The Reds host Benfica in the pivotal quarter-final second leg.
And I use the word "pivotal" in the most literal sense of the word: of vital or critical importance.
Put simply, Benfica's visit to Anfield is pivotal because, like so few of the matches Liverpool have played in this season, there's an importance that simply isn't present in any other match. Sure, the race for the fourth spot is important, particularly from a financial and ego-soothing standpoint, but it's not one that carries much distinction. You finished fourth. Happy f***ing birthday. Plus, it's not exactly one that is cemented in the "highly likely" realm right now.
But what is a little more likely, and a little more critical right now, is Liverpool's chance to put forth a quality performance and progress in the Europa League. Again, maybe not something that carries much distinction for the bourgeoisie, but the chance to be one of only eight teams left playing in continental competitions is nothing to sneeze at.
It's been a fine inaugural season for the Europa League, partly due to the number of "top" European clubs that are still alive in the competition, and partly due to the high level (at least from the attacking perspective) of football being played. In the other quarter-finals, Valencia and Atletico are level on goals at 2-2, Fulham takes a 2-1 lead to Wolfsburg, and Standard host Hamburger trailing 2-1. In the previous knockout rounds, at least on the final day, the results were even more exciting, and Liverpool have certainly had their part to play.
If it feels like we've been here before, it's because we have. Except maybe things are a bit better here. In the round of 16, Liverpool faltered away to Lille before rebounding in styling fashion at Anfield through a Fernando Torres brace and a 3-1 aggregate win. It was vintage European Liverpool---keep it close away from home with tight defending and an attack that relies on the counter, use the home fixture to nick as many goals necessary. And, as has so often been the case in Europe, Liverpool can rely on what's arguably the finest atmosphere to be found on a weekday evening.
Benfica is not unlike Lille---pacy, skilled, dangerous in any number of areas. If anything, they're maybe a Lille on steroids, plus experience and savvy. What we saw in the first leg (albeit on torrent delay for me) was a side that can pose a threat at any point in the match, whether it's on the counter or simply as a matter of exerting attacking force to the nth degree. Their two goals in the first leg may have both come from penalties, but had they taken even a quarter of their other chances, the scoreline would have been vastly different.
But away from the Stadium of Light, at least from a goalscoring perspective, they haven't been as prolific in the competition. Since a 2-1 defeat in the qualifying round at Ukraian side Vorskla (after the tie had been settled 4-0 in the first leg), Benfica have only lost once---a 1-0 loss to AEK Athens. But they haven't scored more than two goals in any away fixture, and they've only kept a clean sheet on one occasion---a 2-0 win at a stuttering Everton. In league it's been a different story, as they've notched at least four goals on four separate occasions. But if we take away anything, it's that European competition might be a little different story. Where have we heard that before?
And the news gets a bit better for Liverpool, at least from the perspective of who Benfica will be bringing to the fold. Reports have Javier Saviola missing the match due to a foot injury he picked up in the league win over Braga, which will give Liverpool a bit of relief in defense. But they can't breathe too easily, as the attacking combination of Oscar Cardozo, Angel Di Maria, and Pablo Aimar will be more than enough. Cardozo alone had nearly a half-dozen quality chances from open play in the first match, and while I doubt it'll be as open on Thursday, there's no reason to think they'll retreat into the shell away from home.
On the home side of things, however, there are also a few concerns about who's available. Emiliano Insua misses through a booking in the first leg, and he'll be joined by the newly rambunctious Ryan Babel. The absence of the former creates a bit more of a problem than the latter---with Fabio Aurelio still on the mend, there's no natural left back to fill in the gap. My choice is Daniel Agger, who's been in good form in central defense and has been getting forward in spades in recent weeks.
And here's the Mad Lib portion of Liverpool previews this season: In front of the back line we'll see the partnership of _________________ and ___________________ in midfield, with ________________ and _________________ on the flanks and ______________________ supporting Fernando Torres.
It's a little easier for now, with Maxi cup-tied and Ryan Babel suspended, so you'd think it's got to be Dirk Kuyt on the right and Yossi Benayoun on the left. The uncertainties about Alberto Aquilani's fitness and form makes Lucas and Javier Mascherano the likeliest pairing in midfield, with Steven Gerrard behind the increasingly disillusioned Fernando Torres. Update: I just realized how thin Liverpool is for this match: if Rafa chooses the aforementioned options up front, that leaves Aquilani and Ngog as semi-regular first teamers. And that's as deep as they can get.
You can't downplay the significance of a win on Thursday, even if it comes in the shadow of Leo Messi and the Champions League. The continued struggles in league make a fight-back in the Europa League that much more important, and there's nothing to suggest that Liverpool aren't equal to the task. It's going to be nervy, it's going to be tense, and it's likely going to come down to Liverpool's ability to handle adversity. And while they've been discouragingly inconsistent this season, you can't help but like their chances.