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Dec 10, 2009

Benitez puts top four above Europa League

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez will put qualifying for an immediate Champions League return to the top of his list of priorities after crashing out of the competition with their lowest ever points total.

The Premier League club already knew they could not make it through to the knockout stages, but succumbed to a late goal yet again to lose 2-1 at home to Fiorentina on Wednesday night, a result which cost them a seeding in the Europa League. Liverpool only beat Debrecen to finish on seven points.

Benitez knows that a failure to finish in the top four this season, and book a place in the Champions League next season, is unthinkable both in footballing and financial terms. And while he will look for a second European trophy of his tenure, he will be concentrating on domestic matters.

He said: "We will take it (the Europa League) seriously, but for us the main thing is to progress in the Premier League. To be in the top four.

"We do not play in the Europa League until February, so we will have plenty of time to concentrate on the Premier League. Another European competition is later.

"What has happened to us in the Champions League, the misfortunes, will be an experience the players will remember and it will give them strength and more determination to improve over the rest of the season.

"I hope that a new beginning, a new season, starts for us from this point. Now we must concentrate on Arsenal and try to do well on Sunday.

"This has been a very disappointing Champions League campaign. Two late goals in matches against Lyon changed everything, and now it has happened again against Fiorentina.

"We knew we could not progress before the game, but to lose another late goal was very disappointing for the team, for everyone.

"I would expect a different approach on Sunday against Arsenal. It is always difficult approaching a game like Fiorentina knowing that whatever you do you cannot change the situation, we were already out.''

The Spaniard attempted to take the positives from another setback against Fiorentina with the performance of Alberto Aquilani giving him the greatest satisfaction.

"Even though we lost, there were some good things to take into our next match. Alberto Aquilani and Fernando Torres both looked good, while Steven Gerrard is getting closer to full fitness,'' he said. "Gerrard is getting more games under his belt, Torres looked very positive and Aquilani played well and showed quality with his passes.

"It was also good to see young Danny Pacheco getting some time on the pitch in the first team, he is a young player of real potential. Both Torres and Aquilani are fit and will train hard for the rest of the week and they will be ready for the Arsenal match.''

Aquilani, who made his full debut against Fiorentina, hopes to now show the fans what he can do.

An ankle injury restricted the Italy international, who arrived in the summer after the departure of Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid, to just 22 minutes prior to this week's game.

"I started for the first time in seven or eight months in the first XI - that's very hard,'' he said. "After that length of time it's difficult to be fit but I'm happy because I'm playing and that means I'm getting there.

"My ankle is better, it's improved, so while the result was not good from a personal point of view it's been good physically. I can play better but it was important to start and to run because after seven months I need to play, play, play because I'm in a new team.

"There are very good players and they can help me. The [Fiorentina] game was important for the confidence when playing with Steven Gerrard, Javier Mascherano and the other players.

"The first half I was okay and then after that I got a little bit tired, but that's normal. I hope I can play against Arsenal. I am in the squad so I hope I can play more and improve my match fitness, because that is important.

"If you don't play the fitness is not good. The training is good but matches are different. I am ready but I don't know if I can play 90 minutes. But this match was important for improving.''

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