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Saturday, Feb 04, 2023

Liverpool to face Villarreal in semi-final after thrilling draw with Benfica

Liverpool reached the last four of the Champions League after an entertaining 3-3 draw with Benfica in the second leg of the quarter-final at Anfield
Benfica salvaged pride at Anfield whereas Liverpool preserved dreams of a seventh European crown and unprecedented quadruple. Jürgen Klopp will consider it a decent exchange.

There was humility to Liverpool’s exit after the final whistle in comparison to jubilant scenes among Benfica fans who serenaded the classy Darwin Núñez and co following their late, VAR-shaped recovery.

Perhaps the lapses in concentration when comfortably ahead were playing on Liverpool minds, or the knowledge they must go again in the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City on Saturday, but they had cause for celebration regardless.

A Champions League semi-final against Villarreal awaits Liverpool following a fluctuating contest when a header from Ibrahima Konaté and a brace from Roberto Firmino extended the comfort of their 3-1 first leg lead. Benfica fought back from 3-1 down on the night courtesy of two late goals that were disallowed for offside before being awarded by VAR.

Núñez also 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, equalling Manchester United’s record for an English club, and remain confidently on course for 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 went on to lift the trophy.

Klopp is more concerned by practicalities than omens and made seven changes from the team that started Sunday’s draw at City on the basis the quarter-final second leg demanded the “freshest legs”. His schedule necessitates rotation but there was no doubt the team sheet will have raised Benfica’s hopes before kick off. They were only ever slender hopes. This was Liverpool’s 200th European game at Anfield.

Only seven of the previous 199 had ended in a loss of two goals or more.

There was a minute’s silence before the game in memory of the 97 Liverpool fans who were unlawfully killed at Hillsborough 33 years ago this Friday. It would be nice to report that it was impeccably observed but a few moronic individuals in the Benfica section, ignoring the “shushes” that came from the majority around them, decided otherwise.

With Mohamed Salah rested on the bench for the first time in a Champions League game this season Klopp tasked Luis Díaz with troubling Benfica from the right. The former Porto winger again impressed against his old rivals, with his pace, touch and direct movement a constant thorn in the visitors’ defence. A threaded ball from Jordan Henderson enabled Díaz to exchanges passes with Firmino before darting to the by-line and crossing dangerously into the Benfica goalmouth. Goalkeeper Odisseas Vlachodimos, injured moments earlier when saving bravely at the feet of Diogo Jota, fumbled under pressure from James Milner but recovered in time to claw the loose ball away from Firmino. Liverpool remained on the attack and opened the scoring with a repeat of their first goal at Estádio da Luz.

Kostas Tsimikas, starting in place of Andy Robertson, swung a corner into the Benfica area where Konaté rose above a statuesque Jan Vertonghen and Nicolas Otamendi to head inside Vlachodimos’ left hand corner. Konaté had opened his Liverpool account in similar style eight days ago. Lessons had not been learned in the Benfica defence.

There were warning signs for Liverpool, however. Everton curled a shot just wide of Alisson’s top corner in the opening minutes and Núñez thought he had cancelled out Konaté’s header with an exquisite chip over the Liverpool goalkeeper. The dangerous centre-forward was offside when racing through on to Everton’s pass, however. Benfica were growing more confident on the ball, encouraged by some loose Liverpool play, and levelled for the first time on the night when Goncalo Ramos beat Alisson with a convincing finish. Liverpool looked to VAR to save them with an offside call against Ramos but Milner, challenging Diogo Goncalves in midfield, had inadvertently played the goalscorer through.

Liverpool should have restored their lead before the interval but Firmino delayed a pass to an unmarked Díaz and gave Alejandro Grimaldo time to sweep clear. The Colombia international was far from impressed. The Brazilian made amends with two goals in quick succession early in the second half.

His first was a shambles from a Portuguese perspective. Naby Keïta instigated the move with a piercing pass towards Díaz. Vlachodimos arrived first but the goalkeeper, impressive in the first leg, fumbled once again and forced Vertonghen into a desperate clearance that he sliced to Jota. The Liverpool striker scuffed his shot across goal but Firmino was on hand to convert into an empty net.

Firmino’s second was a controlled volley at the back post from a Tsimikas free-kick that sailed over the Benfica defence. Liverpool were coasting into the last four and switched off as a result. Benfica substitute Roman Yaremchuk was flagged offside after receiving Julian Weigl’s pass, rounding Alisson and rolling into an unguarded net. VAR spotted he had been played onside by Joe Gomez and Benfica had a lifeline in the game, if not the tie. A third followed in similar fashion. Núñez’s cool finish after collecting a long ball out of defence was disallowed and then awarded after a lengthy VAR review.

The Uruguay forward struck again in the 95th minute but this time he was offside. Liverpool’s quest continues.

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