Rafa eyes silver end to clouded campaign
SHOULD there be any doubt as to how important it is to Liverpool to end this most disappointing of campaigns with a trophy, a trinket, to ease their despair, it is there in the bare figures.
Six coaches, three trains, one flight, almost 24 hours of travelling and 1,292 miles. The Europa League is no mere consolation to Rafael Benitez and his side.
"If this tournament was not important, we would not have made a 24-hour trip to get here," said Javier Mascherano. "The main thing is always to win trophies. When I started my career, I set out to see how many trophies I could win and now we have the first of two finals to try to get to Hamburg.
"There are no excuses because of the length of the journey. We are in the semi-final of a major competition, so we cannot be tired. All I can think of is doing everything we can to get to be there on May 13."
Liverpool have certainly done everything they can to be in the Spanish capital to face Atletico Madrid tonight. They departed Paris at 7.28 yesterday, taking the TGV to Bordeaux before being ferried to a charter plane and, 23 hours and 29 minutes after they left Runcorn on Tuesday, to a deserted Barajas airport.
Mascherano may be confident that odyssey will have no ill effects, but Pep Guardiola and Barcelona -- defeated 3-1 by Inter in Milan after a journey half the length and half as complex as that undertaken by Liverpool -- may believe otherwise.
Benitez believes that the travel has taken its toll. But it is testament to the good humour with which players and staff alike have tackled their adventure that even the Spaniard, in this season of all seasons and after this journey of all journeys, can still see the silver lining in the cloud of volcanic ash.
"It has been good to see how everyone is sticking together," he said. "Sometimes the positive thing from something like this is that people have a better team experience. I am sure they will be tired, but these things can actually help the team spirit, when everyone has something in common.
"Hopefully the journey will not affect performance physically, but it will affect it in terms of the spirit. It doesn't get you anywhere to blame bad luck."
Benitez has a propensity for dredging up side issues before big games -- he selected the eve of the quarter-final second leg to lament a failure to find new investment for the club. But his suggestion that Alberto Aquilani's fitness problems could not have been unforeseen before his arrival from Roma was particularly questionable.
"The slow recuperation of one of the players that arrived to reinforce the team," had, along with other injuries, "combined to stop us getting the results we wanted," Benitez said, carefully skirting around his £20m signing's name.
For all his trials, Benitez awakes today in a city where his name is cherished -- and not only because of Liverpool's 5-0 aggregate win over Real Madrid in last season's Champions League knock-out stage.
The esteem in which Benitez is held in the city where he coached Real's B-side might seem curious to those familiar with his Premier League foibles, but he remains as popular a choice to replace Manuel Pellegrini as the next Bernabeu coach as Jose Mourinho. The two men were neck-and-neck in a recent poll of 40,000 people for 'Marca'.
Benitez hardly declared an undying oath to Anfield when that topic cropped up. "It is always gratifying when that your work is valued but every year names of coaches are linked with many clubs," he said.
"Despite my 50 years I am still young for a coach, so I just keep working every day and then let's see what the future holds in the short, medium and long term. Right now things are very intense day to day and the honest thing to do is to give back to Liverpool and the fans everything we can."
For Liverpool to have reached the European semi-final that none of this season's Premier League representatives could attain via the Champions League is undoubted recompense for an otherwise dismal season at Anfield and prompts a reminder of their superior European credentials.
This is their 16th European semi, two more than Manchester United, while Chelsea (10) and Leeds United (nine) pale by comparison. Liverpool happen to have lost only four of that number.
The rosy hue is all the brighter given that the Los Colchoneros ('The Mattress-makers') as Atletico are known by dint of the stripes on their jerseys, have experienced an even more lumpy season than Benitez's side.
Quique Sanchez Flores' men have lost four of their last five league matches, won only twice in 10 matches and, as points go, are closer to the Primera Liga's relegation zone than the European spots.
And, while Benitez lacks Fernando Torres, who captained tonight's opponents at the age of 19, Flores is without his suspended Argentinian striker Sergio Aguero. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Atletico Madrid v Liverpool
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