LIVERPOOL are set to offer Javier Mascherano a two-year contract extension that will keep him at Anfield until 2014 in a bid to keep the midfield player out of the clutches of Barcelona.
Mascherano has been the subject of long-standing interest from the Spanish and European champions after Pep Guardiola, their coach, identified the Argentina captain as the perfect foil for Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, the attacking midfield duo, almost a year ago.
Last summer it appeared that the Catalan club were ready to try to force a deal through, only to be warned off by Rafael Benitez. The Liverpool manager informed them that Mascherano was not for sale at any price, even though the player appeared to have had his head turned by the possibility of a move to Spain.
In keeping with his policy of tying up key players to long-term deals, Benitez wants Mascherano to follow in the footsteps of Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt, Daniel Agger and Yossi Benayoun, who have all signed contract extensions during the past 12 months.
Preliminary talks have been held with Mascherano's representatives and Liverpool are hopeful that the 25-year-old will sign an extension to his present deal, which expires in February 2012.
Negotiations are also continuing with Pepe Reina, the goalkeeper, as Benitez attempts to ensure the services of some of Liverpool's biggest stars are retained. Reina's present contract at Anfield expires at the end of the 2011-2012 season.
It is the immediate future of Torres that is of most concern at Anfield, however. The forward, who started a game for the first time in six weeks against Blackburn Rovers on Sunday after an injury to his right knee, joined up with the Spain squad before tomorrow night's friendly match against France in Paris.
Such is Torres's importance to Liverpool as they look to hold off the challenge of Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa to take fourth place in the Premier League, that it has led to Jamie Carragher praying that his team-mate returns from international duty fully fit.
"Fernando has come back in and it goes without saying how much we have missed him," Carragher said.
"He is still our top scorer, the kind of special player who will make a difference. It would be wrong to rely on just one man.
"After all, you never know, he could come back injured off international duty. Please God, that doesn't happen, but he makes a big difference and you can see we are a much better team when he is with us."
Despite Liverpool's concerns for Torres's welfare, with Benitez keeping an eye on his progress and involvement in the Spain team, the player is keen to get as much match practice as he can and believes that his club manager will understand his reasons for wanting to play for his country.
"Rafa has enough to deal with with what he's got," Torres said.
"It's normal that he's thinking about his interests but he knows that all the players want to go to the national team. Luckily, I recovered in time. To be in the national squad is a prize for me. I have the good fortune that the coach called me up after playing just two games since I recovered.
"I'm tired after playing nearly 90 minutes after two months of not doing so, but I'm ready for as much as the coach thinks is right."
© The Times, London