Liverpool have pulled the short Europa League straw as they head to in-form Benfica

Benfica v Liverpool, Europa League quarter-final first leg, April 1, 2010

Benfica 2.5; Draw 3.25; Liverpool 2.62

All of a sudden the Europa League is fascinating, and the tie of the round sees former European greats Benfica and Liverpool meet in a match-up that could go either way. (Liverpool are 4.33 to win the Europa League, Benfica are 6.50 .)

By beating closest rivals Braga 1-nil last weekend, Benfica opened up a six point lead at the top of the Liga Sagres, and unless something dramatic happens the Eagles will set a new Portuguese record notching their 32nd title. And Benfica have not only been steamrollering in the league, their form has also translated over to the Europa Cup where they are undefeated at home, winning five and drawing once while only conceding twice in the process. (Under 2.5 goals at 1.61, over at 2.09.)

In short, Liverpool have pulled the short straw drawing Benfica. They proved their credentials in the group stage with a home and away hammering of Liverpool’s Merseyside neighbours Everton. A 5-0 success in the Stadium of Light ranks as one of the Toffees’ most chastening defeats of the season.

In terms of personnel, Liverpool should know plenty about their opponents. Benitez has been linked heavily with both Pablo Aimar and Javier Saviola in the past, and enjoyed plenty of success with the former at Valencia. Angel Di Maria, meanwhile, is the jewel in the Benfica crown, and has been courted by just about every top club in Europe.

Benfica also boast a host of other top talent. Up-top, bulky striker Oscar Cardoza leads the side’s scoring charts with 26 goals as well as five assists, while in the middle of the park they have the creative genius of Brazilian star Ramires and the battling qualities of Javi Garcia. In defence, Luisao provides strength and aerial ability, although Fernando Torres may fancy his chance of rounding the centre-half if he can get into a one-on-one situation with the number four. (Draw/Benfica at 5.18.)

And all eyes will be on Fernando Torres as the Spaniard goes from strength to strength as the end of the season approaches. Since coming back from injury El Nino has rejuvenated the Scousers, leading from the front with an incredible eight goals in his last four games.

Against Sunderland last time out, not only was Torres in form, but the entire Reds team produced their best performance of the season in a 3-nil victory that could have easily been doubled. The Reds appeared to benefit from only having one holding midfielder in Javier Mascherano (with Lucas Leiva the fallguy), while Dirk Kuyt, Maxi, and Ryan Babel filled out the midfield while captain Steven Gerrard looked good in a more orthodox, central attacking midfield role.

Rafa Benitez, famed for his tactical rotations, will make several though at Benfica. Maxi Rodriguez is cup-tied and, having regard to Benfica’s awesome home record this season, one suspects the Spaniard would have been benched even if available with Lucas returning in the enforcer role. Ryan Babel’s inclusion is also a doubt, with Yossi Benayoun and Alberto Aquilani both ready to replace the Dutchman.

At the back Martin Skrtel and Fabio Aurelio remain tied to the treatment table, so the Merseysiders backline is likely to remain as Reina in goal, with Johnson, Agger, Carragher and Insua filling out the defence.

Liverpool will be desperate to score in Portugal to give themselves the comfort of an away goal for the return leg at Anfield. Taken into account Benfica’s form though, the Liverpudlians are second favourites to come away with the win.

101gg predicts: Benfica 2 – Liverpool 1 (8.54)

Benfica 2.5; Draw 3.25; Liverpool 2.62