After taking a commanding lead at Benfica, Liverpool made one mistake and wobbled. Yet Jurgen Klopp’s players are the most resilient around.
Having sworn a pre-match oath that Benfica were “going to try to surprise” Liverpool in the first Champions League quarter-final of his eclectic career, there was a comforting predictability in 32-year-old Adel Taarabt’s decision-making and execution under duress just after the half-hour mark. The visitors had already taken a lead they did not seem likely to relinquish by the time the Moroccan received a pressure-relieving pass on the perimeter of the centre circle. Benfica had strung nothing of note together in the previous 33 minutes but Taarabt concluded that there was no better moment to break into some intricate one-touch play, cushioning a first-time ball directly in between his two closest teammates and into the path of Ibrahima Konate, then holding his begloved hands outstretched, as if to ask why no-one was able to teleport 10 yards in time to retain possession. Six touches and eight seconds later, Liverpool had doubled their advantage. It came to the shock of approximately nobody.
Liverpool punished that mistake ruthlessly and ludicrously. Konate, scorer of the opening goal with a routine header, allowed Trent Alexander-Arnold to do the honours. The right-back homed in on an incisive Luis Diaz run with an astonishing 40-yard delivery that even accommodated the Colombian’s gilded stride and allowed him to nod back across goal for Sadio Mane. The bout was over.
Perhaps that sense subconsciously pervaded Liverpool’s. Jurgen Klopp often commends the supreme mentality of his squad but there is no guaranteed immunity against complacency at any level, nor can collective crises of confidence be permanently prevented. Watford discovered chinks in this imperious armour and Benfica followed suit to undo the knot on this Champions League tie.
Yet as an increasing number of teams are having to realise in progressively more painful ways, it is one thing landing a couple of sucker punches on Liverpool and another entirely to land that knockout blow while simultaneously dodging the retaliatory flurry.
They have developed a particularly devastating penchant for scoring soon after allowing a gilt-edged opportunity, as Arsenal and Nottingham Forest can certainly attest. Benfica’s chance was more a general dominance after Konate’s mistake allowed Darwin Nunez to half the deficit. Four of the hosts’ nine shots came in the 10 minutes after a strike that roused the Estadio da Luz; Alisson shattered the dreams of every tabloid journalist by saving from Everton. The Brazilian then engaged in some awkward, heart-stopping footwork on the edge of his own area on two separate occasions as that mild but tangible feeling of jeopardy lingered.
Klopp was disturbed enough to make a triple substitution on the hour in the hope of settling Liverpool down, introducing lieutenant Jordan Henderson and the energetic pair of Roberto Firmino and Diogo Jota. It served to both calm their nerves and stunt Benfica’s rhythm. In a game that produced 26 shots, it was notable and no accident that there were none between the 61st and 81st minutes. Liverpool needed that period of tranquility.
Henderson has been absolutely professional in his performance. Created two chances missed by Diaz and Jota but I'll see his slander for being a regular scapegoat.
— Kartik (@Pooltard) April 5, 2022
Then came their final push. Alexander-Arnold, Firmino and Jota all had attempts frantically blocked and Diaz squandered one opening. He would do no such thing with the next, rounding Odysseas Vlachodimos to crown Naby Keita’s run and through ball with a clinching third goal.
It was a victory given wings by Red Bull. Konate and Mane, two of the goalscorers, were aided in their development by Leipzig and Salzburg respectively, while the solid Keita came through both systems. Konate was at fault for Benfica’s goal and much of the ensuing peril but he defended impeccably in the first half and took the opener well. That Liverpool have made only two first-team signings this season and both he and Diaz have slotted in so seamlessly is remarkable.
So, too, is the durability of this team. That really is what sets them apart from most of their peers. Others are capable of playing at a relatively similar standard to Liverpool – although no team can punish an innocuous mistake in an instant like with Mane’s goal, nor be quite so consistently threatening. The difference is that Klopp’s side can withstand a storm, emerge unscathed and still have time to have the last word. They manage to continue when the rest might crumble. It is a fine party trick, particularly when hopes of making history hinge on simply clearing these last obstacles, no matter how convincingly.