LONDON: Liverpool are gearing up for what looks like one of the most crucial weeks of their season.
The Reds have a must-win Champions League match at Marseille followed by a clash with fierce rivals and defending Premier League champions Manchester United, but first have to defend their unbeaten start to the English season at Reading.
Fortunately for Liverpool, they appear to have overcome a rocky spell that included a cluster of drawn matches and have hit 21 goals in their past five games, while conceding just once.
Liverpool are seven points behind leaders Arsenal, who are at Middlesbrough tomorrow, and manager Rafa Benitez is eager for another three points as he seeks to end Liverpool’s 17-year streak without an English League title.
“I always think of one game at a time and the players know how important this match at Reading is,” Benitez said. “We need to be focused in every game and we want to keep the pressure up on the other teams.”
And Liverpool should be confident of doing just that.
They have already beaten Reading this season, with Fernando Torres hitting a hat-trick for a 4-2 League Cup win.
With Liverpool scoring whoever is in the team, Benitez may rest the Spain striker for the upcoming matches and field Peter Crouch up front.
Benitez also has to decide whether to bring Xabi Alonso, Daniel Agger and Fabio Aurelio back into the team after they returned to training after injuries, while Jamie Carragher has recovered from bruised ribs and is set to play.
With a 10-point gap having developed between ninth and 12th, Reading are marooned in the bottom half of the standings and keen to put distance between themselves and the relegation zone – which is just three points back.
“It will be a tough game against a side with a very good team spirit,” Benitez said.
Reading will be without John Oster because he needs ankle surgery, while defender Michael Duberry is not ready to return even though he has resumed training following cracked ribs.
Victory for Liverpool is even more important because United, who are three points ahead in second place, have a home match against bottom side Derby.
United have just one loss in their past 12 matches, and rebounded from that shock 1-0 loss at Bolton with victories over Sporting Lisbon and Fulham.
Derby manager Paul Jewell has lost all his previous eight matches against United, with his teams allowing a total 24 goals.
“We’re playing against one of the top teams in Europe on Saturday,” Jewell said. “What we’re trying to do is eradicate the mistakes that you might get away with against lesser teams.
“Teams like Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool will punish you straight away.”
Arsenal will be without the injured Cesc Fabregas, Mathieu Flamini, Alexander Hleb, Robin van Persie and Abou Diaby at Middlesbrough, so veteran Brazil midfielder Gilberto Silva may start in central midfield alongside Lassana Diarra.
Van Persie is likely to return to training next week after recovering from a knee injury, but is not being considered for the team until next weekend, when Arsenal play Chelsea.
“We have no one coming back for Sunday,” said Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. “To put a date on that is very difficult.”
Portsmouth are at Aston Villa, Sunderland are at Chelsea, Fulham are at Everton, and Birmingham are at Newcastle in today’s other matches.
Manchester City get the chance to get back into the top four when they play at struggling Tottenham tomorrow, when Bolton host Wigan and Blackburn host West Ham. – AP