Liverpool v Benfica, Europa League quarter-final second leg, April 8, 2010
If Liverpool had beaten Birmingham last weekend, instead of drawing 1-all at St Andrews, the atmosphere around their second leg quarter final with Benfica would likely have been very different. All of a sudden the Merseysiders would have been right in the thick of things for grabbing fourth spot in the Premier League, and the idea of winning the Europa League too would have been the cherry on the top of what for so long looked a doomed season.
As it is though, the stalemate with the Blues left the Reds’ red-faced. Liverpool are just about still in the hunt for a Champions League berth via the league, but they trail Manchester City and Tottenham as time begins to run out. That feels like it’s had a knock-on effect as the Eagles prepare to land at Anfield, and once again the Europa League looks like the booby-prize of shame for the Scousers.
“We’ll try to do our best to progress on Thursday. The Europa League now is a very, very important trophy for us and we have to win against Benfica,” said Rafa Benitez. It just all sounds so forced.
2-1 down from the first leg in Portugal, Liverpool will be searching for a similar performance to the one they handed Lille in the last round of the competition. Accordingly, the Reds will be looking for a high tempo from the get-go, while hoping that Fernando Torres, who scored an excellent seven goals in March, can help put the hosts on the scoreboard early in the contest.
Netting both first and early against Benfica will be key to Liverpool progressing to the semi-finals, and restoring belief that the club are not destined for implosion this season. The fallout from Rafa Benitez’s decision to withdraw El Nino at Birmingham on Saturday has left a black cloud over the club, and the need to lift the doom and gloom is paramount.
It is important to note though, that Liverpool’s squad is far better than many of their performances and results have shown this season. A spine containing Pepe Reina, Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger, Javier Mascherano, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres is as strong as most in the Premier League. But all of those players, with the exception of Reina, have struggled at various points of the season with form and fitness (or both).
It is then that the back-up men have been found wanting. Players such as Dirk Kuyt (who has particularly gone off the boil in the past month) and Yossi Benayoun, for example, have failed to replicate the form which made them such valuable assets last season. They may have netted 17 goals between them this season, but Liverpool’s overall contribution from wide areas has been average at best.
Goalscoring has also been a sore spot for Liverpool this campaign. Torres may have 20 goals in all competitions this season, and Gerrard joined Kuyt in double figures with his strike at Birmingham, but elsewhere there has beenÂ no one taking responsibility. Lucas Leiva, unfairly victimised by many, is yet to trouble the scorers this season, while Javier Mascherano’s solitary strike came in the Europa League at Unirea Urziceni. The likes of Benayoun, Ryan Babel (suspended) and Maxi Rodriguez (cup-tied) need to add a more consistent end product to their respective talents.
Turning to the Portuguese side, Liverpool’s main silver-lining is that Benfica are more interested in winning the Liga Sagres for the first time since 2005, having seen their bitter rivals Porto walk off with the title in the subsequent four seasons, than the Europa League. (2.12 for either a Benfica win or a draw.)
Benfica have confirmed that Javier Saviola will miss Thursdayâ€™s Europa League quarter-final second leg against Liverpool at Anfield. The Argentina international has a broken toe and is expected to be out for up to three weeks. Benfica could also be without Luisao as the Brazilian centre-half is struggling with a knee problem.
Even with those absentees, Benfica boast a host of other top talent. Up-top, bulky striker Oscar Cardoza leads the sideâ€™s scoring charts, while in the middle of the park they have the creative genius Argentina’s Angel di Maria and Brazil’s Ramires as well as the battling qualities of Javi Garcia. While at the back, even if Luisao misses out, they’ll still be able to call upon the excellent David Luiz and Maxi Pereira.
All of Liverpool’s most painful memories this season have come at home – think Lyon, Fiorentina and Reading. The Reds have since made Anfield somewhat of a fortress again recording eight straight wins at home, yet the niggling doubt remains that Benfica have more than enough quality to knock out the Merseysiders as they continue their own quest of a treble (having already scooped the Portuguese cup earlier this season).
Sorry Liverpool fans. Thursday night may be the end of your season.
101gg predicts: Liverpool 1 – Benfica 2 (18.23)