Rafael Benitez insists Liverpool's underperforming players are hurt by their current struggles.

The Merseysiders, who have won just four of their last 17 games, were hit by criticism from former striker Ian Rush this week, the Welshman claiming not enough players were smarting after last weekend's abject 2-0 defeat at Portsmouth.

Rush, who exonerated Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Jose Reina from blame, said: "It should hurt them all, not just a few."

But Benitez responded, saying: "I do not accept that the players are not hurt by what is happening.

"They are working very hard to put things right. I can guarantee 100% that they are trying to win every game and they are upset when things do not go well."

Benitez has held talks with several players - Torres and Gerrard included - to try to prompt an upturn in form ahead of the Boxing Day clash against Wolves and the trip to Aston Villa on Monday.

He said: "I have spoken to several players, not just Gerrard and Torres. They are all determined to do well, but when we concede a goal now we lose any confidence that we have acquired.

"That is my responsibility, to improve confidence. To do that I have to be positive, it is the only way. The message is very clear, we have quality in our squad and we must show that."

Benitez, who will be without the suspended Javier Mascherano against Wolves, is hoping the hard work carried out on the training ground will reap its reward against Mick McCarthy's men.

"We do not need to talk too much about the problems we have, we have to work hard and find solutions. The only way to change things is hard work," he said.

"I have been a manager for 23 years, and I know you have good and bad moments. The only way to change things is to keep working.

"We have tried to relax the lads. On Tuesday we had a Christmas meal for all the staff and players, that was a very positive occasion.

"We have a good team spirit, the players know we must improve and they know the only way is to stick together.

"We must show this unity on the pitch, and the players are concerned, they are talking about what is going wrong.

"I must manage and control the anxiety of the players, and the anxiety of the fans. We know we have to change the situation, sooner rather than later. That is clear."

Wolves boss Mick McCarthy has no sympathy for Rafael Benitez as he looks to add to the Liverpool manager's problems.

With the Reds struggling to mount a top-four challenge this season, Wolves could heap even more pressure on Benitez if they can pull off a shock win.

The stakes are just as high for the visitors as they are desperate for what would be a fourth victory in five games to stay clear of the relegation zone.

But McCarthy, who is poised to name an unchanged side for the trip to Merseyside, accepts Liverpool's poor form cannot last forever and is keen to ensure they do not turn it around against Wolves.

McCarthy said: "I can't remember ever receiving sympathy from anyone. So I don't expect any and I don't give any out either.

"I hope we go to Anfield and get something out of the game because that will be terrific.

"But I never subscribe to the theory that because a team is having a bad time that run will continue.

"At some stage they have to get out of that run and I have no doubt they will see Wolves coming as an opportunity.

"They will know they will still be expected to win and when you are not playing that great and you are not full of confidence it does add to the pressure.

"A team like us coming to Anfield does not do them any favours because it will give an edgy feel to the game."

Much of Wolves hopes of pulling off an upset at Anfield will rest on their front-line pairing of Kevin Doyle and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake.

Doyle took his goal tally for the season to five in last weekend's 2-0 win against Burnley and is already repaying the club record #6.5million fee Wolves paid to sign him from Reading in the summer.

Ebanks-Blake is still searching for the first Premier League goal of his career in open play, but McCarthy can see the duo starting to form an effective partnership.

McCarthy is set to retain the side that started the 2-0 win against Burnley to tackle Liverpool.

Andy Keogh, Michael Kightly and Dave Edwards remain long-term casualties following ankle surgery.

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