Liverpool have given themselves a leg up in the Champions League quarter-finals, taking a 3-1 lead to Anfield for second leg against Benfica after bypassing the Lisbon-based club at the Estadio da Luz.
It was one-way traffic in the first half as the travelling Merseysiders cantered to a 2-0 lead at the break, battering Benfica from pillar to post in an exhibition of scintillating attacking play, with Ibrahima Konate going against the grain and netting a bullet header from a corner, before Sadio Mane tucked home from close range.
However, momentum somewhat shifted after the restart as the hosts looked to raise the decibel levels of their raucous home audience and give the packed arena something to truly cheer about, with Darwin Nunez justifying his pre-match hype by reducing the deficit to just the single goal.
The two halves were almost diametrically at odds. Liverpool were in cruise control and superb in the opening 45 minutes, but Benfica’s early intensity after the restart forced Klopp to shuffle the pack just 15 minutes in, making a triple substitution as he looked to wrestle back control.
The German broke up what was, in essence, an ‘experimental’ midfield trident, having never previously started the combination of Fabinho, Naby Keita and Thiago. And it was a real Jekyll-and-Hyde showing from the trio. The first 45 minutes was near-faultless, but Benfica’s second-half pressure just seemed to paralyse them.
18+only. No deposit required. New & eligible UK & ROI customers only. Account must be fully verified to place the bet. Applies to single bets and Bet Builders only. Returns exclude Free Bet stake. T&Cs apply.
That first half was a genuine delight to watch as the trio threaded passes together with the fluidity of peak Barca, it was almost tiki-taka in microcosm, a training-ground rondo being played out in front of 60-odd thousand whistling Lisboetas. They thrived amid the backdrop of howls and scowls.
But, as Benfica ramped up the pressure, the pendulum appeared to swing in the direction of Nelson Verissimo’s men.
However, Klopp’s proactive approach to that early wobble from his side paid dividends as Liverpool went on to subdue Benfica’s growing confidence and grab a late goal from none other than Luis Diaz, a former Porto forward.
His in-game response highlights a world-class ability to react as a coach. Instead of allowing Benfica to go up the gears, he made a triple change that stemmed the flow and allowed Liverpool to regain some control. The question now is: will Klopp go with the Fabinho-Keita-Thiago midfield again?
It is quite telling that that particular combo is only the eighth time they’ve been on the pitch together in a Liverpool shirt. Incredibly, Keita has already played more games with Luis Diaz (nine) than he has with Thiago (eight), perhaps underlining Klopp’s lack of faith in playing with two nimble tempo-setters.
Either way, it was a job well done for Klopp. His initial selection got the business done in the first half, and when he recognised danger, he mixed things up to regain the ascendency and swing the game very much back in Liverpool’s favour. Benfica now have a mountain to climb.