FOOTBALL : Rafael Benitez has confirmed Liverpool will prioritise their bid to make a swift return to the Champions League over a tilt for Europa League glory.
Rafael Benitez has confirmed Liverpool will prioritise their bid to make a swift return to the Champions League over a tilt for Europa League glory.
Being winners of Europe’s most-prized club trophy in 2005 and finalists in 2007 counts for little now in the wake of an exit in the group stages for the first time in six seasons under Benitez. A 1-0 win in Budapest against Group E whipping boys Debrecen could not rescue Liverpool, and although they will be considered one of the favourites to win the Europa League, clinching a place in England’s top four is Benitez’s main target.
After seeing Liverpool’s disjointed victory in Hungary and watching helplessly from afar as Fiorentina confirmed their path into the last 16 with a victory over Lyon, Benitez said: “The key now is to finish in the top four to make sure we are in the Champions League group stages for the next season.”
He added: “We must concentrate on the next game, and that is the Premier League. Afterwards, if we progress in the Europa League, okay, we can still win a trophy.
“But we have to change our target. We have to think about the league and finishing in the top four. Only then can we also think about the Europa League and the FA Cup.”
Benitez maintains that Liverpool would not be in their current position had striker Fernando Torres – still struggling with a serious groin injury – been fit all season.
He said: “I have been talking with two or three senior players, they realise that to be in the final stages of the Champions League every season is not easy.
“However, I do believe that with Torres fit, we would have got through into the last 16. It is the same with Steven Gerrard, he has been injured, but when you see him back on the pitch you know that with him (fit) also we would not now be in this position.”
Benitez knows the financial implications of not returning to next season’s Champions League. Currently seventh in the Premier League, their position as part of England’s ‘big four’ is under serious threat from Tottenham, Aston Villa and Manchester City.
Benitez said: “We want to be as high as possible in the league so we have to start by winning the next game. And that’s at Everton on Sunday. I can say to our fans that we will improve in the league.”