BENFICA VS LIVERPOOL: PREVIEW
The quarter finals of the Champions League rolls around tomorrow night, with Liverpool travelling to Portugal to take on Benfica. Here’s a preview of what promises to be an enthralling first leg encounter.
Benfica may be 9 and 12 points behind Sporting and league leaders FC Porto respectively, but they have outlasted their two rivals in this season’s flagship European competition. Porto dropped down to the Europa League after finishing in third place behind Liverpool and Atletico Madrid in the group stages.
Sporting made it through to the Round of 16 but suffered a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Manchester City. Benfica meanwhile upset the odds to finish second behind Bayern Munich in Group E. The Portuguese giants condemned Barcelona to a third place finish and demotion to the Europa League.
It’s been an arduous journey for Nelson Verissimo’s side. They had to get through qualifiers to make it to the group stages. Spartak Moscow and PSV Eindhoven were overcome before a ticket was punched into group E alongside Bayern, Barca and Dynamo Kiev.
Two defeats to Bayern were to be expected, as was a home win over Dynamo after a draw in Ukraine. What really caught the eye was a 3-0 home victory over Spanish behemoths Barcelona. They should have made it a double but missed a sitter in injury time of a goalless draw at Camp Nou.
A Round of 16 pairing against Ajax was supposed to mark the end of the road for Benfica but once again they upset the apple cart. A 2-2 draw in Portugal was followed up with an impressive 1-0 win at the Johan Cruijff Arena in Amsterdam.
They come up against a Liverpool side that has won 7 out of their 8 matches in the Champions League this season. The Reds became the first English side in history to win all six of their group matches, making mockery of the ‘group of death’ tag.
Jürgen Klopp’s men notched a 2-0 victory over Inter Milan at the San Siro in the last round to all but seal qualification to the last eight. They will be seeking a similar result at the Estadio da Luz to make their job easier in the return leg.
The return leg happens to fall in between two huge matches against Manchester City; at the Etihad in the Premier League title decider, and at Wembley in the FA Cup semi final. Having the luxury to make a few changes in between those games could be just the edge the Reds need to overcome City.
Benfica will be no pushovers however, so if the Reds are to earn that first leg advantage they will have to be at their best. It’s 16 victories in the last 17 matches across all competitions for Liverpool, with the only defeat in that run being the second leg loss to Inter which still ensured qualification.
The Reds’ defensive solidity has underpinned their success in the past few months, with 12 clean sheets kept in the last 17. Only 5 goals have been let in during this run, with the Reds not conceding two goals in a single game since the draw at Stamford Bridge on 2nd January.
The quadruple chasing Reds marked their return from the international break with a routine 2-0 win over relegation threatened Watford. Benfica on the other hand suffered a 3-2 defeat at Braga on Friday night. That was their first defeat in the last ten matches in all competitions.
Six wins and three draws preceded that defeat, as a rotated side were put to the sword at Braga. Verissimo’s men boast an impressive array of experience and youthful exuberance. Vertonghen and Otamendi at centre back have a combined age of 68.
Going forward, the strike partnership of Yaremchuk and 22 year old Darwin Nunez carries enough threat to strike fear into any defence line. Coming up against the immovable force that is Virgil Van Dijk is a significant step up in quality however.
Benfica stunned Liverpool the last time these two sides met. A 1-0 first leg win for the Portuguese side set things up for an Anfield comeback, or so it seemed. Benfica turned up at Anfield and led by the brilliant Simao Sabrosa, stunned the reigning European champions 2-0.
For Liverpool, it’s a fully fit squad available to Jürgen Klopp. Naby Keita returned to training this morning after a knee complaint. Joel Matip took a bang to the head but is fine, whilst Curtis Jones suffered no lasting effects after a knock to the ankle at the weekend.
For Benfica, Rodrigo Pinho and Lucas Verissimo are long-term absentees, but striker Haris Seferovic returned from injury as a substitute in the defeat to Braga. Meanwhile, seven of the hosts’ players are a booking away from suspension including Nicolas Otamendi, Julian Weigl and Rafa Silva.
The Portuguese international can be a streaky player at times and is currently in the middle of a hot streak. He’s scored or assisted in each of his last five appearances for club and country. He also has a knack of opening the scoring for his side. Expect him to be heavily involved from the start or indeed off the bench.
The 22 year old Uruguayan has been incredible this season. After 14 goals and 12 assists last season, he’s stepped it up to notch 27 goals and 3 assists in 34 appearances this term. He is the danger man for Benfica and one to keep an eye on.
Virgil Van Dijk
The big man has been ever present this season and has marshalled the backline impressively. The high line has been played with machine-like efficiency. The Dutchman has to be at his best again if he’s to help the side keep yet another clean sheet.
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