Rafa: Europa League will be tough

Rafa: Europa League will be tough

Published Feb. 18, 2010 10:38 a.m. ET

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez believes the quality of the Europa League has been underestimated this season.

Liverpool dropped into UEFA's second-tier competition from the Champions League, along with the likes of Juventus, Atletico Madrid, Marseille, Wolfsburg and tonight's opponents Unirea Urziceni.

They supplemented a competition which already boasted clubs such as Valencia, Villarreal, Hamburg and Sporting Lisbon - not to mention Premier League sides Fulham and Everton.

And although the Europa League is not where Liverpool expected to be, Benitez believes it will be a difficult trophy to win.

"To be fair, if you analyse the teams that are in the competition there are some very strong teams," he said.

"It will be a difficult competition, the only one we can win now, so we will try to do our best from the beginning.

"We have to progress, we have to win the first round and go forward because we might have Juventus, Valencia or Atletico Madrid.

"Any club in the Europa League which reaches the semi-final will be good enough to be in the Champions League too.

"To win a European competition against top sides is important and if you cannot be in the Champions League you have to do your best here and try to bring something for the fans.

"The response of the players to being knocked out of the Champions League was fantastic and we have to keep doing the same."

Liverpool last won this competition, in its former guise of the UEFA Cup, against Alaves in 2001.

Of the players who featured in that final, only captain Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher remain.

Benitez, who also won the UEFA Cup with Valencia, believes all the players have to draw on what European experience they have to ensure a good run in the competition.

"We know what it means to win the UEFA Cup, Carra and Gerrard have this experience and I was at Valencia so I know," he added.

"The players have experience in the Champions League and although the names of the clubs now are not familiar, when you play quarter-finals and semi-finals you will see big names.

"They know it (the Europa League) is the only way to do something important."

Last season's Romanian champions Unirea actually finished their maiden Champions League campaign with a better points tally than Liverpool and enjoyed victories away to Rangers and at home to Sevilla.

And Benitez knows they are not to be taken lightly despite being an unfamiliar name.

"Maybe the people don't know but they (Unirea) were doing very well in the Champions League," said the Spaniard.

"Romania have some good players but normally their weak point is the tactical organisation of the teams, but with this one we were surprised because they were well-organised, so it will be tough.

"We know they are a difficult team to beat so the main thing for me is to tell the players to approach the match like a final."

Unirea's Israeli manager Roni Levy, whose Maccabi Haifa team were defeated by Liverpool in a Champions League qualifier in 2007, is optimistic.

"It is a very important game for us," said the 43-year-old.

"We hope to defend well, maybe counter-attack, maybe expose them on the pitch and maybe score - that would be great."