Last time against Benfica: Liverpool turn it around after exasperating start

The year was 2010, the eruption of an Icelandic volcano prevented Robert Lewandowski from signing for Blackburn, Rafa Benitez was at the helm at Anfield and it was the last time the Reds met Benfica in a competitive setting.

The two clubs crossed paths thanks to the Europa League, a competition the Reds had hoped to avoid but fell into its grasp after an uninspiring Champions League group stage.

Only seven points were managed in a group containing Debrecen, Fiorentina and Lyon and it would prove to be a four-year wait until they could have another attempt that would end in a similar fate.

For the first time since the 2003/04 campaign, it was Europa League Thursdays for the Reds and Benitez saw his side push Unirea Urziceni and Lille out of the way to set up the quarter-final tie with Benfica.

The two clubs met while on different trajectories, as the flame on Benitez’s attempt to end a long league title flickered, the Portuguese outfit were charging toward their 32nd Primeira Liga.


No beachball, but annoying all the same…

LISBON, PORTUGAL - Thursday, April 1, 2010: Smoke fills the Estadio da Luz as Sport Lisboa e Benfica supporters light fire-crackers during the UEFA Europa League Quarter-Final 1st Leg match against Liverpool. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The quarter-final tie first took Liverpool to the picturesque Lisbon, with the Stadium of Light – otherwise known as the Estadio da Luz – playing host to the first leg.

But not for the first time that season, the Stadium of Light did not make for a happy hunting ground – but at least there was no beachball in sight, even if it would’ve looked more at home in Portugal than Sunderland!

The match felt like it had it all, a first-half lead to feed optimism but an infuriating inability to make a chance stick, a referee that had you up in arms and a red card that certainly felt harsh.

Daniel Agger was the first goalscorer with a back-heel finish to boot inside just six minutes, but there was always a feeling bubbling under the surface that the game was to turn on its head.

And that it did when Benfica’s captain Luisao went flying into Fernando Torres and in the melee that followed, it was Ryan Babel that was handed his marching orders after shoving Luisao.

LISBON, PORTUGAL - Thursday, April 1, 2010: Liverpool players line-up for a team group photograph before the UEFA Europa League Quarter-Final 1st Leg match against Sport Lisboa e Benfica at the Estadio da Luz. Back row L-R: Lucas Leiva, Emiliano Insua, Dirk Kuyt, Daniel Agger, goalkeeper Pepe Reina, Fernando Torres. Front row L-R: Jamie Carragher, captain Steven Gerrard MBE, Glen Johnson, Ryan Babel, Javier Mascherano. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Liverpool XI First Leg: Reina; Johnson, Agger, Carragher, Insua; Lucas, Mascherano; Kuyt, Gerrard, Babel; Torres

“A referee with more discretion would have managed the situation more appropriately,” was how the Echo assessed the situation.

It handed Benitez further headaches with his squad already running thin with Maxi Rodriguez ineligible, Alberto Aquilani sidelined and Albert Riera out of favour.

But that was not to be the only troublesome part of the night as Benfica were awarded two penalties in the space of 20 second-half minutes, Oscar Cardozo converting without issue to make it 2-1.

Banged up, but not beaten and as the Echo would state: “This scoreline is retrievable and if this ‘character’ is again evident, Liverpool will progress – just pray the hopeless officials are nowhere to be seen.”


Turning it around

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Thursday, April 8, 2010: Liverpool players line-up for a team-group photograph before the UEFA Europa League Quarter-Final 2nd Leg match against Sport Lisboa e Benfica at Anfield.  Back row L-R: goalkeeper Pepe Reina, Dirk Kuyt, Daniel Agger, Sotirios Kyrgiakos, Fernando Torres. Front row L-R: Lucas Leiva, captain Steven Gerrard MBE, Jamie Carragher, Glen Johnson, Yossi Benayoun, Javier Mascherano. (Photo by: David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

With Babel and Emiliano Insua suspended after a red and yellow card respectively in Portugal, Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Yossi Benayoun were drafted into the XI by Benitez.

A 2-1 defeat in the first leg to overturn and Anfield came to the fore, just as it always does on a European night – even if it was on a Thursday.

“A throwback to what this stadium can be like when everyone is united behind a common cause; the singing, for example, of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ had a defiance that has not been heard since Tottenham’s visit in January,” was how the Echo reflected on the night.

It was not to see Liverpool stoke the flames of the fire from the first whistle, but they kept it burning before igniting midway through the first half.

The ever-reliable Dirk Kuyt was responsible for just that thanks to a header from a Steven Gerrard corner that was bizarrely nearly ruled out for offside before sense prevailed.

Liverpool XI Second Leg: Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Kyrgiakos, Agger; Lucas, Mascherano; Kuyt, Gerrard, Benayoun; Torres

The Liverpool captain was again the provider as the unlikely Lucas Leiva added his name to the scoreboard with his fifth goal for the club, with a composed finish into an empty net.

The aggregate score at half-time was 3-2 and with no overbearing referee in sight, it was a largely trouble-free run to the finish line thanks to the prolific Fernando Torres.

The Spaniard had doubts cast over his ability to see out the game but he needed only 86 to make sure of the Reds’ place in the Europa League semi-finals.

For the sixth time in 2009/10, Torres would score at least two goals in a single game – this time seeing them come in the space of just 24 minutes.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Thursday, April 8, 2010: Liverpool's Fernando Torres celebrates scoring his second goal, his side's fourth, against Sport Lisboa e Benfica during the UEFA Europa League Quarter-Final 2nd Leg match at Anfield. (Photo by: David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The first of his brace finished off a stunningly effective move from the Reds that started with Pepe Reina and needed only five passes to see the ball land in the opposite net to make it 3-0 on the night and 4-2 on aggregate.

Oscar Cardozo’s goal from a free-kick saw tension creep in ever so slightly before the man of the moment washed it all away just 12 minutes later, with Torres’ finish inside the box putting the lid on any possible comeback.

An enthralling tie that had it all ended with Benitez’s side as the victors, 5-3 on aggregate, and set a date with Torres’ first love, Atletico Madrid, in the semi-finals.

The victory over Benfica in 2010 did not lead to a trophy for Liverpool, but nearly 12 years on, the hope is that the script offers up a different ending for Jurgen Klopp‘s relentless Reds.