Sunday 19 January 2020

Torres loss cost us -- Rafa

Reds boss rues season hit by striker's absence

Rory Smith

FOR the first time in six years, Rafael Benitez channel-surfed between the opening blows of the Champions League's knock-out rounds as an observer rather than participant on Tuesday night.

No need for notes or analysis on potential opponents. The Liverpool manager, cast into the Europa League wilderness, could only watch and wonder what might have been.

A dyed-in-the-wool Madrileno, Benitez kept track of Real Madrid's defeat in Lyon, whose two late goals at Anfield destroyed his Champions League dream, but no doubt it was the sight of Wayne Rooney storming San Siro, the Manchester United forward at the very peak of his powers, that piqued his distress.

Liverpool have a striker like that too, a natural finisher, what the club's American co-owners would refer to as a 'game-breaker'. Fernando Torres, for the third consecutive year, has defined Liverpool's season. For his first two campaigns, it was by virtue of the goals which took them to the brink of a third Champions League final in four years and of a first league title in 20.

In his third, his absence has belied the club's frailty. Had he been fit perhaps it would have been Torres, not Rooney, ransacking the home of one of Europe's aristocrats, carrying a Premier League charge almost single-handedly. As it is, Liverpool are adrift in the league and embroiled in what, to many, is an irrelevance in Europe, hosting Unirea Urziceni in the Europa League tonight. Anfield is left with the consolation prize.

"In every team, if you lose your top scorer, your striker, for a lot of games, it will cost you," said Benitez. "When you talk about a good player like Rooney, at his best moment he can be a massive difference, though only for a good team. One player, without good team-mates around them, it would be impossible, but United are a good team, so if they have a player like that in front of them it can be the difference.

"We lost a lot of players at the same time, players with quality -- (Daniel) Agger, (Glen) Johnson, Yossi (Benayoun), (Steven) Gerrard, Torres -- as well as the players who were not playing too many games. For any team, it is difficult to manage without players, ones with quality and just in terms of numbers. It is even more difficult if you lose your striker, who can be such a difference."

At the earliest, Torres will not return until the game against Blackburn on Sunday week and while his recovery from knee surgery is ahead of schedule, his manager is conscious of the risk in rushing him back. Not, he insists, because of demands from Spain boss Vicente Del Bosque but because Liverpool will need their spearhead for the season's climax.


"We have a very good relationship with all of the Spain staff," said Benitez. "When people try to make a problem between them and us, they have to remember that I worked with Del Bosque, (technical director) Fernando Hierro and (fitness coach) Javier Minano. We have to defend our players, but we have good communications."

Just as he has ever since Torres limped from the field in that humiliating nadir against Reading, Benitez must charge his side to cope without their talisman against the Romanian champions tonight.

It serves only to heighten the aura of disappointment at how this campaign has unfolded that such unfamiliar opposition should greet Liverpool upon their first foray into Europe's second tier in its current format.

Emiliano Insua, asked what he knew of his opponents, was relieved to be able to call upon the name of Pablo Brandan, his Argentine compatriot, now plying his trade in Romania. Few would have done quite so well.

That, to Benitez, should not suggest Liverpool can coast through the tournament on reputation alone, convinced of their supremacy. The road to redemption will be long and arduous. "The quarter-finals and semi-finals will be full of good teams, with great histories, who are all top sides and could be in the Champions League anyway," he said. "But to get there, first we must beat Unirea." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Liverpool v Unirea Urziceni, Kick-off 8.05, Five and 3e

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