LIVERPOOL, February 17 – Rafael Benitez insists Liverpool will not suffer a Champions League hangover when they return to European duty here at Anfield on Thursday in the unfamiliar context of the Europa League.In normal circumstances, Benitez would have been preparing his side for a Champions League encounter this week but their shock departure from the competition before Christmas means they are no longer rubbing shoulders with Europe’s elite.
It remains to be seen if Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard and his colleagues can get themselves motivated for the visit of Romanian side Unirea Urziceni.
Benitez, however, says he is relishing the challenge and is adamant he is preparing for the game without any pangs for the competition Liverpool have become accustomed to in recent years.
This will be the first time Benitez has managed a side in European club football’s secondary tournament since he guided Valencia to what was then the UEFA Cup title in 2004 but he is not about to dismiss what is his last opportunity this season to actually win some silverware.
The Spaniard believes Liverpool are more than capable of reaching the final in Hamburg and that success would add more momentum to their domestic ambitions of finishing in the top four.
"It is always difficult, but when you have been a manager for a while, with different teams, sometimes you were only playing once a week and trying to avoid relegation," Benitez said.
"When you have experience, you know all about the different feelings. Clearly I would prefer to be fighting for the title or for the Champions League, but you must accept the situation.
"You have to be positive and turn things in your favour. Now we have another opportunity (of playing in Europe) and we must try to keep playing better.
"We have got to keep progressing in the Europa League and aim to finish as high as we can in the Premier League."
Benitez did though try to calm hopes of Liverpool winning the Europa League by saying: "There are still big clubs involved.
"If we can get through a couple of rounds, though, I’m sure the atmosphere will be really good because the fans want to see us winning trophies."
Benitez will still be without the injured Fernando Torres against Unirea but is expected to field his strongest side possible and believes Argentina’s Javier Mascherano is now finding his best form of the season.
Pre-season speculation linking him with a move to Europe appeared to affect midfielder Mascherano’s form, but he appears to be more settled now and Benitez added: "He is someone who has a very good character, he is very positive and can inspire those around him.
"He is setting an example to the rest of the team. I am really pleased with the way all of them are playing at the minute, but Javier Mascherano is a player who is doing really well for us.
"Look at the derby (when Liverpool beat Merseyside rivals Everton 1-0 at Anfield earlier this month).
"He played in a different position (out wide on the left instead of central midfield), but he still managed to have a massive impact and everyone can see there is a big difference in what he is doing now.
"At the beginning of the season it was very difficult for him. But now things have settled down and he is working very hard for the team.
"He is back to the Javier Mascherano that we signed. His commitment to the club is 100 percent."