After a failed title challenge and an uphill battle to finish in the top four, Liverpool look to salvage something from this season by lifting the inaugural Europa League and travel to the Vicente Calderon to face Atletico Madrid today for the semi-final first leg.
Liverpool beat West Ham 3-0 on Monday to prepare for the game and show they can score goals without star striker Fernando Torres, who has been denied a homecoming to Atletico after being ruled out for the rest of the season because of a knee surgery.
It is a major setback for Liverpool to lose their top-scorer and bitterly disappointing for Torres who is once again denied an emotional return to Atletico, the club he joined at the age of 10 before being made captain at the tender age of 19.
“I believe we can cause them problems, even without Fernando [Torres],” Israeli midfielder Yossi Benayoun said. “He’s the best striker in the world and with him things are much easier, however he’s injured and we need to try and win the game for him.”
In the absence of Torres, coach Rafael Benitez is set to turn to 21-year-old Frenchman David Ngog, who started and scored in the West Ham win while midfielder Maxi Rodriguez joins Torres in missing out against his old club as he is cup-tied. Both Liverpool and Atletico parachuted into the competition after falling at the Champions League group stage and it now represents a big chance for the two to win some silverware and appease their suffering fans after poor league campaigns.
Liverpool, Premier League runners-up last season, are a disappointing sixth, five points off the top four, while Atletico languish down in 10th in La Liga 15 points off the Champions League places, although they have managed to reach the Kings Cup final so a cup double could rescue their season.
Atletico must do without key Argentine striker Sergio “Kun” Aguero through suspension and winger Jose Antonio Reyes believes his absence is more significant than Liverpool losing Torres.
“Both teams lose a lot [with Torres and Aguero], but I think that the absence of Kun is more important because he is key to Atletico,” Reyes said. “We will notice his absence, though not too much I hope.”
Atletico have been infuriatingly inconsistent this season and lost 2-1 to bottom side Xerez in their last home match to prompt a chorus of jeers at the Calderon.
However, Atletico have saved their best performances for Europe and have matched Liverpool in their last two meetings drawing 1-1 in both the group games in last season’s Champions League.
With a direct flight unavailable because of volcanic eruptions, Liverpool have had to plan a marathon journey to the Spanish capital including three separate trains before a proposed flight from Bordeaux to Madrid.
Atletico will hope the journey takes its toll on their opponents as they look to secure a first leg lead ahead of the tough return leg at Anfield on April 29.
The winner of the Liverpool-Atletico semi-final will start as favorites to lift the trophy against either Fulham or Hamburg although the latter will have home advantage at the May 12 final.