With one foot already firmly in the semi-finals of the Champions League, Liverpool welcome Benfica to Anfield for the second leg of their quarter-final tie on Wednesday night.
Jurgen Klopp’s side claimed a dominant 3-1 win in the first leg at the Estadio da Luz and are aiming to set up a clash with Villarreal in the final four.
Many of the neutrals tuning in to watch the first leg at the Estadio da Luz would have done so to keep tabs on much-coveted Benfica striker Darwin Nunez, who did find the back of the net on the night, but it was futile in comparison to Liverpool’s domination last week.
Nunez took advantage of a defensive lapse from Ibrahima Konate to keep Benfica alive in the tie, but the Frenchman had already struck for Liverpool by that point alongside Sadio Mane, and Luis Diaz marked his return to Portuguese turf with a goal before seemingly being targeted by a crutch thrown from the crowd for his troubles.
Liverpool’s pursuit of an unprecedented quadruple is still very much alive despite dropping points in an action-packed 2-2 draw with Manchester City in Sunday’s Premier League clash, meaning that the Reds are now relying on the champions to drop points if they are to return to the summit.
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There is also the small matter of an FA Cup semi-final against Pep Guardiola’s men to come for Liverpool, whose five-game winning run in all competitions came to an end at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, and their most recent Champions League clash at Anfield ended in that 1-0 last-16 second leg loss to Inter Milan.
It has been 20 years since Liverpool were last eliminated from the Champions League knockout stages after prevailing in the first leg – progressing from 12 such ties since – and while Reds fans will not be getting ahead of themselves, their 1978 and 1984 triumphs in the competition came after they eliminated Benfica in a previous round with a pair of victories.
Attempting to overturn a two-goal deficit in front of the Kop is an extremely tall order for Benfica and Nelson Verissimo, who will certainly aim to make a good impression in the final weeks of the season before reportedly stepping aside for the incoming Roger Schmidt.
Nunez’s strike has at least given the Portuguese outfit a slight glimmer of hope for the trip to Merseyside, and the in-demand Uruguayan was the star of the show at the weekend – scoring all three of his side’s goals in a 3-1 Primeira Liga success over Belenenses to take his tally for the season in all competitions to 31 strikes.
The odds may be stacked against Benfica heading into Tuesday’s game, but they can hold the distinct honour of being only one of two sides who have beaten Liverpool by at least two goals in a European knockout game at Anfield – winning 2-0 in the last-16 in 2005-06.
However, a period of patchy away form in the Champions League has seen Benfica win just two of their last 12 games away from home in the competition including qualifiers, although they have managed to keep five clean sheets in six Champions League games on the road this term – the outlier coming when they shipped five to Bayern Munich.
Liverpool’s 3-1 victory in the first leg means that the two sides are still waiting for their first competitive draw against one another, with the Reds winning seven of the 11 meetings while Benfica have notched four, and the Merseyside outfit ran riot in a 4-1 victory during the most recent battle at Anfield in the 2009-10 Europa League.
Despite their unrelenting period of fixtures, Jurgen Klopp is working with a fully-fit squad at present, with the head injury that Fabinho sustained in the first leg not serious enough to rule him out of contention against Man City.
Takumi Minamino, Harvey Elliott, Divock Origi and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were all left out of the squad for Sunday amid Klopp’s wealth of options, and Sadio Mane and Diogo Jota would miss the first leg of the semi-final if they are booked here.
With both players also featuring from the off – and scoring – at the Etihad, Klopp may elect to bring Roberto Firmino and Luis Diaz back into the XI alongside Mohamed Salah, who needs one more goal to overtake Steven Gerrard as Liverpool’s record goalscorer at Anfield in the Champions League with 15.
Benfica are also working with the majority of their big-hitters barring cruciate ligament victim Lucas Verissimo, who remains out of contention for the long-term alongside striker Rodrigo Pinho, and Rafa Silva.
The Benfica boss will also have Jan Vertonghen back at his disposal following a domestic ban, and the ex-Tottenham Hotspur man should take his rightful spot in defence alongside Nicolas Otamendi.
After handing rests to several of his established players at the weekend, Verissimo should recall the likes of Gilberto, Alex Grimaldo, Julian Weigl and Goncalo Ramos to the first XI at Anfield.
Liverpool possible starting lineup:
Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Konate, Van Dijk, Robertson; Keita, Fabinho, Jones; Salah, Firmino, Diaz
Benfica possible starting lineup:
Vlachodimos; Gilberto, Vertonghen, Otamendi, Grimaldo; Goncalves, Weigl, Taarabt, Everton; Ramos, Nunez