Liverpool and Benfica played a surprisingly interesting second leg of their encounter in the quarterfinals of the Champions League at Anfield on Wednesday.
Following a 1-3 win last week at the Estadio da Luz, Liverpool believed they were certain to progress when Ibrahima Konate scored the opening goal in the 21st minute. The young French defender was the one who broke the deadlock in the first leg as well. Goncalo Ramos restored what seemed a brief moment of hope for Benfica in the 32nd, as Roberto Firmino struck twice after the break (55′, 65′) to move the Merseysiders far ahead. The visitors, however, refused to give up and after substitute Roman Yaremchuk pulled another one back in the 72nd, Darwin Nunez equalized with nine of the 90 left on the clock.
With two more Benfica goals needed to take the tie into extra time, it was too little, too late, from the Portuguese side, though indisputably valiant.
Well done Benfica
Much has been said about the talented team Nelson Verissimo has put together at Benfica. Odysseas Vlachodimos is an excellent goalkeeper; Nunez and Ramos are youngsters who might have a bright future in the game; Yaremchuk, Rafa Silva (missed this game through injury), Diogo Goncalves, Everton Soares and Julian Weigl are all players entering their prime years, and little needs to be said about the experience of Jan Vertonghen, Nicolas Otamendi or Adel Taarabt.
Progressing from the group ahead of Barcelona was no small feat in itself, and even though Ajax aren’t what they were once upon a time, getting past them in the knockout stages is rarely described as easy, as the likes of Real Madrid and Juventus are able to testify.
And yet, this Benfica team did both and then gave Liverpool a tough ride as well, and they’re leaving the competition with their heads held high.
The only regret they might have at this point is the fact that they now have next to nothing to play for until the start of the Championship qualifications for next season. They’re in third place in the Primeira Liga and practically have no chance of moving either up or down the ladder.
The Liverpool quality
If Benfica were so good, how come they lost?
It’s very simple – Liverpool were better.
The quality of the team put together, maintained and polished by Jurgen Klopp every year, is incredible. It should be said that this was practically their backup team, with the likes of Virgil van Dijk, Andy Robertson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Fabinho, Thiago Alcantara, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, all starting on the bench.
What’s more, neither of these two matches saw them play to the best of their ability.
Understandably so, given the challenges they currently face in the Premier League and the FA Cup. Yet they scored six goals in total, while wasting a large number of chances to inflict Benfica with heavy defeat.
Interestingly enough, it was after Klopp sent Fabinho, Thiago, Mane and Salah into the fray that the intensity of Liverpool’s performance dropped. Possibly they weren’t fully motivated, believing the tie to be settled when they came on and thinking about the weekend and Manchester City, but Kostas Tsimikas, Joe Gomez, James Milner and Naby Keita all worked very hard to prove themselves from the start.
For the first time in years, Liverpool can be said to be boasting considerable squad depth, and it could prove a vital asset between now and the end of the season.
Villarreal knocked out Bayern Munich in the tie relevant to this one. Many may have expected the Bavarians to make relatively light work of them, but the “Yellow Submarine” eventually emerged victorious, working out a 1-1 draw at the Allianz Arena after winning 1-0 in Spain.
It still seems better for Liverpool this way, but extreme caution is needed for this tricky semifinal clash. Unai Emery has built a good side, full of talent and tactically very shrewd. After all, Villarreal shoved Juventus aside before dealing with Bayern, and a team simply does not get there without superb quality.
It will likely be an emotional return to Anfield for one of Liverpool’s 2019 Champions League winners, Alberto Moreno, remembered by the Reds supporters as a likeable character but extremely prone to errors of judgement on the left defensive flank.
The other semifinal, played between Real Madrid and Manchester City, will likely attract more attention, but make no mistake, this one will be just as thrilling.
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