Rafael Benitez kept ash particles out of the equation but as the dust settled on the long and winding road to Madrid yesterday he reflected on the many acts of God that have made his season one of such fire and tempest.
"From the start of the season we have had too many things go against us," Benitez said. "Two of our central defenders clashed and both got injured; a beach ball was thrown on to the pitch by one of our supporters and influenced a result at a crucial moment of the season. You cannot fight against these things. It doesn't get you anywhere to blame bad luck. They happened because they happened and it is no good going back over things. But everything together has generated anxiety."
Benitez has a propensity for dredging up side issues before games like tonight's Europa League semi-final first leg against Atletico Madrid in the Vicente Calderon: he chose the eve of the quarter-final second leg to lament a failure to find new investment for the club. But his suggestion that Alberto Aquilani's fitness problems could not have been foreseen before his arrival from Roma was particularly questionable. "The slow recuperation of one of the players that arrived to reinforce the team," had, along with other injuries, "combined to stop us getting the results we wanted," Benitez said, carefully skirting around his £20m signing's name.
But for all his trials, Benitez awakes today in a city where his name is cherished. The esteem in which Benitez is held in Madrid, where he coached Real's B side, might seem curious to those familiar with his Premier League foibles, but he remains as popular a choice to replace Manuel Pellegrini as the next Bernabeu coach as Jose Mourinho. The two men were neck-and-neck in a recent poll of 40,000 people for Marca.
Benitez hardly declared an undying oath to Anfield when that topic cropped up. "It is always gratifying when your work is valued but every year names of coaches are linked with many clubs," he said. "I just keep working every day and then let's see what the future holds in the short, medium and long term. Right now things are very intense day to day and the honest thing to do is to give back to Liverpool and the fans everything we can."
For Liverpool to have reached the European semi-final that no Premier League representative could attain via the Champions League is recompense for an otherwise dismal season at Anfield and is a reminder of their European credentials. This is their 16th European semi, two more than Manchester United, while Chelsea (10) pale by comparison.
Atletico have also experienced an even lumpier season than Benitez's side. Quique Sanchez Flores' men are closer to the Primera Liga's relegation zone than the European spots. And while Benitez lacks Fernando Torres, the striker who captained tonight's opponents aged 19, Flores is without his suspended striker Sergio Aguero.
Flores' side have twice this season squeezed through Europa League knockout ties on away goals, and only got past Galatasaray thanks to an injury-time goal in the second leg. He believes his players must grab what optimism they can, because the tie will only be decided at Anfield. "I don't see any result possible that will give us peace of mind for the return," he reflected. "Playing at Anfield is always uncomfortable." Neither Spaniard has had it easy this season. Neither can afford another setback.Reuse content