Second-leg comebacks at Anfield rank a close second to European Cup final victories in Liverpool folklore and Rafael Benitez's team must deliver another chapter on 8 March or the defence of the title they won so magnificently last season will founder on Ronald Koeman's continued assault on English football. On the evidence of their performance here last night that should be well within Liverpool's capability, but they require no reminder of the unpredictable nature of the European Cup.
Liverpool created little by way of gilt-edged goalscoring chances in Portugal, lacking the drive and inspiration of the injured Steven Gerrard for the opening 78 minutes, yet had produced an assured European away performance that augured well for the second leg until the towering Brazilian defender Luisao took advantage of pedestrian marking to head beyond Jose Reina in the 84th minute. It was the home side's second shot on target of the night and the first goal Liverpool have conceded in the tournament for 573 minutes.
The graveyard of Manchester United's Champions' League campaign also proved the scene of Liverpool's first European defeat outside the qualifying stages for 15 months but, unlike their Old Trafford rivals, they have the chance of a reprieve. To take it, they must finally add the clinical edge to their game that has been lacking for too long.
"I am confident for the second leg, otherwise I wouldn't go," said Benitez, who will have taken solace in a nervous Benfica defence, though his humour was not complimented by a furious expression. "It was a difficult game and it is not easy for the players to continue at a high tempo all the time, but in terms of controlling the game I am happy with the players. If we score one goal at Anfield then we start again, and with the supporters behind us we can score a second."
Liverpool should not be in this predicament at all, however. A 49-second booking for Luis Garcia set the tone for an opening punctured too often by the Austrian referee's whistle and a careless display by the Spanish midfielder, but otherwise Liverpool were superior to their Portuguese hosts and only under pressure once Benfica showed a marked improvement in the second half.
Alcides' foul on Harry Kewell provided the visitors with their first opportunity of the contest in the 14th minute, when Robbie Fowler, making his first European start for Liverpool since October 2001, back-heeled the subsequent free-kick from Xabi Alonso into a crowded goalmouth only for Luisao to scramble the ball clear. Ten minutes later it was the turn of Benfica's other central defender, Anderson, to rescue Koeman's team when the goalkeeper Moretto collided with Fowler and dropped a long throw by John Arne Riise in front of an empty net.
Only when Mohamed Sissoko caught a boot in the eye from Beto was Liverpool's confident rhythm in possession disrupted, with the Mali midfielder sustaining a serious injury. "He lost the vision in his eye and will have a scan in hospital," said Benitez, who elected not to play Gerrard after he sustained a dead leg against Manchester United in the FA Cup on Saturday. "Mohamed has suffered a very serious eye injury," the club said. "He will stay in hospital overnight for observation and tests along with the club doctor and a physio."
The major concern from the performance for Benitez was the ease with which Luisao turned the tie in the 84th minute. Benfica had recovered from a dreadful first-half display without unduly troubling Reina when Sissoko's replacement, Dietmar Hamann, was punished for a foul on fellow substitute Giorgos Karagounis. Petit lofted the free-kick to the far post and the Benfica centre-half drifted unchecked behind Sami Hyypia to head the only goal. "We had been talking about set pieces before the game and we saw videos of them doing exactly this free-kick," Benitez said. "It is a pity."
The Benfica winner prompted a nervous finale by the visitors but, while the hosts celebrated another English coup, Anfield will not fear the return. "Maybe we are favourites now," Koeman said. "But it will be difficult for us in Liverpool because of their experience. They have played a lot of big teams in the Champions' League and only lost to Benfica, who have already beaten Manchester United. Maybe we can do it again."
Benfica (4-2-3-1): Moretto; Alcides, Luisao, Anderson, Leo (Rocha, 87); Petit, Beto (Karagounis, 58); Robert (Nelson, 77), Manuel, Simao; Nuno Gomes. Substitutes not used: Quim (gk), Mantorras, Karyaka, Marcel.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise; Luis Garcia, Sissoko, Alonso, Kewell; Morientes (Gerrard, 78), Fowler (Cisse, 65). Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Crouch, Hamann, Traore, Warnock.
Referee: K Plautz (Austria).