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Apr 10, 2009

Benitez faces conundrum over Gerrard fitness

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has admitted he faces a tough decision over the selection of Steven Gerrard for Saturday's game against Blackburn Rovers.

Benitez has revealed that his skipper has been struggling with an abductor problem for a number of weeks which makes it difficult for him to play two matches in a short period of time.

Should Gerrard face Rovers in what is a must-win game at Anfield it will place his participation at Chelsea in the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final on Tuesday in serious doubt.

Benitez was quick to insist that it would not be a case of prioritising the league over Europe, but simply looking after the player's interests.

It seems most likely that Gerrard will be named on the bench against Blackburn and will then start against Chelsea, with a week's break before the next Premier League encounter. Thereafter he will have to be nursed through the remainder of the season.

Benitez said: "We were aware of the injury before the first leg against Chelsea. It is not easy for him to play two games in four days with the injury he has.

"The decision I have to make is whether I use him against Blackburn or Chelsea. If we do play him against Blackburn it does not mean we are writing off the Champions League. But we must approach each game on its merits.

"If he feels he can play, then he will and we will assess the situation afterwards. Anything more could be a risk. Maybe we could keep him on the bench and use him if we need to?

"After Chelsea we have a complete week before our next game because the Arsenal home game is the following Tuesday. If he gets injured again he could need more than a week to recover; it is tough call but we will consider all the risks.

"We have been talking about the fitness of players like Steven for a long time, do we have rotation or do we keep our key players on the pitch?

"We have had that problem with Fernando Torres and now Gerrard. We have two games in four days, both very important to our ambitions.

"After that, even if we qualify and have a Champions League semi-final, that is only two more games. We will be playing virtually one game a week and that makes it easier to manage the situation regarding Steven's fitness.

"I have spoken with Steven today and we will do the same tomorrow [Saturday] along with the doctor. If he breaks down now we could lose him for two or three weeks and that would be a serious blow. It depends on him and how he feels.

"There is no priority but we play Blackburn first and that obviously is what we are concentrating on. After that it will be Chelsea. We will try our best at Chelsea, it is not over yet, but we want to be top of the table after our game with Blackburn because that will put pressure on Manchester United.''

Benitez's concerns over Gerrard's long-term involvement in Liverpool's title chase overshadowed any annoyance he may have felt with Blackburn boss Sam Allardyce's claims "he loves a moan and a whinge''.

Benitez would only say: "I would expect to play the game tomorrow and afterwards just talk about football. I will shake his hand, no problem there.

"Blackburn are in a difficult position but they have won some games recently and they have improved. They, too, will have to win against us, it is as massive for them as us.

"But we know they are a physical team. We will try to play football but, if we have to fight for the ball, then we will do that.

"I have seen Sam Allardyce's teams at Bolton and now at Blackburn. I do not expect the style to change very much but I believe it is more difficult to manage at the bottom of the table because every defeat is very negative.

"The pressures there are so much different, losing games there is not the same as losing games in the top half of the table.

"But we will have our confidence back, the team are ready and looking forward to this game.''

Meanwhile, Jamie Carragher believes the clash with Blackburn at Anfield is the most important league game he has ever played in.

He said: "The Blackburn game is the biggest league match of my career right now. I'm not just saying that because of what happened against Chelsea, but the league has always been the priority of everyone at this club.

"In the 13 years I have been involved in the first team, this will be the biggest league game I have been involved in, it really is that important.

"If we win we can go top of the league with just six games to go, and if anyone had told us at the beginning of the season we would be in this position now, we would have been delighted.

"This is a massive chance for everyone at the club and I am sure the fans will create a great atmosphere because they know what is at stake.''

Xabi Alonso agrees with Carragher's viewpoint.

He said: "The Blackburn game is very important for us. I hope it won't be a problem to forget about Chelsea because we are professionals and this is another competition. We still have a chance to fight for the Premier League.

"At home this season we have dropped too many points, this time it has to be different. We have to start very well and play very well to win the game. It's important to do our job and that is to win this game.''

He added: "Of course, there is no doubt Manchester United are still favourites. They have the advantage and we respect that but our job is to try to go for it and fight.''

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