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Crucial time for the Reds

sports Updated: Dec 07, 2007 17:39 IST
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Liverpool is gearing up for what looks like one of the most crucial weeks of its season.

The Reds have a must-win Champions League match at Marseille followed by a clash with fierce rival and defending Premier League champion Manchester United, but first has to defend its unbeaten start to the English season at Reading.

Fortunately for Liverpool, it appears to have overcome a rocky spell that included a cluster of drawn matches and has hit 21 goals in its past five games, while conceding just once. Liverpool is seven points behind leader Arsenal, which is at Middlesbrough on Sunday, 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. It has 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 is marooned in the bottom half of the standings and keen to put distance between itself 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 Manchester United, which is three points ahead in second place, has a home match against last-place Derby.

United has just one loss in its 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 Manchester 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 plays Chelsea. "We have no one coming back for Sunday," Wenger said. "To put a date on that is very difficult."

Portsmouth is at Aston Villa, Sunderland is at Chelsea, Fulham is at Everton, and Birmingham is at Newcastle in Saturday's other matches.

Manchester City gets the chance to get back into the top four when it plays at struggling Tottenham on Sunday, when Bolton hosts Wigan and Blackburn hosts West Ham.