Rafael Benítez's return to the Spanish capital took longer than he would have liked, but he says his Liverpool FC side are "in a good mood" as they prepare for the first instalment of their UEFA Europa League semi-final against Club Atlético de Madrid.
"I've had a lot of experience doing long journeys," Benítez said after a 24-hour trip by train and plane from Cheshire following Monday's 3-0 win against West Ham United FC, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano putting paid to hopes of a comfortable flight. "Many players travelled thinking with their eyes closed and that's good. We also managed to get some practice in with video games, and now we are better."
The 50-year-old's light-hearted response spoke volumes for his comfort in what are familiar surroundings, especially as he made the trip without several injured players – chief among them Fernando Torres. Like Atlético counterpart Quique Sánchez Flores, Benítez began his coaching career in the youth ranks at Real Madrid CF and went on to enjoy great success at Valencia CF, guiding them to two Liga titles and the 2003/04 UEFA Cup.
Atlético denied him a reunion with Los Blanquinegros with an away-goals win in the last round – evidence, said Benítez, that the Spanish side's domestic travails do not tell the whole story. "Atlético are doing very well in this competition and it will be very difficult to overcome them," he said. "They attack very well and, because of this, nobody values that they can also defend very well."
Neither trait has been too evident in recent weeks as Atlético's late-season surge up the Liga table has tailed off after a run of three successive defeats. "We haven't convinced of late," admitted coach Quique Flores. "Rediscovering the form that got us to this stage will be crucial."
They must do so without the suspended Sergio Agüero, whose absence Quique Flores equates to Liverpool's loss of Torres. The Atlético coach is confident his squad has enough depth to fill the void, with José Manuel Jurado set to partner Diego Forlán though 17-year-old Borja Baston has been drafted in from their reserves.
"I don't see any first-leg result giving us peace of mind for the trip to Liverpool," said Quique Flores, whose side twice drew 1-1 with the Reds in last season's UEFA Champions League group stage. "Anfield is always an uncomfortable place to play and Liverpool are a team who will always fight back and produce an excellent game. This tie is 50-50 – we'll have to be at our very best to reach the final."
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