Liverpool put one foot in Champions League semi-finals after Luis Diaz downs Benfica

Benfica 1-3 Liverpool: The former Porto winger scored late on against his old rivals to ensure the Reds of a comfortable lead to take into the second leg

Mark Critchley
Estadio da Luz
Tuesday 05 April 2022 22:57
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Liverpool successfully navigated this first of four matches that could decide their hopes of an unprecedented quadruple, even though it briefly threatened to be an archetypal game of two halves. Luis Diaz’s late goal and some timely second-half substitutions broke Benfica’s second half resurgence at the Estadio da Luz to secure a win that was deserved on the overall balance of play.

As it is, Jurgen Klopp’s team will go into the second leg of this Champions League quarter-final with a comfortable though not entirely commanding two-goal advantage to protect, with Diaz adding to strikes by Ibrahima Konate and Sadio Mane during a one-sided first half. It would be a mixed night for Konate, though, whose mistake led to Darwin Nunez’s reply.

It said everything about the delicate balancing act that Klopp has to strike over these next few weeks that, in those moments when Benfica’s backs were up, Mohamed Salah was sacrificed as part of a triple substitution on the hour mark. Mane was also replaced but those changes steadied the ship and earned both some rest before Sunday’s trip to Manchester City.

One foot in the semi-finals? Perhaps. Diaz’s late contribution on his return to Portugal probably makes Klopp’s selections for next week’s second leg somewhat easier, potentially allowing others to be rested before that FA Cup semi-final. It was an important goal, scored after rounding goalkeeper Odysseus Vlachodimos, and crafted by a surging run through midfield by the excellent Naby Keita.

In a week when Liverpool’s non-fungible token made a less than impressive debut, Keita, Fabinho and Thiago started together as a midfield three for the first time and it is fair to say this NFT launch was more successful. Keita had an immediate impact on proceedings, linking play on the edge of the box and turning up late in it as Liverpool made a flying start full of attempts on goal.

Thousands of travelling supporters were left queuing outside during those opening stages and missed how Keita, Mane and Mohamed Salah could have scored three between them. Benfica were countering at speed, which contributed to a febrile atmosphere even without all the fans inside. Yet given the volume of chances Liverpool were creating, it felt inevitable that the Estadio da Luz would soon be silenced.

It came from a corner, swung in from the left by Andy Robertson, then headed in at the far post by Konate for his first Liverpool goal. The centre-half, trusted ahead of Joel Matip, may have only been on Merseyside less than a year but is already used to rising above Everton, and lost the Benfica winger by the same name before converting at close range. It was a devastatingly simple goal to score and a poor one to concede.

Ibrahima Konate celebrates scoring the opener

The tempo, unrelenting before the goal, still refused to let up. Liverpool kept pushing, while Benfica were making the most of some heroics by their goalkeeper Odysseus Vlachodimos by threatening in brief moments. One corner passed perilously through the Liverpool box after Nicolas Otamendi had narrowly failed to make a connection. Yet a minute later, Liverpool had made good on their dominance and doubled their lead in style.

It is hard to say which was better. Alexander-Arnold’s magnificent switch of play which ended a midfield battle in an instant, or Luis Diaz’s diving header back across goal which left Mane with a simple tap-in. Benfica’s attention was pulled from the halfway line, to the left-hand side and then to the right the space of a few seconds, in a classic Klopp counter-attack that should have put this tie to bed. That it did not is to the credit of Nelson Verissimo’s side.

Liverpool celebrate after Sadio Mane scored their second goal

Benfica were offered a route back into the contest by Konate’s error at the very start of the second half and ensured they would take it. The scorer of Liverpool’s opening goal had misjudged Rafa Silva’s low cross, allowing it to run under his feet and find Nunez. One of the most sought after strikers in Europe was not going to miss from six yards out, yet still finished emphatically past a helpless Alisson.

Liverpool needed to take their medicine, recover and control proceedings as they had before the break but the Estadio da Luz was bouncing. Nunez was beginning to find the ball with greater regularity too, seeing a shot from distance and header straying off-target, but Alisson was forced into a vital, parried save by Everton shortly after, with Fabinho cleaning up the afters. Immediately, Klopp made that triple substitution.

The changes helped and Benfica’s momentum was broken. Nunez briefly believed he had exposed Liverpool’s high line and wanted a penalty for pull by Virgil van Dijk, though had strayed offside. Other than that, though, and a Van Dijk air-kick on his own halfway line, the resistance was quelled, leaving Keita and Diaz to expose the gaps left by their increasingly desperate opponents and make Liverpool heavy favourites to progress.

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