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Thursday, March 09, 2006 

Liverpool 0 - 2 Benfica (Champions League)

Benfica went onto the hallowed Anfield pitch with the formation most pundits expected and 2,500 Encarnado fans – a loud drop amongst a sea of 42,500 Reds – looking on in the hope that today would see the resurgence of one of Europe’s legendary clubs after a long time down in the doldrums.

The park itself was wet, and, despite the presence of some muddy patches, was ready for top flight football with a comfortable 8°C cool enough to avoid overheating without chilling the proceedings down to a slow game.

Robert managed to earn himself a yellow in the very first minute of play for a tackle on Warnock that showed the Italian referee was both jittery and over-zealous. Gerrard and Morientes were the first to try their luck; the English midfielder’s free kick being deflected by Beto and the Spaniard’s weak shot being easily swept up by Moretto.

The first genuine ‘Oooooohhhhh!!!!’ from the terraces came after Nuno Gomes fluffed a ball and the much-maligned Peter Crouch hit Benfica’s post after taking a providential deflection off ex-Corinthians full-back Anderson.

Benfica tried to hit back through Geovanni, but the Brazilian was (poorly) judged to be offside as he received a pass from Simão. Corners became the watchword as first Finnan then Alcides forced dead-ball opportunities for each side, but to no avail.

Nineteen minutes in Luis Garcia managed to push his way into the Benfica box, but the number 10 blasted his kick over Moretto’s bar. Beto responded with a well-intentioned but poorly aimed shot that went wide of Reina.

Crouch caused some teeth-grinding among the locals as he missed a chance to get past Moretto, wasting a good opportunity created by Gerrard and prompting locals to wonder if another striker would have netted the chance.

An active Geovanni left Reina’s woodwork shivering after Nuno Gomes set the Encarnado number 11 up, the Spanish keeper surprised by the shot but comfortably defusing Simão’s subsequent header. Soon after Crouch earned himself a yellow card for an abysmal piece of fakery in front – of all people – the tiny Benfica left-back Léo.

Robert and Manuel Fernandes both tried their luck; the ex-Magpie missing the mark and the Portuguese midfielder trickling in a limp-ankled effort. Nevertheless, Benfica managed to silence Anfield (temporarily) with Simão (36 min) taking a speculative long shot after robbing a danger ball outside the Reds’ box and blasting the ball past Reina to give the Águias extra wings.

The Benfica fans were in fine voice on the English terraces, provoking the Mersey fans into even louder support for their team in an adrenalin-pumping sonic battle on the terraces. Traore almost made a fatal mistake, but Geovanni was judged (once more, poorly) to be offside.

After Xabi Alonso picked up a yellow for a foul on Beto, the Benfica midfielder – remembered for his appalling studs-out lunge at Sissoko in the first leg – going on to almost score an own goal and the ensuing corner seeing Crouch almost make amends with a ball that thundered off the post.

As play resumed, Koeman ordered Miccoli, Karagounis and Ricardo Rocha to warm up along the touchline. Luisão ceded a consequence-free corner and Geovanni was once again caught offside; this time correctly.

Liverpool hit back through a Gerrard cannonball after stealing the ball from an unfocused Alcides, but the ball whizzed off wide of the mark. Moretto justified his signing with a good save after Xabi Alonso walloped in a 25 yard shot and two uneventful corners passed without cause for celebration.

Koeman made his first change, taking off Geovanni for midfield stopper Karagounis in a clear statement of intent. Nuno Gomes was awarded a yellow for pretending to be deaf and then Benitez upped the ante by bringing off a rather insipid Harry Kewell for Cissé.

Benitez decided to go for broke and took off an inoffensive Morientes and Warnock for Robbie Fowler and Dieter Hamann, Koeman responding by taking off wing man Robert for wing back Richard Rocha to reinforce the Benfica rearguard.

Nerves were starting to chafe in the Liverpool ranks as the minutes ticked by, Gerrard picking up an unnecessary yellow for a premature free kick. As play ricocheted to the other end, Nuno Gomes missed a golden opportunity to put a bolt-gun to the head of the game with a backheel that backfired and wasted a good build-up by Karagounis & Simão. A shot would have sealed it.

Liverpool continued accumulating corners that were as effective as a feather pillow in a boxing match, and Koeman made his last adjustment by taking off an errant Nuno Gomes for Italian idol Miccoli. Gerrard put another free kick over the Benfica bar and winced – as did the home fans.

The hosts managed to ripple Moretto’s net, but the goal was disallowed – Moretto’s failure wiped away by the fact that the corner that gave rise to the goal had arched its way out of play. Hearts fluttered and brows furrowed as it looked like the chance of a double Champions League was gurgling down the tubes.

Gerrard tried his best, giving Luisão a seat, but nothing was working for the Reds as the ball went wide to howls of frustration from local players and fans alike. Then it was all over in a flash-bang counter-attack; Simão launching Beto who passed to Miccoli (89 min), the Italian proving lethal and sinking the ferry across the Mersey with an eye-poppingly acrobatic strike.

Nevertheless, the Liverpool fans did their city and Club proud, singing away with the sort of dignity that a certain southern Club seems to have lost in direct proportion to the amount of cash that has arrived. Liverpool went out, it’s true, but with their heads held high. Perhaps not the best game, but an admirable lesson in sportsmanship that some should take note of.

As for the winners, Benfica fans are licking their lips and rubbing their palms together that this will be the year in which 'O Glorioso' is reinstated in the European elite. The Club that brought Barcelona and Real Madrid to their knees in the 1960's (1961 and 1962 respectively) could be making a return to greatness.

1968 saw the Portuguese eagles downed 4-1 by George Best's Manchester United, and the Encarnados came close in 1988 (out on penalties to PSV) and 1990 with a slim 1-0 defeat by AC Milan, but, who knows? Are we seeing the hero of Barcelona's 1992 European Cup win about to helm the low-budget Benfica back to the top? Will the underdogs keep snarling and chewing their way through the favourites? Let's just wait and see.

- Liverpool: Reina, Finnan, Carragher, Traoré, Warnock (Hamann, 71), Xabi Alonso, Gerrard, Luis García, Kewell (Cissé, 63), Morientes (Fowler, 70) e Crouch.

- Benfica: Moretto, Alcides, Luisão, Anderson, Léo, Beto, Manuel Fernandes, Robert (Ricardo Rocha, 70), Simão, Geovanni (Karagounis, 60) e Nuno Gomes (Miccoli, 77).

Goals: 0-1, Simão, 36 minutos. 0-2, Miccoli, 89.

Source: goal.com, slbenfica.pt, uefa.com


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