Liverpool both lost and never really relinquished control of their Champions League quarter-final against Benfica in a quite ridiculous game.
The funniest thing to do after about an hour has passed of a game with a clear and obvious winner is to check the initial reaction to that team’s starting line-up. Social media has desecrated humanity and its usage should generally be actively discouraged, but rifling back through a club’s official timeline to find that XI graphic and scrolling through the replies generates the sort of genuine magical thrill that a European night under the Anfield lights could not possibly hope to replicate.
Midfield seemed to engender the most concern. Naby Keita, Jordan Henderson and James Milner either offered too little control, imagination and creativity or too much familiarity and too many years of age. Joe Gomez and Kostas Tsimikas carry absolutely no narrative value as full-backs who can both defend and attack relatively well instead of doing one to a consistently world-class standard. Mo Salah has spent the last few weeks being questioned for a devastatingly poor run of three games without a goal, leading to widespread suggestions he should be dropped, so him taking a place on the bench was inevitably lambasted. Any variation of the word ‘underestimate’ must have been trending on Merseyside for at least a few minutes.
Jurgen Klopp, who once overcame a 3-0 first-leg deficit against an actually serious Barcelona with Henderson and Milner in midfield, Salah out and Divock Origi and Xherdan Shaqiri starting, must sometimes wonder what more he has to do to convince @Firminoholic that things are under control.
We’re playing a CL quarter final, not the fa cup third round
— #Simeone2024 (@laptopsandaxa) April 13, 2022
It was before this game that the Liverpool manager put a “full stop” on his affirmation that this is the “strongest” Reds side of his tenure. Fuelled by an otherworldly efficiency in the transfer market that has delivered five bona fide successes of the last six permanent first-team signings, they have 12 games left to make Quadruple-shaped history.
That quintet all featured at Anfield. Ibrahima Konate scored. Luis Diaz somehow contrived not to. Kostas Tsimikas and Diogo Jota managed three assists between them. Thiago was introduced to assert yet more Liverpool control on a game they were leading 2-1, would soon be winning 3-1 and eventually had a 6-2 aggregate advantage in.
Yet chaos ensued. Klopp stated after a home defeat to Inter but overall victory in their last-16 tie that “the art of football is to lose the right games”. That sentiment could be echoed after a draw that bore some neat brushstrokes before Benfica obscured the canvas in the final 15 minutes.
The concession of three goals can never really be painted as anything but a negative. Liverpool’s first and third came from set-pieces, sandwiching a woefully defended second. Benfica equalised on the night with a well-taken and crafted but ultimately fortuitous strike, then threatened something quite ludicrous by twice exploiting that glowing Video Game Final Boss target on the back of their hosts. The balancing act involved in deploying that high defensive line looks particularly calamitous without Virgil van Dijk.
Then again, the two Benfica goals disallowed for offside underline the risk-reward nature of that approach neatly. Liverpool had a couple ruled out themselves in another match they lost their grip on, contained within a tie they never realistically looked like losing.
In the process, Klopp learned yet more about who he can truly trust for these potential final dozen fixtures. That won’t stop the questions but, in a roundabout way, he and his players are still managing to figure out the answers.