Liverpool win 5-3 on aggregate.
Johnson Carragher Kyrgiakos Agger
Kuyt Gerrard Benayoun
Torres 58’ 82’
It may have taken a backs-against-the-wall European night, but we finally saw Liverpool at its best. They may have beaten lesser teams by bigger margins, but this was a perfect performance in which every player seemed at his peak against very good opposition.
For the first ten minutes, it looked as if Benfica were the home side, playing keep-away while threatening from a couple of set players. But Liverpool steadied for over the next 10 minutes, and struck with two excellent goals in subsequent 15. A perfect start to say the least.
It looked as if Liverpool would get another backhand from a referee when Kuyt’s carbon copy of his winner against Everton was initially ruled out for offside. Evidently, the linesman wrongly assumed Kyrgiakos got a touch on Gerrard’s corner. But Kuipers mercifully overruled, giving Liverpool the aggregate edge thanks to the same lovely rule that sent United packing yesterday.
And seven minutes later, Liverpool’s other scapegoat popped up. Predictably, I can’t express how happy I am for Lucas, and not solely because I frequently defend the player. Hell, I guessed he wouldn’t start today because I thought Liverpool needed more dynamic runs from midfield. Shows what I know.
Initially, I thought it was Torres that tallied the second. Gerrard’s perfect throughball split the defense, allowing Lucas to dash forward and round the keeper in a precise replication of the striker’s cool finishing. And nine minutes later, it was Lucas who prevented a leveler, clearing off the line after Sidnei dangerously centered a corner back across.
After this season’s multiple misfortunes, it would have no surprise to see Liverpool slowly retreat in the second half, protecting their narrow advantage. But the home side continued to press forward for a third. The open game certainly didn’t help the nerves, but the third came less than 13 minutes after the restart from a lightning counter attack. Of course it was Torres.
Liverpool charged out of their own half after Johnson cleared Martins’ free kick, ending with Benayoun spreading out wide to Kuyt open on the right. The pass looked a step too far for the Dutchman, but Kuyt’s diving center put it on a plate for Torres. Both the second and third goals were classic Liverpool, a quality that’s been missing far too often this season.
Liverpool had a stranglehold on the opposition until the 70th minute, with Carragher, Kyrgiakos, and Mascherano snuffing out absolutely everything, until Cardozo’s 20-yard free kick. In a dangerous position after a “foul” by Kuyt, the striker’s shot snuck under a leaping Gerrard, beating Reina. It might have been Liverpool’s first mistake of the game – as well as Cardozo's first real threat – but it certainly made the last 20 minutes look terribly frightening.
Another Cardozo free kick from the same position six minutes later sucked all the air out of Anfield, just curling wide and into the side netting. Di Maria’s subsequent corner nearly proved just as treacherous, but eluded Cardozo and other on-rushing attackers.
Unlike in all too many matches over the last eight months, Liverpool heads never dropped. The team rarely looked cautious or uncertain. What a difference something as simple as confidence makes. An injury to Julio Cesar, probably incurred battling with Kuyt on a corner, took the sting out of Benfica’s modest momentum, and that man Torres sealed the deal in the 82nd after another highlight-reel counter.
Lucas’ fantastic tackle went straight to Gerrard, who found Mascherano with one touch. Masch continued the quick movement, sumptuously chipping over the defense, putting Torres one-on-one with Moreira. Tough position to be in for your first shot on goal, and Torres made his chip over the keeper look effortless. Maybe 4-1 is a harsh scoreline, but Liverpool deserves every reward for today’s match.
You have to wryly smile at how unerring Benitez’s tactics were today. One good game against very good opposition doesn’t make up for the totality of this year’s disappointments, but you have to believe that this is exactly what Benitez hoped for and expected from this XI. It's about time.
For once, Lucas and Mascherano wasn’t a conservative pairing, evidenced by the lovely second goal brilliantly set-up by the captain. Kuyt tallied a goal and assist, with his pass to Torres much more difficult than it looked. Agger did very well on the left, although admittedly, he wasn’t challenged as often as I thought he’d be; Ramires is more a central midfielder than a right-winger, which fed into Agger’s proclivity to drift inside. Di Maria was kept quiet for long stretches, while both Aimar and Martins had far less influence than in the away leg, mostly due to Mascherano’s fearsome patrolling. Cardozo rarely had a sniff, marshaled by Carragher and Kyrgiakos. And, finally, Torres and Gerrard were Torres and Gerrard. The captain’s shown marked improvement in the last two matches, while Torres notched twice. Let’s hope he keeps that up against his old club in the next round, with a trip to Atletico imminent.
Again, it’s one game. But that truly was a great one.