The pain of relinquishing his grip on the European Cup is not yet over for Steven Gerrard, who must travel to Paris tomorrow for the official unveiling of the new Champions' League trophy in his capacity as the captain of the now deposed holders of the title.
"The last thing I want is to be standing next to the trophy knowing someone else is going to be picking it up in May. If that happens, I'll be gutted," he had confessed yesterday. Yet while Liverpool are certain of their captain's future, the same cannot be said of their manager after Benfica brought Rafael Benitez's continental reign to a chastening conclusion at Anfield last night.
Benitez had promised that Liverpool would deliver the two-goal triumph they needed to reach the quarter-finals. Instead, it was Ronald Koeman's resilient and clinical Benfica team who delivered the scoreline Liverpool so desperately craved to leave the champions dethroned and even more fearful of the temptations that are likely to come the Spaniard's way from Real Madrid and Internazionale this summer. When they next make a promise at Anfield, specifically regarding Benitez's transfer budget, they cannot afford to fail again.
European nights never fail to stir Anfield passions, and the greater the challenge confronting their team the finer the response. It therefore helped Liverpool's belligerent psyche when Sami Hyypia failed a fitness test on a tight hamstring before kick-off and John Arne Riise was discovered to have suffered a thigh strain in the weekend draw with Charlton that will keep the Norwegian out for three weeks. In their place came Djimi Traoré, a man guaranteed to hasten palpitations whenever he gains possession, and the robust Stephen Warnock, who revelled in the occasion despite having his shins raked in the 45th second by Laurent Robert, a foul that brought the former Newcastle sulk a swift yellow card.
The makeshift Liverpool defence was barely tested in an opening half-hour during which those players in whom Benitez had placed his apparently unjustified faith, Fernando Morientes and Luis Garcia, repaid their compatriot with rare displays of imagination and commitment. With a more direct approach than at the Estadio da Luz, the home side left the Benfica defence and, in particular, the towering Luisao, whose 84th-minute goal had separated the sides in Portugal, completely dishevelled. Yet even with their opponents in this state, and with 10 chances created inside the opening 25 minutes, Liverpool's attack could not prosper.
Before bearing the brunt of the Kop's frustration and being booked for diving inside the penalty area, Peter Crouch struck the outside of the post with an 11th-minute effort that deflected off the full-back Leo. He later headed a Gerrard corner against the same piece of woodwork.
Garcia profited regularly down the right flank and, though he blazed wildly over after a flowing move involving Xabi Alonso and Morientes, his endeavours enabled Liverpool to maintain almost constant pressure. Their dominance, and patience, turned in the 25th minute when Harry Kewell and Gerrard combined to release Crouch in behind the Benfica defence only for the England international to shoot dismally straight at the goalkeeper Moretto. Portuguese belief was suddenly transformed.
Moments later Geovanni struck the crossbar with an exquisite bicycle kick, their first genuine chance, and then, in the 36th minute, Simao Sabrosa illustrated exactly why Benitez has pursued him throughout the last two transfer windows when he swept Benfica in front from 25 yards. The opportunity arose out of a slip by Traoré, and when Jamie Carragher failed to clear under pressure from Geovanni the visiting captain took possession on the left, one step inside Steve Finnan, and curled an outstanding finish into the top corner of Jose Reina's goal.
A goal down at the break and requiring three goals to progress, Liverpool found their predicament now identical to that which confronted them at home to Olympiakos in last season's group stages. Then, unsung substitutes Neil Mellor and Florent Sinama-Pongolle reduced the deficit that Gerrard so emphatically closed six minutes from time, but last night their more illustrious and expensive replacements lacked the quality to record another memorable comeback.
If anything, Liverpool's performance deteriorated amid their second-half desperation, in contrast to Benfica's improved composure. Alonso tested Moretto from distance while Crouch could not stretch to meet Gerrard's inviting delivery and Robbie Fowler, their finest finisher, arrived on the field with only 20 minutes remaining. It was not enough and, in the 89th minute, Fabrizio Miccoli confirmed their exit with an overhead kick past Reina from close range. The Kop applauded generously, but the holders' fate had been sealed long before.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Traoré, Warnock (Hamann, 70); Garcia, Gerrard, Alonso, Kewell (Cissé, 63); Morientes (Fowler, 70), Crouch. Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Hyypia, Anderson, Barragan.
Benfica (4-2-3-1): Moretto; Alcides, Luisao, Anderson, Leo; Fernandes, Beto; Robert (Rocha, 70), Gomes (Miccoli, 76), Simao; Geovanni (Karagounis, 60). Substitutes not used: Quim (gk), Karyaka, Marcel, Nelson.
Referee: M De Santis (Italy).Reuse content