Tonight's Europa League semi- final first leg between Atletico Madrid and Liverpool was supposed to be all about Fernando Torres. The Liverpool striker would be returning to the club he left in 2007 to play in front of the fans who once idolised him. Torres was sure to get a superb reception from the 54,000 capacity crowd and he vowed not to celebrate if he scored.
Such talk was rendered irrelevant when it was announced on Monday that he needed surgery on a knee injury which will keep him out for six weeks and leave him little time to prepare for Spain's World Cup campaign. Liverpool's preparation has been disrupted not only by the injury to Torres, but by their travel plans. Unable to fly from British airspace because of volcanic ash in the atmosphere, they set off by train for the Spanish capital 56 hours before the game, from the unusual surroundings of Runcorn station.
Liverpool then changed trains in London for a trip under the English Channel to Paris, where they spent Tuesday night. They awoke at 5am to catch the 7am TGV to Bordeaux and then a flight to Madrid, where they arrived at 12.30pm, 24 hours after leaving. Returning to his hometown where he hopes Liverpool will become the first English team to win at the Vicente Calderon, Rafa Benitez, the manager, speculated that the unusual travel arrangements would help bond the team.
"You have to try and find the positives when you are in this kind of situation and it is vital that everyone stays together when you have a problem," he told reporters who travelled with the squad. "Of course this isn't ideal and we would have preferred to have flown, but you never know, maybe something like this can work in your favour. "The players are all happy, staying really positive, even though they might be a little tired."
Benitez is serious about winning the former Uefa Cup after seeing his team crash out of the Champions League at the group stage, a competition they are unlikely to qualify for next season. His side meet a rejuvenated Atletico, who have overcome a poor start to the season to be in contention for two cups. Safe in mid-table after an early relegation fright, they remain the only team to have beaten Barcelona in the league so far.
The rojiblancos have also reached the Spanish Cup final, although, while they are capable of beating the best, they are inconsistent and their cup endeavours have affected their recent league form, with three straight losses. Although he remains a student of the Spanish game and regularly recruits from his homeland, Benitez has spoken to Torres and Maxi Rodriguez, his two former Atletico players now at Anfield, about tonight's opponents.
"Maxi and Fernando have some friends there so we managed to get some information about them and we have ideas how to stop them," said Benitez. "Atletico are a very good offensive team, but while people always talk about Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan, they also have Simao and a good attacking mentality as a team." Liverpool have won on seven of their previous 13 visits to Spain and while Aguero is out of the first leg, his captain Antonio Lopez urges his team to be "a tough side to beat.
"Our most recent league results weren't what we would have hoped for but this is a different competition and we want to continue our path to the final," said the left- sided defender in the pre-match press conference. "It's going to be a tough encounter played at a solid rhythm but I foresee a beautiful match. And, once the game starts you can be sure the players won't be thinking of how they got to the stadium."
Nor will Liverpool have to worry about the return journey after the travel restrictions were lifted. They will fly back to England directly after the game. firstname.lastname@example.org Atletico Madrid v Liverpool, 11.05pm, Aljazeera Sport + 3 & +4