Stoke boss Tony Pulis has defended under-fire Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez as he prepared for a Reds backlash.
Liverpool's shock FA Cup exit at the hands of Reading on Wednesday night has placed Benitez firmly in the firing line of his critics, who are demanding he be sacked.
Ahead of Saturday's Premier League clash with Stoke at the Britannia Stadium, the scenario for Benitez could not be worse after losing influential skipper Steven Gerard, star striker Fernando Torres and key midfielder Yossi Benayoun to injury following the game with the Royals.
With Liverpool out of the Champions League, FA and Carling Cups, and 12 points behind leaders Chelsea in the title race, Benitez's season is fast crumbling around him and the knives are out.
Yet Pulis feels Benitez is being harshly criticised due to extenuating circumstances which any manager would struggle to counter.
"With the result on Wednesday there's added speculation about what's happening and what's not happening at that football club," assessed Pulis.
"But I think Rafa has been a little unfortunate this year in the respect that his best players have either been injured or not really on top form. They've not performed like they can do.
"Against Reading, (Pepe) Reina didn't play, and he is arguably the best goalkeeper in the Premier League.
"(Javier) Mascherano was missing, and he's the best holding player in the Premier League, and then you've Gerrard and Torres who have played with injuries and who have come off. You also had a quality right-back in (Glen) Johnson who didn't play through injury.
"So there are five players who, if they were available and playing to their maximum, would make Liverpool a completely different team.
"Do you make the excuse that because it's Liverpool they should have enough back-up? I don't know.
"There are all these arguments for why they should be doing better, but I don't think he has been as lucky as he could have been with his team and the selection he could have made all season."
Despite the calls for Benitez's head, as a manager Pulis knows much now depends on how all within Liverpool rally, on and off the pitch.
"Because Liverpool are one of the biggest clubs in world football, not just this country, the spotlight is naturally on them," added Pulis.
"He (Benitez) understands that, he's been there long enough to understand that."
Pulis had been hoping to sign former Liverpool goalkeeper David James in time, but has now pulled out of the potential loan deal for the 39-year-old currently with Portsmouth.
Thomas Sorensen, who has been linked with a move to Bayern Munich that will not go through unless Pulis finds a replacement, looks set to return after a finger injury saw him miss the club's last outing 10 days ago, a 3-2 home win over Fulham.
Striker Tuncay Sanli remains Pulis' only doubt with a hamstring injury sustained against the Cottagers.
A defiant Rafael Benitez vowed to fight on as Liverpool manager despite the club's season hitting a new low this week.
Co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett are not minded to make a change of manager midway through the season and in the wake of the Reading defeat club sources have stressed Benitez's job is safe.
"We are not playing well and everyone here feels sorry for our fans," said Benitez, who insists he is focusing all his efforts on the must-win match at Stoke.
"This is a bad moment, we are not doing well during the season and we now have to improve and we have the belief we can do it.
"How can we improve? Winning on the pitch. How can we be sure we win on the pitch? By training well.
"If I'm worried about my position or the future of the club at this moment I will lose my focus.
"Stoke is the most important game now and we have to prepare properly.
"I cannot be worried about the other things. My future is Stoke now."
Benitez last season signed a new long-term deal worth anything between #3million and #4million a year.
He stressed he is a fighter and is determined to get through Liverpool's recent difficulties."
Liverpool will be without their most influential trio of players in striker Torres, captain Gerrard and midfielder Benayoun.
All were injured in the midweek FA Cup exit, with Torres requiring knee surgery which will keep him out for six weeks, Benayoun sustaining a broken rib likely to sideline him for a month and Gerrard out for a fortnight with a hamstring problem.
Defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano returns after a four-match suspension and new signing Maxi Rodriguez is expected to figure provided he receives international clearance - but manager Rafael Benitez has limited options in attack.
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