Liverpool took charge of their Champions League quarter-final against Benfica on Tuesday, when Sadio Mane, Ibrahima Konate and Luis Diaz gave them a 3-1 lead after the first leg in Lisbon.
In the other quarterfinals Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne broke Atletico Madrid’s stubborn resistance to take a 1-0 win in the first leg at the Etihad Stadium.
Red Hot Liverpool
Konate nodded in his first Liverpool goal from a corner before Mane tapped the ball in to command the visitors at the Estadio da Luz.
Benfica turned it into a game early in the second half when a mistake by Konate allowed the vivacious Darwin Nunez to withdraw one, but Diaz, who had been fantastic all night, added a third to put Liverpool within sight of the to the semi-finals.
“They fought for their lives. We opened the door for them a little bit,” said Jurgen Klopp. “We scored a third and I think everyone agrees that we could and should have scored more.”
Liverpool will be sure to get the job done at Anfield next week, with Klopp comfortable enough to beat Mohamed Salah, Mane and Thiago Alcantara after an hour.
Salah, in particular, was certainly saved for Sunday, when Liverpool face Manchester City in what could prove to be the decisive game in the Premier League’s neck-and-neck title race.
The only disappointment was that Salah couldn’t get on the scoresheet, with the Egyptian missing a handful of chances.
“Every player in that situation wants to score and it’s clear that Mo also wants to score,” said Klopp. “It’s a tough period. The boys have come back from Africa and it’s really not easy. A lot of pressure. They need some time to settle down, everything will be fine.”
Benfica finds themselves between a Liverpool City competition and a double-header match, with the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley following the second leg next week, before Klopp’s team continue a crisis period with league games against Manchester United and local rivals Everton.
Liverpool’s convincing win may offer Klopp the luxury of switching players again for the return leg next week.
Klopp downplayed suggestions Liverpool could win another historic fourfold this season.
“We are not favorites in any of the competitions we are in, but who cares? We are going to try,” he said at a press conference on Monday.
But this match showed the gap between the Premier League heavyweights and some of the old European elite. Despite a 20-minute rise in the second half, Benfica was clearly second best.
They equalized and dreamed of causing another surprise, having already knocked out Barcelona in the group stage and Ajax in the last 16, and they started with underdogs intent, as Alex Grimaldo stirred up the crowd with a thumping, sliding challenge.
But the initial effort soon faded and Liverpool took control, with opportunities coming with increasing regularity as the first half progressed.
Salah came just short of a cross from Diaz from the left and then was saved from a shaky finish after a sumptuous heel from Manen.
The goal in the 17th minute was easy, Konate towered from a corner over Everton Soares and went into the bottom of the net.
Benfica’s conviction seemed to immediately dissipate and Naby Keita should have made two almost immediately, only to drive Mane’s cross into the ground.
Nicolas Otamendi had a chance from a corner but failed to connect and in the 34th minute Liverpool scored again, Adel Taarabt’s careless touch was penalized by Alexander-Arnold’s bounced ball towards Diaz, whose clever header Mane slapped.
Salah should have scored three before half time but the draw seemed all but over, the only question being how much Liverpool would score in the second period.
Instead, Benfica withdrew a goal shortly after the restart when Konate air-trapped a Rafa Silva cross and Nunez leaped towards it.
Benfica was transformed as Nunez came close twice before the Uruguayan wanted a penalty for being stopped by Konate.
While the fans were bouncing and cheering on their team, Klopp took Salah, Mane and Thiago away, an indication of the superiority he believes his team still maintained.
The substitutions threw Benfica out of their stride and as the game drifted to the end, Liverpool grabbed a third, Keita slipped into Diaz, who circled the keeper and slipped into an empty net.
In Manchester, Pep Guardiola’s side spent much of the night with their heads against the red and white wall of Atletico’s massive defence.
But Guardiola sent Phil Foden off midway through the second half and his superb pass challenged De Bruyne to eventually reward City for their territorial dominance.
“I didn’t expect to win three or four outs. I knew who we were up against. They’ve been together for many years,” said Guardiola.
“They defend so well, so compact and so deep. We were patient. You have to be against these teams. They want you to be anxious.
“It’s a good result. Unfortunately with Kevin we still had a few chances to score again.”
While Guardiola launched a water bottle during a frenzied celebration that underlined what a testing night it had been for his team, the City boss knows the draw is far from over.
“Even a 1-0 lead to Madrid is tough,” Guardiola said.
“We have to get our emotions under control. It will be a good test for us, our maturity. We will try to score and win the game.”
At the start of a season that marked 11 days for the City triple, this was a qualified success that justified their patient performance.
But Atletico have already knocked out Manchester United in the last 16 this season, while Liverpool fell victim to Diego Simeone’s side when the Reds were the holders in 2019-20.
The Spanish champions will be able to provide another surprise in the return leg in Madrid on April 13.
“Obviously we played against an extraordinary opponent. We have to use a great defense without being embarrassed,” said Simeone.
“We have to be better, see if we can have a little more ball in the second leg. Maybe we can create more difficulties. We are still tied.”
City will have no margin for error for the next two weeks as the Premier League frontrunners face Liverpool on Sunday, just one point behind them in the title race.
They leave for Madrid next week before facing Liverpool again three days later in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley.