Rafa urges caution in search for silverware
LIVERPOOL may find themselves cast from football’s top table and into the twilight zone of the Europa League, but Rafael Benitez has warned his players that winning the trophy, which could rescue their desperately disappointing season, will be just as exacting as lifting the Champions League itself.
Before making plans for a semifinal date with his former club Valencia or Atletico Madrid, alma mater of Fernando Torres, Liverpool must tonight take the sting out of Benfica’s attack in the cauldron of the Estadio da Luz.
Such a task is easier imagined than accomplished, of course. The Portuguese side, who walloped Everton 5-0 here in the competition’s group stage, are the most prolific scorers in Europe, and boast some of the world’s most coveted players.
Little wonder that though Benitez would not be drawn on whether his side’s possible run to a Hamburg final might be more demanding than Manchester United’s putative journey to Madrid, the Liverpool manager was insistent that the challenge was on a par.
“Maybe there is a difference between the Champions League and the Europa League at the start of the competitions,” he said. “But when you see the names left in the Europa League, they are very strong.
“Benfica are on fire at the moment, they are 11 points ahead of Porto in the Portuguese league and Porto were in the Champions League.
“But this is an opportunity for us to win a trophy and I am sure all the players here see the competition as a way to change the season around.
The main thing for everyone at a club is to have the option to win trophies, not just the players, but the fans and the staff too.”
If Liverpool are to do that, they will do so without Alberto Aquilani, who has an ankle injury, meaning much will depend on Torres, who has scored seven goals in his past four games but will miss the second leg through suspension if he picks up a yellow card tonight.
Given the Spanish international’s propensity to talk himself into trouble, Benitez knows his striker must control his frustration.
“He knows what to do,” Benitez said. “We have spoken about this in the past.” That, of course, is not the only challenge facing Torres and his teammates.
The past is there to be overcome, too. The prospect of a romantic return for the striker to the Vicente Calderon stadium, or for his manager to the Mestalla, remains tantalising, but the immediate task is to avenge Liverpool’s surprise elimination at the hands of Benfica in the 2006 Champions League, against a side packed with familiar faces.
“We know Luisao and the goalkeeper, Quim, from last time,” Benitez said. “And Javier Saviola, of course, Javi Garcia from the Real Madrid youth team, Javier Mascherano plays with Angel Di Maria in the Argentine national side and I know Pablo Aimar from my time at Valencia.”
Benitez, lavish in his praise of his opponents’ attacking potency, singled out Aimar for particular tribute.
Little wonder, too. It was the diminutive Argentine who orchestrated Valencia’s home and away destruction of Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool in 2002, important results which helped Benitez catch Anfield’s eye.
“He is a fantastic boy, a great professional and he has that ability to change games,” his former coach said.
With such a glowing recommendation, had he considered bringing his erstwhile charge to Anfield at any point over the past six years? “Good question,” he replied. Benitez will be hoping he does not have reason to regret Aimar’s absence still further. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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