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Monday, May 23, 2022

Luis Díaz returns to Portugal to haunt Benfica and seal Liverpool’s first-leg win | Champions League

Andy Robertson glared at the Benfica fans who pelted him with flag poles as he waited to take a stoppage time corner, but Liverpool had already served out punishment. Jürgen Klopp’s side are firmly on course for the Champions League semi-finals following a commanding win in Lisbon.

There were unforeseen nerves when Darwin Nunez handed Benfica a lifeline early in the second half but Luis Díaz’s late finish, on top of first half goals from Ibrahima Konaté and Sadio Mané, reflected the visitors superiority on the night.

Liverpool were a model of composure from the first whistle, with neither the raucous atmosphere inside Estádio da Luz nor six changes from the team that beat Watford in the Premier League on Saturday able to disturb their rhythm. Such is the strength at Klopp’s disposal as they enter a defining phase of the campaign. His team had to deal with moments of individual menace from Benfica’s forwards but otherwise they were in almost complete control throughout the first half; quicker and stronger in the challenge, better structured and the more cohesive attacking unit. But for a few lapses in front of goal and interventions by Benfica goalkeeper Odisseas Vlachodimos, the quadruple chasers would have had the entire tie sewn up by half-time. They had to settle for a two-goal cushion instead.

Benfica found threats coming from all angles. Former Porto winger Díaz, his every touch whistled by his old rivals, was a potent outlet on his return to Portugal and involved in two early openings.

His left wing run ended in Robertson crossing for Mané to head over before, after Gilberto had over-elaborated and lost possession, Díaz delivered a delightful low cross into the penalty area that both Mané and Mohamed Salah missed. Salah’s anguished reaction confirmed he should have done better with an inviting ball that rolled under his foot.

Klopp had hinted in his pre-match press conference that Liverpool’s leading goalscorer will need to be rested at some point following a demanding season for club and country. But not yet. There was no sign of fatigue in Salah when he found Mané and sprinted on to an exquisite back-heel through the home defence from the Senegal international. Salah shot before Nicolas Otamendi could intervene only for Vlachodimos to save at his near post. The Egypt international then broke down the right from a Trent Alexander-Arnold pass and teed up Naby Keïta on the edge of the Benfica area. Vlachodimos kept his team level once again. But not for long.

There was an inevitability about the 350th away goal of Klopp’s Liverpool reign, although not about the identity of the goalscorer. When Robertson swung a corner over from the left Konaté was given far too much space inside the area and powered an unstoppable header into the bottom corner. Former Tottenham defender Jan Vertonghen missed the initial header, while the diminutive Everton was left to mark the towering Konaté for some reason. The £36m summer signing from RB Leipzig cared little as he celebrated the first goal of his Liverpool career.

Keïta could have made it two moments later when Mané, having worked his way free on the left, found the unmarked midfielder inside the box. His header lacked power or accuracy to trouble the Benfica keeper. Díaz then found himself through on goal courtesy of a fine ball from Keïta. Vlachodimos stood tall and blocked Díaz’s attempted chip with his chest.

Ibrahima Konaté celebrates giving Liverpool the lead.
Ibrahima Konaté celebrates giving Liverpool the lead. Photograph: Pedro Fiúza/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

Liverpool were dominant, a second goal seemingly as inevitable as the first, but survived a scare when Everton’s corner offered Otamendi a clear chance to equalise with a close range header. The former Manchester City defender failed to connect, however, and was made to pay within seconds as the precise right foot of Alexander-Arnold carved open the Benfica defence once again. The right-back, back in the side following a recent hamstring injury, swept a beautiful ball between Gilberto and Otamendi and into the path of the in-rushing Díaz. The Colombia international showed good awareness to head across goal to Mané, who made no mistake with a simple finish at the end of a superb move.

Another brilliant Alexander-Arnold pass gave Salah sight of goal on the stroke of half-time. Played in behind the Benfica left-back, Alejandro Grimaldo, Salah was clean through and had time to pick his spot to Vlachodimos’s left, but the keeper saved well to prevent the forward scoring for the ninth European away game in succession.

A 3-0 goal interval lead would not have flattered Liverpool, such was their superiority, yet their procession unexpectedly ran aground immediately after the restart as Benfica re-emerged with far greater intensity and belief.

Caretaker coach Nelson Verissimo must have been in superb form during the break. Suddenly Nunez was wreaking havoc at a centre-forward, albeit aided and abetted by a bad mistake from Konaté, and it was Liverpool’s turn to flounder.

The hosts were given renewed purpose when Rafa Silva broke down the right and centred low into the visitors’ penalty area. Konaté had the ball covered only to completely miss his clearance, and turned around in horror to see the cross land at the feet of Nunez

The Benfica striker found the far corner of Alisson’s goal with ease. Nunez then shot over from distance and headed over another cross from Silva as Benfica pressed for a swift equaliser. Everton forced Alisson to parry from distance and, as the pressure intensified, Klopp responded with a triple substitution.

The introduction of Jordan Henderson, Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino helped restore order, although not before Nunez had a penalty appeal waved away when he raced clear down the left and checked inside Virgil van Dijk. The Liverpool defender stuck out an arm to halt the striker’s run but the Spanish referee and VAR were unmoved by Nunez’s impassioned appeals for a spot-kick.

Benfica’s threat dissipated thereafter, and Díaz restored Liverpool’s comfortable advantage with three minutes remaining.

Keïta sent the January signing clear of the Benfica defence with a threaded pass that took a slight touch off Otamendi.

Díaz did the rest, rounding the advancing Vlachodimos before finishing expertly. The semi-finals surely await.

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