Rafa wants to see ‘real’ Reds in Lille

LIVERPOOL manager Rafael Benitez has told his players to tackle tonight’s Europa League last-16 first-leg tie against Lille as if it was their “most important game of the season”.

Considering the state of the current campaign, the Spaniard’s comments have more than a ring of truth to them.

After Monday’s diabolical performance in the 1-0 defeat to Wigan – described by Benitez as “a blip” – the Reds’ hopes of securing a top-four finish in the Barclays Premier League have diminished considerably.

As a result the Europa League – a consolation prize for an early exit from this season’s Champions League – represents the club’s only realistic chance of success.

And while that may be a bitter pill for the Liverpool hierarchy and fans to swallow, it at least gives the squad some degree of focus.

Focus which was distinctly lacking in a woeful first 45 minutes at the DW Stadium.

“It was an opportunity to get back in the top four – an opportunity that was lost,” said Benitez.

“You cannot change things but we have an opportunity now in the Europa League and must try to do our best.”

Benitez questioned his players’ attitude at Wigan after so many basic errors, including giving the ball away for the only goal, in the first half.

Yesterday those that were involved in the match were given light jogging duties with the rest of the first-team squad put through their paces in a full training session.

Liverpool’s away form has been patchy this season but their last trip to the continent brought a 3-1 victory over Unirea Urziceni in Bucharest which, apart from a few dodgy moments in the first half, eased their passage into the next round.

The Reds boss called for a similar sort of performance from his side to lift the gloom.

“Yesterday we had a training session with two groups; one was just jogging, the other group was training really well,” said Benitez.

“We had a conversation before and we were talking together about what was wrong. Today we will see the players working together and the mood has to be good because they know they have to perform.”

Lille are currently fifth in Ligue 1, just four points behind leaders Bordeaux, having lost seven matches this season – two fewer than Liverpool – and would have been third but for a 1-1 draw at lowly St Etienne at the weekend.

Benitez knows how important a victory in northern France will be, not only for European ambitions but also for dwindling domestic hopes.

“Lille have some good players with ability and their form at home is good. It will be tough but we have to be ready,” he added.

“We know we have to score and approach the game thinking about winning. We have had more problems away from Anfield than at home this season so we have to adjust.

“If you look at Stoke, it was a fantastic game and we showed real character. We have to do the same in every game, especially away.

“When a team is playing well it doesn’t really matter the competition you are in. It helps you confidence going into league matches.”

With defender Fabio Aurelio still sidelined with a thigh strain midfielder Yossi Benayoun is Liverpool’s only injury doubt as he missed training yesterday with an ankle injury sustained at Wigan.

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