Benfica saved the pride at Anfield, while Liverpool retained the dreams of a seventh European crown and an unprecedented quadrupling. Jürgen Klopp will consider it a decent prey.
There was humility over Liverpool’s exit after the last whistle compared to jubilant scenes among Benfica fans who had a serenade for the distinguished Darwin Núñez and co after their late, VAR-shaped recovery.
Maybe the concentration failures, when they were comfortably ahead, played on Liverpool’s minds, or the knowledge that they should go again in the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City on Saturday, but they had reason to celebrate regardless.
A Champions League semi-final against Villarreal awaits Liverpool after a fluctuating match as a header from Ibrahima Konaté and a ball from Roberto Firmino increased the comfort of their 3-1 lead in the first leg. Benfica fought back from 3-1 down at night thanks to two late goals that were rejected for offside before being awarded by VAR.
Núñez had two other goals ruled out for offside. Their efforts were in vain. Liverpool march on to a 12th European Cup / Champions League semi-final, which is equivalent to Manchester United’s record for an English club, and remains confident on its way to a third Champions League final in five seasons under Klopp. On the two previous occasions, Liverpool defeated Benfica in the quarter-finals – 1978 and 1984 – they continued to lift the trophy.
Klopp is more concerned about practical matters than forwards and made seven changes from the team that started Sunday’s draw in City on the basis that the second match of the quarter-finals required the “freshest legs”. His schedule necessitates rotation, but there was no doubt the team sheet would have boosted Benfica’s hopes before the kick-off. They were only always slim hopes. This was Liverpool’s 200th European match at Anfield. Only seven of the previous 199 had ended up with a loss of two goals or more.
There was a minute of silence before the match in memory of the 97 Liverpool fans who were illegally killed in Hillsborough 33 years ago last Friday. It would be nice to report that it was impeccably observed, but a few idiotic individuals in the Benfica section who ignored the “shushes” that came from the majority around them decided otherwise.
With Mohamed Salah resting on the bench for the first time in a Champions League match this season, Klopp gave Luis Díaz the task of disrupting Benfica from the right. The former Porto winger once again impressed against his old rivals, with his pace, touch and direct movement a constant thorn in the visitors’ defense. A threaded ball from Jordan Henderson allowed Díaz to exchange passes with Firmino before flying to the sideline and crossing dangerously into the Benfica goal. Goalkeeper Odisseas Vlachodimos, who was injured moments earlier as he bravely saved at the feet of Diogo Jota, fumbled under pressure from James Milner but got in time to knock the loose ball away from Firmino. Liverpool remained on the attack and opened the scoring with a repeat of their first goal at the Estádio da Luz.
Kostas Tsimikas, who started in place of Andy Robertson, swung a corner into the Benfica area, where Konaté rose over a statue of Jan Vertonghen and Nicolás Otamendi to head into Vlachodimos’ left corner. Konaté had opened his Liverpool account in a similar style eight days ago. No homework had been drawn in the Benfica defense.
However, there were warning signs for Liverpool. Everton curled a shot just past Alisson’s top corner in the opening minutes and Núñez thought he had canceled out Konaté’s header with an exquisite chip over the Liverpool goalkeeper. However, the dangerous center-forward was offside as he drove on to Everton’s pass. Benfica became more confident on the ball, encouraged by some loose Liverpool play, and equalized for the first time on the night when Gonçalo Ramos beat Alisson with a convincing finish. Liverpool looked to VAR to save them with an offside call against Ramos, but Milner, who challenged Diogo Gonçalves in midfield, had inadvertently played the goal-scorer through.
Liverpool should have restored their lead before the break, but Firmino delayed a pass to an unmarked Díaz and gave Alejandro Grimaldo time to sweep free. The Colombian national team player was far from impressed. The Brazilian corrected with two goals in quick succession early in the second half.
His first was a chaos from a Portuguese perspective. Near Keïta set off with a piercing pass against Díaz. Vlachodimos arrived first, but the goalkeeper, who was impressive in the first leg, fumbled once more and forced Vertonghen to a desperate clearing, which he cut to Jota. The Liverpool striker nerded his shot over goal, but Firmino was ready to convert to an empty goal.
Firmino’s second was a controlled volley at the back post from a free kick from Tsimikas that sailed over the Benfica defense. Liverpool ran into the final four and shut down as a result. Benfica substitute Roman Yaremchuk was marked offside after receiving Julian Weigl’s pass, rounded Alisson and rolled into an unguarded net. VAR discovered he had been played onside by Joe Gomez and Benfica had a lifeline in the game, if not a draw. A third followed in a similar fashion. Núñez’s cool finish after collecting a long ball out of defense was rejected and then awarded after a lengthy VAR review.
The Uruguay striker struck again in the 95th minute, but this time he was offside. Liverpool’s search continues.