Stadium switch 'unfair to our fans' says Benitez

Liverpool manager hits out over 'late' change of venue for Atletico match
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The Independent Football

The Liverpool manager, Rafael Benitez, has condemned the late switch in venue for his side's Champions League match with Atletico Madrid, calling it unfair on the club's fans.

The Reds were due to face Atletico at their Vicente Calderon stadium next Wednesday, but the Spanish club have been ordered to play at least 300 kilometres (188 miles) away from the capital as a result of crowd trouble during the match with Marseilles on 1 October.

Atletico have until midday tomorrow to appeal against their punishment, which also included a €150,000 (£117,000) fine, after Marseilles' players were racially abused during the Group D tie.

Uefa has expressed sympathy for the Liverpool supporters caught up in the turmoil, but its communications director, William Gaillard, yesterday insisted there was "no alternative" to the stadium ban. Benitez, however, is adamant the ruling from European football's governing body has come too late. "We know about the loyalty of our fans and we know about the incredible lengths they go to to support us," the Spaniard said yesterday.

"They have an incredible passion for the club, which means they follow us all over Europe at great expense and we always appreciate that. That is why we are so worried by this ruling. We can understand why Uefa feel they have to act, but in this case maybe this time it has come too late. To change the venue of the game at such a late stage would cause massive problems to our fans, and that is not fair."

The Liverpool striker Fernando Torres has spoken of his disappointment after hearing his much anticipated return to play at Atletico Madrid may be scuppered. "After so much time waiting, it is the worst and most unexpected news that I could have heard," said the 24-year-old, who joined Liverpool from Atletico last year. "I'm eager to go back. I don't know if it is definitive; I hope that a solution can be found. It is a shame that these incidents have forced the stadium to be closed, but if this is what happens then we have to accept it."

Atletico's former Liverpool forward Luis Garcia branded the punishment "excessive". "There will be complications after a punishment like this, I'm sure," he said. "The club and the fans will have a lot of trouble seeing the game against Liverpool if the punishment is confirmed. We have to accept it, but I think it's something that should be looked at carefully."

Atletico have also received the full backing of the Spanish government for their appeal. The incidents at the centre of the dispute included outbreaks of violence between Marseilles fans and Spanish police after the latter removed a banner that featured a prohibited symbol, as well as accusations from Marseilles officials and players that they had been racially abused by Atletico fans.

Spain's Minister of Interior Affairs, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, said: "I will defend the actions of the Spanish police and we will hand all the necessary material that we have available to Atletico so that they can present an appeal against this unusual decision." Soledad Mestre, a local government official, added: "The actions taken by the police were correct and proportionate in view of the violent behaviour by a section of Marseilles fans."

The Atletico Madrid president, Enrique Cerezo, reiterated his belief that the game would be played at the club's own ground. "I urge the fans to be calm because the game will be played at the Vicente Calderon," Cerezo said. "Any other decision would create a social, logistic and security problem. There is no other stadium available and we are convinced this game will be played here because Atletico has done nothing wrong."

Atletico believe they can prove there was no racial abuse towards Marseilles, and will present video footage to Uefa as evidence. "Atletico is a sensitive club against any type of discrimination," Cerezo continued. "At no time has a Uefa delegate or a referee reflected in their statements racist attitudes [from Atletico fans]. Some Olympique players said that in the opening 30 minutes of the game they heard racist insults but, having viewed the video, in those moments you cannot hear anything like that."