Liverpool go into their game Bayer Leverkusen without inspirational captain Steven Gerrard, who is suspended for tonight’s tie.
It was Gerrard’s superb late strike in the 3-1 victory against Olympiakos that carried the Reds out of the UEFA Champions League group stage. Since then Gerrard’s goals have earned Liverpool a place in next Sunday’ League Cup final against Chelsea so his loss will be a big blow for The Reds as they seek to win a tie that perhaps on paper, looks the easiest for the four English clubs.
Manager Rafael Benitez is confidant Liverpool have enough about them to prosper in the England midfield player’s absence.
He said: “We know he is very, very important for us, but we have been planning for nine days without him and I think we have solutions.”
The Liverpool boss could well bring in Igor Biscan with Dietmar Hamann. In attack, with Fernando Morientes cup-tied, Harry Kewell is expected to start alongside Milan Baros.
Kewell has been sidelined since December with groin and achilles problems, but Benitez said: “I feel he is ready, he wants to play, he has been training hard in the week and we want to see the best of Harry.”
Kewell has struggled for consistency since arriving at Liverpool two summers ago. The same could be said about the team as a whole in recent weeks. Of their ten games in 2005, Liverpool have won five and lost five and Benitez, recalling the loss at Birmingham, acknowledged: “We know we need to be more consistent, more aggressive and to play with as high a tempo as possible.”
Leverkusen, by contrast, have been in fine form since the German season resumed.
Saturday’s 4-2 victory at Nurnberg was their fourth in five matches, although it came at a cost as captain Jens Nowotny tore the rear cruciate ligament in his left knee and will miss the rest of the season. In his absence, 19-year-old Jan-Ingwer Callsen-Bracker will make his first start in the Champions League alongside Juan in central defence.
Leverkusen coach Klaus Augenthaler said: “Liverpool may have Steven Gerrard suspended and Fernando Morientes ineligible, but we have got important players out in Jens Nowotny, Marko Babic and Roque Junior.”