Benfica 2-1 Liverpool: Benfica scrap to a victory, but it should have been more resounding
A decent game for the neutral tonight, but fairly underwhelming from a tactical point of view. Both sides played as expected, the result was no surprise, and all the goals came from defensive mistakes rather than attacking brilliance.
Benfica played with a variation of their usual shape, because of the injury to Javier Saviola. Pablo Aimar moved forward into a more offensive role behind Oscar Cardoso, whilst Carlos Martins came into the centre of midfield. This change meant that Ramires and Angel di Maria played slightly wider than usual, and the two swapped wings throughout the game, although di Maria was always more effective on his natural left-hand side.
Liverpool’s shape was a familiar, solid 4-2-3-1 that looked to get men behind the ball and pinch goals either on the break, or from a set-play.
As so often with Rafael Benitez in European knockout ties, his plan worked very well. Although Liverpool were under constant pressure early on, they managed to break at speed with Gerrard and Torres, and when the Liverpool captain won a free-kick on the left, they went ahead through Daniel Agger. Benfica defended the free-kick really poorly – they set out zonally, but the problem was not the zonal marking as such, it was the way the system was deployed, with a single line of players. When the free-kick is that central, and that close to the byline, there must be one player ahead of the line of defenders, preventing the cut-back. There wasn’t, and Agger took advantage.
After Ryan Babel was needlessly sent-off, Liverpool switched to a 4-4-1ish formation, with Kuyt playing infront of Johnson, and Gerrard drifting in from a left-sided position in a similar fashion to the role he plays with England, as the main support to Torres.
The way Liverpool set-up initially (defensively, playing on the counter) meant that the sending-off didn’t alter their overall strategy, and they weathered the storm quite well, with two deep banks of four in front of Reina, and Torres left to battle high up the pitch. The only concern was Emiliano Insua, who had a shocking first half – and on a yellow card became exposed to the runs of Ramires and di Maria.
Benfica passed the ball around well and created more chances, but they missed Saviola hugely. His role is to play ‘around’ Cardoso, looking for his knock-downs and making runs both towards the ball, and over the top. Aimar is a fine player and not dissimilar from Saviola in physique, but he struggled to compensate for his fellow Argentinian’s absence. Saviola would have given a further option by testing the Liverpool centre-backs on the ground – they were constantly caught out in the air, but Cardoso missed numerous headed opportunities (although his two penalties were superb). Jamie Carragher, in particular, can be exposed against pace and skill but had a relatively easy ride despite Benfica’s numerical advantage.
Benfica needed goals in this game, and it was this that convinced Jorge Jesus to introduce another striker at 1-1, in the shape of Nuno Gomes. He replaced the right-back Maxi Pereira (who often fails to produce quality on the ball in the final third) and played just off Cardoso. Ramires switched to right-back to compensate – but he had less license to come forward than the left-back, Fabio Coentrao, since Gerrard was more of an attacking threat than Durk Kuyt.
Although Benfica went onto score another goal, the switch to two strikers was a poor move. It took a player out of midfield, and suddenly Benfica had less possession and stopped creating chances. The goal came from a (slightly fortunate) penalty, and they resorted to 35-yard potshots from their centre-backs, rather than the crisp, patient passing game they’d played when they were playing 4-4-1-1. Gomes hardly touched the ball, and Liverpool’s two banks of four were far more comfortable with Gomes standing upfront waiting for service, rather than the now-subdued Ramires’ runs.
Benfica played so well initially because they had three players (Ramires, Aimar and di Maria) running at two holding midfield players (Mascherano and Lucas), with Martins and Javi Garcia free behind them. The switch to two strikers meant Aimar was deeper, and Ramires was miles away from most of the action.
As with two other Europa League matches, the 2-1 scoreline makes it a fairly balanced tie, and Benitez will be confident his side can progress through to the semi-finals at Anfield. Benfica needed a third goal to really tip the balance of the tie, and having played at home for an hour with one additional player, they really should have got it.