x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Stepping back to make progress

The Europa League is the tournament that provided Liverpool with their first European success but now it feels very much like a consolation prize.

The Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez takes a training session yesterday ahead of tonight's match against Unirea Urziceni.
The Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez takes a training session yesterday ahead of tonight's match against Unirea Urziceni.

It was two comprehensive defeats of Liverpool in Europe that brought Rafa Benitez to the attention of the powerbrokers at Anfield. It was a series of improbable results in continental competitions that sustained the Spaniard when his domestic record was the subject of criticism.

But tonight, for the first time in his reign, Europe means the Europa League. Benitez has not managed in the competition since he lifted the Uefa Cup, as it then was, in his penultimate match in charge of Valencia in 2004. It is the tournament that provided Liverpool with their first European success, under Bill Shankly in 1973, and, until Istanbul in 2005, their most implausible win, when Alaves were overcome 5-4 in 2001. But now it feels very much like a consolation prize.

Their opponents at Anfield tonight, Unirea Urziceni, also dropped out of the Champions League after finishing third in their group. There the similarities end. Liverpool are approaching their 307th game in Europe, Unirea their ninth. The Romanians have only played twice in the Europa League. Liverpool have won the competition three times. They have 43 pieces of major silverware, their opponents one.

And, significantly, Liverpool retain their manager whereas Unirea have lost theirs. Dan Petrescu, who led them to the first title of their history and Champions League wins over Rangers and Sevilla, departed in December to join Russian club Kuban Krasnodar. Benitez, in contrast, has stayed at Anfield where he has a difficult balancing act. The desire for a first trophy since 2006 has to be balanced with the requirement for a top-four finish. Opinions are divided which should be prioritised, though the Liverpool manager is insisting both are possible.

"It's important for everyone to understand that if you have an opportunity to win silverware, you have to be ready. It's a chance we have," he said. "We have got to keep progressing in the Europa League and aim to finish as high as we can in the Premier League." The next 10 days should prove if both are possible. The meeting with Unirea comes three days before the trip to Manchester City, which is pivotal to both clubs' hopes of Champions League football.

The timing makes selection still more complicated. Glen Johnson remains absent while January arrival, Maxi Rodriguez, is ineligible after playing in Europe for Atletico Madrid earlier in the season. The most significant attacking absentees, Fernando Torres and Yossi Benayoun, have resumed training. The latter, like Jamie Carragher, who has had a groin problem, could figure. "Carra is training again and he will be available, which is very good news for us as he is an important player for us," added Benitez. "Yossi is training with the team. He still has a problem with his rib but at least he is training."

There is a danger, however, in bringing players back too soon. Indeed, with an extra round, the Europa League can entail a heavier workload than the Champions League. Uefa's forward thinking means Liverpool know that the reward for progress is a tie with either Lille or Fenerbahce in the last 16. Istanbul could beckon once again, though this serves as a reminder of the differences between 2005 and 2010.

That said, with last season's finalists, Werder Bremen and Shakhtar Donetsk, plus Ajax, Juventus, and Roma, there is no shortage of potentially intriguing opponents further on in the competition. Factor in Benitez's former employers at Valencia and Liverpool's city rivals Everton and there could be added spice later on. But in a week when Manchester United met AC Milan, Arsenal faced Porto and Chelsea's thoughts turned towards Inter Milan, Liverpool are accustomed to so much more than this.

@Email:sports@thenational.ae Liverpool v Unirea Urziceni, 12.05am, Aljazeera Sport +3 and +5