Stuttering Liverpool seek derby boost

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LONDON, Oct 18 (Reuters) Liverpool return to Premier League action after the international break with a Merseyside derby at Everton and a chance to quell the murmurings of discontent among the Anfield faithful.

Liverpool's early-season gloss has been replaced by mediocrity and fans will be looking for an improvement at Goodison Park, a fixture they lost 3-0 last season.

Victory in the 206th Merseyside derby and the squandered points of late will be forgotten, but defeat would raise further questions about coach Rafael Benitez's ability to mount a long-overdue title challenge.

They are already six points behind a pace-setting Arsenal side, who should rack up an 11th consecutive victory in all competitions when they host Bolton Wanderers, who parted company with manager Sammy Lee yesterday.

Second-placed Manchester United go to mid-table Aston Villa while Sven-Goran Eriksson's dream start to English club management with third-placed Manchester City is unlikely to be soured by the visit of Birmingham City.

Liverpool, in fourth, will be keeping their fingers crossed that Spanish striker Fernando Torres recovers in time for Saturday's lunchtime kickoff.

Torres missed Spain's Euro 2008 qualifier against Denmark with an adductor strain but has not ruled out a return for his first Merseyside derby.

SPECIAL GAME ''I intend to be fit for Saturday. I don't want to miss out,'' Torres said this week. ''I've been told how special the game is and I need to be ready in time.'' Xabi Alonso is also nearing a return for Liverpool after a metatarsal injury although his chances are 50-50.

With so many of their players abroad, Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger echoed the views of most of his counterparts after an international break.

''I am keen and impatient to get them back here so we can go on with what we have started,'' Wenger told the club's Web site www.arsenal.com.

Under former manager Sam Allardyce, Bolton recorded league victories over Arsenal in each of the last three seasons.

But a team who are second from bottom and have managed just one point from four away matches this season were struggling even before Lee's departure.

Manchester United have not conceded a league goal since Aug.

19 and their shot-shy attack appeared to be clicking into gear in the 4-0 win over Wigan Athletic, a result that extended the champions' winning league run to six matches.

Goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar should return after a toe injury while striker Louis Saha could also come back from a knee injury. Midfielders Michael Carrick and Owen Hargreaves are ruled out.

Fifth-placed Portsmouth are at Wigan Athletic while seventh-placed Chelsea try to gather some momentum at Middlesbrough.

Skipper John Terry is a doubt for Chelsea after missing England's 2-1 defeat in Russia when he aggravated a knee injury that will require surgery.

REUTERS BJR VC1355

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