Tough times ahead for Liverpool

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SUNDERLAND, October 16- Liverpool begin a critical week at Sunderland on Saturday knowing that they must return to winning ways ahead of important back-to-back matches at Anfield.RAFA_BENITEZ_Having watched his side lose their last Premier League fixture at Chelsea, manager Rafael Benitez knows his players cannot afford any mistakes at the Stadium of Light if they are to remain in the hunt for the title.

Liverpool already find themselves six points adrift of the summit after losing three of their opening eight league games, and entertain reigning champions Manchester United next weekend.

Sandwiched between Sunderland and United is a Champions League home match against Lyon on Tuesday, a game Benitez’s side cannot afford to lose after being beaten by Fiorentina in their last European outing.

It is an important period of games for Benitez and the Liverpool manager may have to do without skipper Steven Gerrard for at least the first of those three matches.

The influential midfielder was forced to withdraw from the England squad for Wednesday’s match with Belarus due to an adductor problem.

Greece international defender Sotiris Kyrgiakos, who would have been on the substitutes bench, is facing six months out after suffering a cruciate knee ligament injury during his country’s World Cup qualifier with Luxembourg in midweek.

With Lucas, Javier Mascherano and Emiliano Insua not due back from their World Cup qualifiers in South America until Friday afternoon, Fabio Aurelio could start on Wearside.

The Brazilian defender, a substitute against Chelsea, is determined to banish his injury frustrations and earn himself a new contract at the club.

Having joined Liverpool in July 2006 from Valencia, Aurelio is free to start talking to other clubs in the New Year as his present deal expires next summer.

But he is not looking to move and is anxious to prove to Benitez that he is worth another contract.

"I feel very comfortable and my family is very settled here, but I know that it all depends on what the manager and the club thinks about me," he said.

"We had started talking before the end of last season but then I picked up the injury in the summer and since then there has not been any more contact.

"I just want to play at the minute before I think about anything else and we will see how everything goes from there."

Although Sunderland appear on paper to be the easiest of Liverpool’s next three tests, Steve Bruce’s team are not to be underestimated.

Denied victory by an injury-time equaliser in their last game at Manchester United, Sunderland will look to continue their improved form against the Premier League’s ‘big four’ as they bid to end a near seven-year wait for a home victory over Liverpool.

After only escaping relegation on the final day of last season, Sunderland currently occupy eighth place, with their upward mobility largely down to the 30 million pounds spent by Bruce over the summer.

Kenwyne Jones is expected to resume his blossoming partnership with seven-goal top scorer Darren Bent after Bruce insisted the Trinidad and Tobago forward catch an earlier-than-planned flight back from international duty in the Caribbean to allow for extra recovery time.

England Under-21 midfielder Lee Cattermole is making good progress after suffering a heel problem and should start.

George McCartney is likely to miss out with a foot injury, so with Kieran Richardson serving a one-match suspension and John Mensah troubled by a thigh strain, Paraguay skipper Paulo da Silva is ready to fill in at left-back.

Former Liverpool midfielder Bolo Zenden, 33, is set to earn a short-term Sunderland contract after a successful trial, but not in time to figure on Saturday.

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