Having been handed what some fans may feel is the most favourable Champions League draw, Liverpool travel to the Estadio da Luz for the first leg of their quarter-final with Benfica on Tuesday night.
The Reds dumped Inter Milan out of the tournament 2-1 on aggregate to make it this far, while Nelson Verissimo’s side claimed a 3-2 win over Ajax over two legs.
With his list of European admirers seemingly growing by the week, effervescent Benfica youngster Darwin Nunez was the hero of the hour for his side against Ajax to propel them into the last eight of the Champions League in Amsterdam.
After the two underdogs had played out an entertaining 2-2 draw in the first leg, Nunez headed home the only goal of the second leg with 13 minutes remaining to upset the odds somewhat, and the free-scoring Uruguayan could certainly command a hefty figure from interested parties this summer.
Nunez was on target once again against Sporting Braga in Friday’s Primeira Liga battle – this time off the bench – but his penalty proved inconsequential as Benfica went down 3-2 on the night, with Vitinha netting the all-important winner for the hosts.
Seeing a nine-game unbeaten run in all competitions come to an end is hardly ideal preparation for a meeting with Liverpool, and Benfica have never made it past the quarter-finals of the Champions League in its current format – most recently bowing out to Bayern Munich at this stage in 2015-16.
Still, two strikes against Sporting Braga at least kept up Benfica’s strong run of scoring in every game since the turn of the year, and they have won six of their last eight Champions League games on their own turf, so Liverpool must have their wits about them lest they end up like Barcelona.
If any team was going to break Liverpool’s remarkable resilience on the Anfield turf, it would be Scudetto holders Inter Milan, who did so in some style as Lautaro Martinez rifled in a spectacular long-range effort to make things interesting in the second leg.
However, Alexis Sanchez’s red card not long after killed any Nerazzurri hopes of a dramatic fightback, as Liverpool’s San Siro endeavours saw them through to the quarter-finals, and the quadruple dream is still alive for the raucous Kop.
The Reds were far from their free-flowing best in Saturday’s Premier League clash with Watford but nevertheless got over the line through Diogo Jota’s header and Fabinho’s penalty – a result which saw them rise to the summit for all of two-and-a-half hours before Manchester City restored order.
Defeat to Inter in the second leg is the only game that Liverpool have not won in their last 17 across all competitions – each of their last seven away matches has ended in victory – and Klopp’s side went through all of February and March without conceding a goal away from home.
Liverpool were sent packing at this stage in the 2020-21 Champions League by Real Madrid, though, and they also lost 3-0 on aggregate to Benfica in the last 16 of the 2005-06 edition before advancing 5-3 on aggregate in the quarters of the 2009-10 Europa League.
Benfica Champions League form:
Benfica form (all competitions):
Liverpool Champions League form:
Liverpool form (all competitions):
We say: Benfica 1-2 Liverpool
A Nunez-inspired Benfica ought to be well up for this colossal European tie in front of their own fans, but their veteran backline of Vertonghen and Otamendi could prove easy pickings for Liverpool’s rampant attackers.
Klopp admitted that his side did not create enough against Watford as the players begin to gel following the international break, and this may be a closer affair than the Reds would like, but they should still take advantage of Benfica’s recent defensive lapses to claim a first-leg advantage.