moment Fernando looks like he's been playing here for years.

'Everyone is talking about the goals he has scored and the way he has scored them but we should not lose sight of all the hard work he is putting in off the ball.

'He defends from the front and doesn't allow defenders to have a second on the ball. If they even think of dwelling on it, he is on to them straight away.

'He is always looking to help the midfielders and the defenders and that makes a big difference. I'm made up to have him in our team.'