It was a measure of the dysfunctional nature of Liverpool’s Champions League campaign that the club’s hierarchy were defending the Europa League before their exit from the continent’s elite competition had been confirmed.

The case put forward was convincing enough: three home games in the Europa League would allow Liverpool to make up for any budgetary shortfall, a mood of positivity would endure and, in the words of Christian Purslow, the managing director, there was the prospect of “taking 40-50,000 fans to Hamburg in May” for the final.

If ticket sales for the first step on that journey are anything to go by, the supporters have bought into that dream. The club have sold 40,000 tickets for the first leg of their round-of-32 tie against Unirea Urziceni, of Romania, which suggests that their involvement in the Europa League has not had the profoundly negative effect on the fans that many had predicted.

It remains to be seen how the Liverpool players will adapt to life in the second tier, however, and not even Rafael Benítez can convince on that front.

“It is difficult to say,” the manager said when asked whether a lack of motivation could be a problem against their fellow Champions League dropouts, who warmed up for tonight’s match with a 1-0 win over Northwich Victoria, of the Blue Square North, on Monday.

“Today the training session was good — it had intensity and everyone was focused. Tomorrow before the game we will see how the atmosphere is, but it depends on us, if we can play well and get everyone behind us. You have to adapt.

However, it is a trophy that no one at Anfield would be particularly keen to defend should they go on to win it. The target for the rest of this campaign is to ensure that Champions League qualification is achieved via a place in the top four of the Barclays Premier League.

George Gillett Jr, the co-owner, has suggested that Liverpool’s travails represent nothing more than a blip, but the longer the search for investment goes on, the more the feeling grows that a regular berth among the also-rans of English and European football awaits, and that any such decline could be accelerated should Manchester City beat them to fourth place.

Such a scenario is not one that Benítez is prepared to countenance. “Clearly I have confidence we will finish in the top four and be in the Champions League again,” the Spaniard said. “We have to do our best in every competition. We want to be successful and be in the top four.”

The imminent return to fitness of a trio of players — Fernando Torres, Glen Johnson and Yossi Benayoun are able to take part in full training again, although only Benayoun stands a chance of featuring against Unirea — has lifted Benítez’s spirits and reaffirmed his belief that Liverpool will maintain top-four status.

He also scornfully dismissed proposals for the introduction of play-offs to determine the final Champions League place. “To play three, maybe four [extra] fixtures when you don’t have time with international football — when will you play, how can you play these games, and what does it mean for the team that finishes fourth?” Benítez said.

“Maybe we can do the same with the teams at the bottom of the table. If you finish fourth maybe you could play the team who finished third from bottom. Then during the whole season we can play 50 games and we don’t have to rest, so that will be fantastic.

“We are playing too much now. They were talking about a 39th game being played in Asia. If we now play the play-offs, we’ll be playing until the end of the century.”

Liverpool (possible; 4-2-3-1): J M Reina — M Kelly, M Skrtel, S Kyrgiakos, E Insúa — J Mascherano, Lucas Leiva — R Babel, S Gerrard, A Riera — D Ngog.

Unirea Urziceni (possible; 4-4-2): G Arlauskis — V Bordeanu, E Mehmedovic, G Galamaz, P Brandán — S Frunza, I Apostol, B Fernandes, E Nicu — M Bilasco, A Semedo.

Referee: E Braamhaar (Netherlands).

Television: Five (kick-off 8.05pm).

Read the article on Times Online

Supporters rally behind downgraded Liverpool

It was a measure of the dysfunctional nature of Liverpool’s Champions League campaign that the club’s hierarchy were defending the Europa League before their exit from the continent’s elite competition had been confirmed.

The case put forward was convincing enough: three home games in the Europa League would allow Liverpool to make up for any budgetary shortfall, a mood of positivity would endure and, in the words of Christian Purslow, the managing director, there was the prospect of “taking 40-50,000 fans to Hamburg in May” for the final.

If ticket sales for the first step on that journey are anything to go by, the supporters have bought into that dream. The club have sold 40,000 tickets for the first leg of their round-of-32 tie against Unirea Urziceni, of Romania, which suggests that their involvement in the Europa League has not had the profoundly negative effect on the fans that many had predicted.

It remains to be seen how the Liverpool players will adapt to life in the second tier, however, and not even Rafael Benítez can convince on that front.

“It is difficult to say,” the manager said when asked whether a lack of motivation could be a problem against their fellow Champions League dropouts, who warmed up for tonight’s match with a 1-0 win over Northwich Victoria, of the Blue Square North, on Monday.

“Today the training session was good — it had intensity and everyone was focused. Tomorrow before the game we will see how the atmosphere is, but it depends on us, if we can play well and get everyone behind us. You have to adapt.

However, it is a trophy that no one at Anfield would be particularly keen to defend should they go on to win it. The target for the rest of this campaign is to ensure that Champions League qualification is achieved via a place in the top four of the Barclays Premier League.

George Gillett Jr, the co-owner, has suggested that Liverpool’s travails represent nothing more than a blip, but the longer the search for investment goes on, the more the feeling grows that a regular berth among the also-rans of English and European football awaits, and that any such decline could be accelerated should Manchester City beat them to fourth place.

Such a scenario is not one that Benítez is prepared to countenance. “Clearly I have confidence we will finish in the top four and be in the Champions League again,” the Spaniard said. “We have to do our best in every competition. We want to be successful and be in the top four.”

The imminent return to fitness of a trio of players — Fernando Torres, Glen Johnson and Yossi Benayoun are able to take part in full training again, although only Benayoun stands a chance of featuring against Unirea — has lifted Benítez’s spirits and reaffirmed his belief that Liverpool will maintain top-four status.

He also scornfully dismissed proposals for the introduction of play-offs to determine the final Champions League place. “To play three, maybe four [extra] fixtures when you don’t have time with international football — when will you play, how can you play these games, and what does it mean for the team that finishes fourth?” Benítez said.

“Maybe we can do the same with the teams at the bottom of the table. If you finish fourth maybe you could play the team who finished third from bottom. Then during the whole season we can play 50 games and we don’t have to rest, so that will be fantastic.

“We are playing too much now. They were talking about a 39th game being played in Asia. If we now play the play-offs, we’ll be playing until the end of the century.”

Liverpool (possible; 4-2-3-1): J M Reina — M Kelly, M Skrtel, S Kyrgiakos, E Insúa — J Mascherano, Lucas Leiva — R Babel, S Gerrard, A Riera — D Ngog.

Unirea Urziceni (possible; 4-4-2): G Arlauskis — V Bordeanu, E Mehmedovic, G Galamaz, P Brandán — S Frunza, I Apostol, B Fernandes, E Nicu — M Bilasco, A Semedo.

Referee: E Braamhaar (Netherlands).

Television: Five (kick-off 8.05pm).

Read the article on Times Online

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