31 March 2010

Liverpool at Benfica 04.01.10

3:05pm ET, live in the US on DirecTV channel 462 (or in HD on 462-1). Delayed on GolTV at 8pm.

Last 3 matches:
Liverpool: 3-0 Sunderland (h); 1-2 United (a); 3-0 Lille (h)
Benfica: 1-0 Braga (h); 3-0 Porto (n); 2-1 Marseille (a)

Round of 16:
Liverpool: 3-0 Lille (h); 0-1 Lille (a)
Benfica: 2-1 Marseille (a); 1-1 Marseille (h)

Round of 32:
Liverpool: 3-1 Unirea (a); 1-0 Unirea (h)
Benfica: 4-0 Hertha (h); 1-1 Hertha (a)

Group Stage Results:
Liverpool: 1-2 Fiorentina (h); 1-0 Debrecen (a); 1-1 Lyon (a); 1-2 Lyon (h); 0-2 Fiorentina (a); 1-0 Debrecen (h)
Benfica: 2-1 AEK (h); 2-1 BATE (a); 2-0 Everton (a); 5-0 Everton (h); 0-1 AEK (a); 2-0 BATE (h) [Europa League]

Goalscorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Benayoun, Babel, Gerrard, Ngog, Torres 2; Kuyt, Mascherano 1
Benfica: Cardozo 7; Saviola 5; Di Maria 4; Maxi Pereira 2; Aimar, Coentrão, Javi García, Kardec, Luisão, Weldon 1

Referee: Jones Eriksson (SWE)

Guess at a squad:
Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Lucas Mascherano
Kuyt Gerrard Babel

This will assuredly be a typical European encounter. Away from home, Liverpool will try to control the tempo and contain Benfica, and hopefully make a break-through on the counter, spearheaded by the sparkling Torres.

For all those who want to see Liverpool as expansive and attack-minded as against Sunderland or Pompey, my reply is simple. Are you insane? If Benitez has earned any amount of trust, it’s in European competition, and memorable nights in Turin, London, Milan, and Madrid happened because of Rafa’s ‘conservatism.’ It’s even more crucial that Liverpool keep it tight with the first leg in Portugal.

It’s risk versus reward. And Benfica, who’ve scored more than 100 goals so far this season while conceding less than 10 at home in all competitions, pose more risk than any side Liverpool’s faced in either the CL or Europa League this season. Benitez will set up shop exactly as he did four years ago, when Benfica knocked Liverpool out of the Champions League in the round of 16, when Liverpool were defending champions. Let’s hope it turns out differently this time.

The only spot that seems up for grabs is left midfield – Babel or Benayoun. Yossi was seemingly rested on Sunday with an eye on tomorrow, but I’ve written more than enough words on why I’d like to see Babel continue to get chances.

The Aquilani brigade are set for another disappointment, with the Italian midfielder again ruled out, this time with an ankle injury (the same ankle that kept him out all autumn). Niggling injuries like these are exactly why he hasn’t featured as much as we’d all like – he’s just not fit yet, even after all this time.

The official site also has an instructive interview with Portuguese journalist Luis Pedro Ferreira:

“Benfica are having their best season in 16 years and it's no coincidence they have scored 104 goals in official matches in 2009-10.”

Well then. Di Maria, Saviola, Cardozo, Aimar, Ramires, just to name a few. I again refer you to Zonal Marking’s article titled “Benfica – the most attractive side in Europe?” Simply put, Benfica are a team that can and will punish you. They lead their league by six points, with 20 more goals than their closest competitor. They haven’t lost in 2010. And they have a full squad available, with no injuries to speak of. At the least, Rafa’s familiar with a number of their players, so Liverpool should be well aware of the dangers posed.

I really do think the key is to keep it tight. I’d be surprised if there are more than two goals combined in this game, despite the firepower. Liverpool will play for 1-0 or 0-0, and hope not to have more than a goal deficit to overturn at Anfield.

It’s worked before, against tougher opposition, and with Liverpool in worse form.

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