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Match Preview: Liverpool v. Benfica, 04.01.10

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UEFA.com - UEFA Champions League 2010 - Benfica-Liverpool_1270076262990

He has healed Alberto and turned the Lucozade into wine.

It seems like all is righting itself in the world of Liverpool...but I'm not really sure why. Granted, the club has won two of their last three in league, Fernando Torres has been pouring them in, and there's a sense of renewed optimism that hasn't poked its head out since before the season started. Maybe it's the fact that this season has taught me to be wary of the calm---especially when there's so much left to do. The two wins in the last three ignores a humbling dismissal at Old Trafford and the catastrophe at the DW in the beginning of March. The loss at Lille in the Europa League was a little easier to stomach, but a 3-0-3 record for the month isn't blowing me away.

So maybe it's the confluence of quasi-success with the recognition that there's not really anything Liverpool can do but win their final matches. While they've certainly got the "easiest" run-in in league, their Champions League qualifying destiny is no longer in their hands. They'll need Spurs and City to drop points, and plenty of them, if there's to be anything salvaged from the league campaign. It's going to take some doing, but at this point in the season it appears that Liverpool are collectively starting to embrace the "nothing left to lose" mentality.

But in the Europa League, it's a little different. Of course, there's always the niggling feeling that this isn't the competition Liverpool should be in at this point in the season, but I think we're well past that phase. Here, either Liverpool find a way to win the tie or they're done. It's almost calming to know that they're in complete control of how things shake out, particularly in light of the fact that the final month of the league season will likely age you 10 years.

And if any club left in this year's competition can challenge Liverpool's ability to stand on their own two feet, it's got to be Benfica. In the interest of full disclosure, I hadn't followed them at all this season until I saw Liverpool were matched up with them in the quarter-finals. Yesterday I posted a video compilation of their season thus far, and while flashy videos with house music are usually a bit over the top, I think it does their season justice. They've been undoubtedly impressive both domestically and on the continent, and they'll pose Liverpool plenty of problems.

The always-informative Zonal Marking lays it out a whole lot better than I ever could, so I'll stick to the simple analysis. They stormed through the group stage with a 5-0-1 record, trouncing Everton 7-0 agg. on the way, and breezed past Hertha 5-1 in the first knockout round. Their tie with Marseille was a bit more challenging---Benfica uncharacteristically conceded at home in the first leg (only the second such goal they've allowed in the entire competition), and looked to be on their way out in the second leg after a 70th minute strike from Mamadou Niang at the Stade Velodrome.

But they fought back quickly, leveling the tie through Maxi Pereira's deflected free kick in the 75th minute. They eventually found the winner on Alan Kardec's 90th minute strike, showing that they're able to win in any fashion. Oscar Cardozo leads the team with 6 goals in Europa League competition, followed by Javier Saviola (4) and Angel Di Maria (3). And as I alluded to earlier, they have been stingy in defense, particularly at home, where they've won all but one of their European matches.

Contrast that with Liverpool's away record this season, particularly in Europe, and it seems like a tall task. But since entering the Europa League, Rafa and company have righted the ship a bit, finding their European form of old and showing some grit along the way. They battled through a 1-0 win in the first leg of their tie with Unirea and later overwhelmed the Romanian champions 3-1 in Bucharest, and in the last round they dropped the aforementioned 1-0 match at Lille before a dominating 3-0 victory at Anfield in the second leg.

While it's not exactly the Liverpool of old, it is a side that has found a way to win, even while underperforming. You could argue that the first leg matches in both knockout rounds were less than impressive, but the second leg performances were indicative of a side that was willing to put up a fight, even when the wear of a difficult season had begun to show. Having the second leg at Anfield benefits Liverpool here, as it did in the last round, but I think they'll need to show a bit more tomorrow or else they'll find themselves in real danger regardless of how much the Anfield faithful buoy them.

As for the actual squad that we'll see, the latest news is not great. Alberto Aquilani was probably never going to see the starting eleven anyhow, as it's Rafa, Europe, etc. etc., but he's apparently picked up an ankle knock that's "not too serious." But it's enough to rule him out, and it's more fuel for the fire of the "Aquilani as the biggest bust ever, like in history, ever" arguments. It's discouraging, yes, but I don't think this does any more to validate him as a flop than his performance against Portsmouth does to confirm as the new Messiah.

So we know the defense will likely not change, Aquilani's absence makes the Lucas-Masch pairing that much more inevitable, and recent proclamations from Rafa indicate that there is no position for Steven Gerrard other than starting. I'd hope to see Yossi Benayoun back in action in some capacity, although Ryan Babel's consistent improvement has been great to see. Maxi is still ruled out, so the pool in attack is limited to Benayoun, Babel, Kuyt, and Torres.

No need to draw it out any further---Liverpool's fate in the Europa League is in their own hands, and they face stern opposition in Benfica. I think the first leg will be as good a challenge as Liverpool have faced in European competition this season, and we'll probably know early on how it'll fare. With pressures in league mounting, I worry that divided attentions could doom Liverpool. But I also think there's more to this side than we've seen this year, and the final run-in is as good a time as any to see how much more there is.