At a raucous, flagpole-throwing Stadio da Luz, Liverpool took control of their destiny and soundly beat their hosts 3-1. There was a burst of life handed to the home side following an Ibrahima Konaté error in the second half, but a flurry of pressure yielded no furter results, and by the hour mark, things were well in hand again, with Luis Díaz tacking on a deserved third — the Reds created eight clear cut chances on the night — to the dismay of the Benfica faithful.
Below, we dig into the narrative of the night and crown some winners and losers of the contest.
Naby Lad: It’s not particularly controversial to call Naby Keïta’s time in Red ‘inconsistent’. Coming in as the third most expensive Liverpool signing of all time and picking the legendary number eight shirt, expectations were high, but through a combination of injuries and uncertainty about which midfield role suits him best, a run of performances has never really materialised for the Guinean.
When he has played, intermittent though it has been, he has largely been good — although his lack of obvious physicality and hustle means some fans will never embrace him — and sometimes, he has been outstanding.
Tonight, the 27-year old — looking like a man who has spent some free time in the weight room this season — was tremendous, at the heart of everything the Reds did on either side of the ball. With four shots, two key passes, one assist, three dribbles, five tackles and an interception, Keïta put up the sort of all-action, two-way performance Jürgen Klopp signed him for, and the kind of stat line he will have produce more often if he wants to extend his contract beyond next summer.
Control: Despite the flurry of pressure from Benfica — handed to them, it must be said, and we’ll get to that later — at the start of the second half, Liverpool were largely in control of this one. The hosts did not take a single shot after the hour mark, as the Reds decided enough was enough, robbing both the home team and their fans of their gusto.
That control translated into a late goal, as well, with the visitors turning the screw a little in the final ten minutes, as their opponents began to tire, and if not for Diogo Jota getting the ball stuck in his feet, should have produced a fourth.
Winning Champions League quarter-final away legs 3-1, and comfortably, is not generally something allowed most teams, and Liverpool fans should do well to remember that and enjoy it while it lasts.
The Ref: He was good, Jesús Gil Manzano. We would like to see more of this man.
Darwinism: Ahead of the match, much spotlight was on Benfica’s young Uruguayan attacker, Darwin Núñez, famously scouted by just about every big club in Europe, and the 22-year old did not disappoint. Though he was given a rough ride by Ibrahima Konaté and Virgil van Dijk, he never backed down from the challenge, and kept running at and dueling the two for the full 90 minutes.
When he got his goal, fortunate though it was, it did not feel undeserved given his efforts, and if Jürgen Klopp already had eyes for the forward, he will not have been turned off by this performance.
Ibou KonaYEAH: The other 22-year old in the equation did not disappoint either. Many fans complain about Konaté ‘getting caught up the pitch’, but they fail to realise exactly how much space the Frenchman is expected to cover, and how aggressive he must be in doing so for Liverpool to attack the way they do.
At times, the former RB Leipzig man is solely responsible for a good 30% of the pitch, allowing Trent Alexander-Arnold the freedom to roam forward, wide or central as he pleases, and that kind of freedom does not come without a cost.
To his credit, Ibou was victorious in every one of those situations with one exception, going down to what he deemed a foul in midfield, allowing Everton to a take a shot from 20 yards, but otherwise, terrific defending in supremely demanding circumstances.
Nicked the opening goal as well, his first for the club. All in all, a tremendous night for the young defender...
Ibou KoNOté: ...dreadful mistake for the Núñez goal, though, it must be said. With Rafa hitting a flat cross into the area, Ibou looked in full control, but got his feet mixed up and allowed the ball to slip through to the Uruguayan, who took advantage and slotted home.
Less of that, big man.
The Egyptian Prince: It’s been 45 days since Mohamed Salah scored a non-penalty goal for the Reds. In that time, the Egyptian has missed six consecutive clear cut chances. His underlying numbers are not dramatically diminished, but there is a sense of sharpness missing, the touch and decision making letting the 29-year old down after his instincts have placed him in good situations.
The Reds have phenomenal depth in attack, unseen in recent memory, and it may be time for Jürgen Klopp to use it, allowing the club’s top scorer — looking jaded after having played 51 times already this season, and suffering a pair of devastating disappointments with the national team — a bit of a rest, ideally allowing him to be as sharp as possible when the season is decided a month from now.
Excitement: It would have been possible for Liverpool to put this even more out of reach for Benfica, but, while the second leg does need to be played, this result all but assures their advancement into the semi-finals. That’s good, if you ask me, but perhaps not particularly exciting for neutral fans and narrative-addicted media outlets.
What Happens Next
Season-defining is a term that gets bandied about a lot, but the Reds face Manchester City in a crucial six-pointer on Sunday, then again on Easter Saturday for the FA Cup semi-final, two games that are likely to be decisive in how this season is ultimately perceived in the future.
Hold on to your butts!