The first matches of the Champions League quarterfinals this season were played on Tuesday evening. Manchester City managed to squeeze a solitary goal past Atletico Madrid after a long struggle at the Etihad, courtesy of Kevin De Bruyne. And in Lisbon, at the Estadio da Luz, Liverpool emerged triumphant against Benfica, with a tangible advantage to take back to the north-west of England.
Ibrahima Konate opened the scoring with a fine header in the 17th minute, and Sadio Mane added the second in the 34th after a brilliant pass from Trent Alexander-Arnold, headed back across by Luis Diaz. The former FC Porto winger got on the scoresheet himself in the 87th, but not before Darwin Nunez capitalized on a Konate mistake to hive the hosts some brief hope in the 49th.
It will have been a night of mixed emotions for the 21-year-old centre-back. The goal he scored was his first in a Liverpool shirt, and what a time to do it – the opening goal of the Champions League quarterfinals.
Overall, Konate had an excellent game. He was in constant duels with Nunez, and for the most part, he was fully up to the task and dominated the Benfica striker. Fast, tall and extremely strong, he proved time and again how difficult it is to play against him.
There are, of course, things in his game that need improvement; it would’ve been very strange if there weren’t given his age. It’s hard for a player of his frame (1.94m, 95kg) to control the ball the way players less in size mostly do, and he sometimes exhibits a lack of composure, which tends to go away with experience.
Both of these problems were on show in that 49th minute when Rafa Silva’s low cross somehow went right through him and found Nunez on the six-yard line. So that’s a goal and an error leading to a goal for Konate, but he should certainly be commended on the way he bounced back from that mistake and carried on playing well for the rest of the match. Further more, it seems he shoulders responsibility quite well.
Nunez has been linked with a number of top clubs across Europe ahead of the summer transfer window, and Liverpool are one of them. If the Merseysiders are truly interested in his services, then this was a very good opportunity for him to show Jurgen Klopp and his staff first-hand what he is capable of.
The talent is there, that much was clear from the start. The 22-year-old showed enviable dribbling skills. Every member of Liverpool’s back four was tested in that way at least once. His movement is smart, obviously well thought through with the aim of dragging defenders out of position to open up space for teammates. And he doesn’t shy away from a challenge.
However, if there was one thing that didn’t exactly leave the best of impressions, it was Nunez’s tendency to go down quite easily under the slightest of contacts, and then wave towards the referee, expecting a foul to be given. To his dismay, referee Jesus Gil from Spain allowed much of his tussles with Konate to fly, refusing to blow the whistle for every pinch, push or a shove.
If the young Uruguayan does indeed intend to move to the Premier League this summer, he’ll surely have to give these things up and fight properly for every ball, or risk failing miserably in the English top flight, despite his obvious talent that could otherwise take him very far in the near future.
The modern football requires the fullbacks to be involved in attack as much as humanly possible, and there’s probably no coach in the world who demands this more than Liverpool’s Klopp. Together with Mo Salah, Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson form the top three assist providers in the Premier League this season, and it’s not very hard to see why.
Robertson is extremely good at running forward down the left and whipping in useful crosses, but with all due respect to the Scotland captain, Alexander-Arnold is on a level of his own. A right-back, completely measuring up to the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Bruno Fernandes in terms of creativity.
Granted, Alexander-Arnold did start his football journey in the club’s youth setup as a midfielder, but still, the way his eye and foot work to unlock opposition defences is incredible. ‘Foot’ here mostly refers to his right, but it’s no big secret that the England international has a fine left foot as well.
He sent his attackers running suddenly goalwards on a number of occasions in this match, but the pass for Diaz which preceded Mane’s goal was an absolute thing of beauty. Anyway, all of them are worth seeing a few more times.
There have been some misses along the way, but Liverpool have been incredibly efficient when it comes to signing players since Klopp arrived to the dugout. Diaz is the latest hit, in every sense of the word.
The Colombian winger is electric, with pace to burn, great dribbling skills, loads of audacity and a fine right foot when it comes to firing from range. He’s also progressing well in terms of understanding his teammates and fitting in with Klopp’s tactical ideas.
Having played for Porto for two and a half years, the 25-year-old had a strong motive going
into this clash. The crowd in the stands felt it and they responded with boos whenever he touched the ball and jeers if something didn’t quite come off the way he wanted it to.
That, however, only seemed to make him stronger and more determined to make a difference, and a difference he certainly made, assisting Mane for Liverpool’s second goal and scoring the third himself.
The second leg ahead
It was overall a very successful evening for Liverpool, though the more cautious among their supporters will warn that the job is not done yet. There is still the second leg to think about.
On the other hand, it’s not very realistic to expect Benfica to overturn a two-goal deficit at Anfield, regardless of the fact that Inter Milan came closer to doing it in the previous round than would have been thought likely. Liverpool will have learned their lesson from that encounter and seek to keep the situation under control from start to finish.
Meanwhile, Liverpool will have arguably bigger things to worry about at this point. The win in Lisbon will be a welcome slack, allowing the team to focus now on what awaits them at the Etihad on Sunday – a potential Premier League title decider against Manchester City.
Klopp will be very happy that Fabinho suffered no lasting harm from his head clash with former City defender Nicolas Otamendi towards the end, as the Brazilian defensive midfielder is arguably the only player in the Liverpool squad without a natural replacement.
As for Benfica, reaching the quarterfinals of the Champions League is obviously a success for this team, and if they fail to pull off a miracle in the second leg, they will leave the competition with heads held high. Getting out of the group ahead of Barcelona is never a small feat, as well as getting past Ajax in the round of 16.
When all said and done, Nelson Verissimo will be happy with what his team have achieved. Now their task to make sure they play in the Champions League again next season, though as things stand, they’ll probably have to go through the qualification process to get there.
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