At the end it was Liverpool who were through to another Champions League semi-final but the Benfica players who gathered in front of their supporters took the acclaim. Portuguese football is not what it was and as such a draw at Anfield represents a career highlight.

As Benfica’s white shirts danced at the Anfield Road End, Liverpool’s players were already in the dressing room and their feelings may well have been mixed. As Jordan Henderson said immediately afterwards: ‘There are things we can improve on.’

That much is true after another night of defensive uncertainty from Jurgen Klopp’s team. What will concern them now is whether problems that have steadily emerged in that area over the back end of winter represent an inconvenience – an itch to be scratched – or something that genuinely threatens to derail them between now and the end of the season.

Certainly, uncomfortable evidence mounts.

Against Manchester City in the Premier League at the weekend, Liverpool’s defensive line – their offside trap – routinely failed them. Previously it had done so in the Carabao Cup Final against Chelsea and in league games against West Ham and Brighton.

Liverpool came through those three fixtures unscathed. They didn’t at City, though, and nor did they here. The sight of opposition players running freely like escaping rabbits through Liverpool’s high defensive line is becoming remarkably familiar.

Klopp said in his post-match TV interview that the issue was ‘absolutely not important’ but it is hard to agree.

Benfica actually put the ball in the Liverpool five times here. Twice they were denied by close offside calls. So three goals counted. Not enough to bundle Liverpool out of their favourite competition but certainly enough to encourage City ahead of the teams’ FA Cup semi-final at Wembley on Saturday and indeed Villarreal before they meet Liverpool in the last four of the Champions League.

The manner of the Benfica goals was familiar to anyone who has watched Liverpool recently. Some teams struggle with set pieces, others with football that is played around and down the side of them. For Klopp’s players, it is balls played through them or over the top of the back four.

Here, as Klopp made changes to his team, this was a different back line to the one that struggled at City. One of the holding midfielders were different, too. The way they played was familiar, however. It never threatened to make them lose this tie but it did embarrass them a little towards the end.

Early on Liverpool were dominant. The hunger and energy of Klopp’s players were admirable. Much of the hard work had been done by winning last week’s first leg 3-1 in Lisbon but you would not have known it.

Ibrahima Konate headed Liverpool into the lead in the 21st minute in an almost identical fashion to last week in Portugal. A corner to the far post was headed in by the defender.

There were other chances, too. Luis Diaz, once of Benfica’s rivals Porto, was denied by goalkeeper Odisseas Vlachodimos and then set Roberto Firmino up for a header that was deflected over.

But, then, a goal out of nothing for Benfica and this proved to be portentous in terms of what was to come later as Goncalo Ramos ran clear to score in front of the Kop.

With scores level at half-time, Liverpool were still the better team. They enjoyed the territory and the chances. And when Firmino scored twice in quick succession, Liverpool’s semi-final berth was secure. They were both poor goals from a Benfica point of view, but Firmino finished them calmly and with neat technique.

Naby Keita’s through pass towards Diaz in the 55th minute was not controlled and goalkeeper Vlachodimos should have gathered the ball. But when he spilt it and Jan Vertonghen hacked it wildly away, the door opened. Diogo Jota’s shot across goal was hurriedly taken as the ball dropped and would have passed harmlessly across goal. But Firmino had anticipated the angles perfectly and was just onside as he moved forwards to side foot in from seven yards.

Diaz had hitherto been his team’s best player. His running was strong and direct but it was Firmino who came to the fore here, volleying his second in after a Kostas Tsmikas free-kick was allowed to reach him by the Benfica defence with 25 minutes left.

Did Liverpool switch off a little at this point? Perhaps. They were 6-2 ahead in the tie. But Benfica breached their offside trap twice in eight minutes – Roman Yaremchuk and Darwin Nunez the scorers – to change the whole mood of this evening and had Alisson not saved low at his post from Nunez then Liverpool may have been left nursing more than psychological damage by the end.

Liverpool could also have scored more goals. They were the better team. But maybe that serves only to increase, not lessen, the sense of alarm.

Afterwards, Klopp put his team’s problems down to an unfamiliar back four. But that would only really wash if this was a one-off. And it wasn’t.


Courtesy: Daily Mail UK

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