Having watched on longingly from afar as the opening exchanges of the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds unfolded earlier in the week, Liverpool begin their Europa League campaign against Unirea Urziceni on Thursday.

As arch-rivals Manchester United secured a thrilling win at continental giants AC Milan and Arsenal were surrounded by refereeing controversy against Porto, the Reds have been preparing to welcome a little-known Romanian side to Anfield.

Ahead of the first leg of their last-32 tie, manager Rafa Benitez and captain Steven Gerrard have been keen to stress the value of the Europa League, but behind closed doors the two will recognise their participation is a marker of a failed season.

Liverpool were dumped out of the Champions League, finishing third in Group E, and are fighting for fourth place, rather than the title, in the Premier League, while they were also eliminated from the early stages of the FA Cup and the Carling Cup.

The Europa League therefore represents the last remaining opportunity to win a trophy and Gerrard has used that as a signal of the importance of the competition, but battling with Europe’s second-tier teams will not have been on the Reds skipper’s wish-list.

Gerrard has also spoken of the need for clubs not to underestimate Liverpool in Europe, but he and his team-mates should also beware of complacency ahead of their two-legged contest with Unirea.

Roni Levy’s side, formerly managed by Dan Petrescu before he quit in December, finished above Rangers in Group G and hammered the Scottish Premier League leaders 4-1 at Ibrox in October to finish one point behind second-placed Stuttgart.

Unirea won the Romanian league in 2008/09 to book their place in the Champions League and the achievement was the first major honour in the club’s 56-year history.

Despite murmured suspicions that he is still not fully fit, Gerrard will lead the Reds out and vice-captain Jamie Carragher should also feature after overcoming the groin problem suffered in the recent defeat at Arsenal.

The two Kop idols are the only remaining squad members from Liverpool’s epic golden goal victory over Alaves in the 2001 Uefa Cup final.

Benitez believes the absence of Fernando Torres through injury has been a major reason for his team’s misfiring season and the Spain striker will again be in the stands as he is not expected to return from knee surgery before March.

Yossi Benayoun could be named as a substitute now that the Israeli has returned to training following a broken rib, while £20million summer signing Alberto Aquilani is available after illness.

Greek defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos, who is suspended domestically, is available, but full-back Glen Johnson is still out with a knee injury and Maxi Rodriguez is cup-tied after playing in Europe for Atletico Madrid.

Unirea’s Argentine defender Pablo Brandan will be a player to watch after the left-back was linked with a number of clubs in Europe following impressive performances in the Champions League, including a goal in Glasgow.

Former Maccabi Haifa manager Levy has been to Anfield before when he suffered a 2-1 defeat in the 2006/07 Champions League third qualifying round first leg.

Guillem Balague explains how the weather played its part in Barcelona’s first defeat of the La Liga season.

Can Everton end their United jinx? Can Denman bounce back? Ed Chamberlin has the weekend’s best bets.

Read the article on Sky Sports

Liverpool v Unirea preview

Having watched on longingly from afar as the opening exchanges of the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds unfolded earlier in the week, Liverpool begin their Europa League campaign against Unirea Urziceni on Thursday.

As arch-rivals Manchester United secured a thrilling win at continental giants AC Milan and Arsenal were surrounded by refereeing controversy against Porto, the Reds have been preparing to welcome a little-known Romanian side to Anfield.

Ahead of the first leg of their last-32 tie, manager Rafa Benitez and captain Steven Gerrard have been keen to stress the value of the Europa League, but behind closed doors the two will recognise their participation is a marker of a failed season.

Liverpool were dumped out of the Champions League, finishing third in Group E, and are fighting for fourth place, rather than the title, in the Premier League, while they were also eliminated from the early stages of the FA Cup and the Carling Cup.

The Europa League therefore represents the last remaining opportunity to win a trophy and Gerrard has used that as a signal of the importance of the competition, but battling with Europe’s second-tier teams will not have been on the Reds skipper’s wish-list.

Gerrard has also spoken of the need for clubs not to underestimate Liverpool in Europe, but he and his team-mates should also beware of complacency ahead of their two-legged contest with Unirea.

Roni Levy’s side, formerly managed by Dan Petrescu before he quit in December, finished above Rangers in Group G and hammered the Scottish Premier League leaders 4-1 at Ibrox in October to finish one point behind second-placed Stuttgart.

Unirea won the Romanian league in 2008/09 to book their place in the Champions League and the achievement was the first major honour in the club’s 56-year history.

Despite murmured suspicions that he is still not fully fit, Gerrard will lead the Reds out and vice-captain Jamie Carragher should also feature after overcoming the groin problem suffered in the recent defeat at Arsenal.

The two Kop idols are the only remaining squad members from Liverpool’s epic golden goal victory over Alaves in the 2001 Uefa Cup final.

Benitez believes the absence of Fernando Torres through injury has been a major reason for his team’s misfiring season and the Spain striker will again be in the stands as he is not expected to return from knee surgery before March.

Yossi Benayoun could be named as a substitute now that the Israeli has returned to training following a broken rib, while £20million summer signing Alberto Aquilani is available after illness.

Greek defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos, who is suspended domestically, is available, but full-back Glen Johnson is still out with a knee injury and Maxi Rodriguez is cup-tied after playing in Europe for Atletico Madrid.

Unirea’s Argentine defender Pablo Brandan will be a player to watch after the left-back was linked with a number of clubs in Europe following impressive performances in the Champions League, including a goal in Glasgow.

Former Maccabi Haifa manager Levy has been to Anfield before when he suffered a 2-1 defeat in the 2006/07 Champions League third qualifying round first leg.

Guillem Balague explains how the weather played its part in Barcelona’s first defeat of the La Liga season.

Can Everton end their United jinx? Can Denman bounce back? Ed Chamberlin has the weekend’s best bets.

Read the article on Sky Sports

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