There seemed to be a trace of black Liverpool humour in Jamie Carragher's comment as his club unveiled their 2010-11 kit yesterday that "we always like the shirts you can win something in". But 135 days after Liverpool's season reached a nadir as they were eliminated from Champions League football on a wretched, wet night in Debrecen, they had the last laugh last night on the so-called English elite who left them behind back then.
While all those others have perished in the elite tournament, this display of clinical counter-attacking football means Liverpool are the ones still standing. Other Premier League sides may have just as little interest in what Steven Gerrard once called the Champions League's "ugly kid brother" as Benitez did, when he was first plunged into a trip to Unirea while Sir Alex Ferguson prepared for Milan. But Europe might end up papering over the domestic failings after all for Liverpool, whose semi-final against Atletico Madrid, the club that made Torres their captain and saw him on his way, provides the continent with one of the most colourful of this year's last-four ties.
The quarter-final had many of those qualities, too, pitching Liverpool against a side unbeaten in 27 games, and to hear Benfica's coach, Jorge Jesus, whose Portuguese champions-elect were seven goals better than Everton across the course of two matches last autumn, declare Liverpool to have been too strong and fast for them on the counter-attack, will have restored some pride around Anfield today. Yet with the victory comes the haunting question of why Liverpool have so often lacked the consistency to maintain the momentum from wins like this.
Fernando Torres' extraordinary affinity with Anfield will certainly continue. He has scored 49 goals in 59 home games now and is the first Liverpool player to net twice in four consecutive home games. A question for Benitez is whether his talisman has the strength to make it through the next six weeks. For all the criticism the manager received for substituting him at Birmingham last weekend, he looked unfit here and had problems with his knee at the start of the game.
That was when Benfica were beginning like the cavalry, uncowed by an Anfield atmosphere, burnished by the controversial manner of Liverpool's 2-1 first-leg defeat at Estadio da Luz, and Liverpool's only way out of their own half was the occasional long punt up to Torres. The turning point was a moment of pandemonium. Kuyt, who hadn't scored since February, headed home Steven Gerrard's 28th-minute corner and was adjudged offside by a linesman. Benitez stormed around waving one finger to indicate that since no player had touched the ball before it reached his goalscorer, he could not have been offside. The official seemed to have thought Sotirios Kyrgiakos had flicked the ball to Kuyt in an offside position but referee Bjorn Kuipers overruled him and the goal stood.
If it was an echo of the quarter-final here nine years ago in which the Spanish referee Jose Garcia-Aranda lost control of a second leg against Roma which saw Gérard Houllier's side progress in the year they won the trophy, it was also the moment which released some of Liverpool's nerves.
Six minutes later Gerrard sent through Lucas Leiva to navigate the ball beyond the dive of Julio Cesar for only his fifth goal in 115 appearances for Benitez. The fine line between triumph and disaster – always there with Liverpool with their suspect defence and imperious striker – came just short of the hour when Glen Johnson missed Angel di Maria's corner but Javier Mascherano gathered it and set in train a wonderful, counter-attacking move involving Yossi Benayoun, then Kuyt whose cross Torres pounced upon.
The goal which always looked to be in Benfica came 20 minutes from time from the right-footed free-kick of Oscar Cardozo. But another counter-attacking move started by Mascherano and finished by Torres saw Liverpool home. The last time Liverpool beat Benfica 4-1 in a quarter final was in the European Cup of 1983-84, which they went on to win. They can only hope.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1) Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Kyrgiakos, Agger; Mascherano, Lucas; Kuyt, Gerrard (Aquilani, 87), Benayoun (El Zhar, 90); Torres (Ngog, 86). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Degen, Ayala, Pacheco.
Benfica (4-4-1-1) Cesar (Moreira, 79); Amorim, Luisao, Sidnei, Luiz; Martins (Kardec, 66), Garcia Ramires, Aimar (Coentrao, 86); Di Maria; Cardozo. Substitutes not used: Airton, Pereira, Menezes, Luis.
Referee: B Kuipers (Netherlands).
Europa League: Semi-final draw
Hamburg v Fulham, Atletico Madrid v Liverpool
Ties to be played 22 & 29 April
Final: Wednesday, 12 May 2010 (HSH Nordbank Arena, Hamburg)Reuse content