Apologies for the tardiness of this missive, as I only got the chance to watch the game today. That’s what happens when you’re working for The Man (even if, in my case, “The Man” is a charity.) I was further delayed last night by other obligations. At some point, I’ll have the luxury of ducking out early for Champions League matchups like I used to, but converting people to the one true path of Reds glory takes some time. That can be true in a macro sense for the club, as well, since it’s taken us a few years to get to the point where we can comfortably substitute stars like Sadio Mané, Mohamed Salah, and Thiago Alcãntara with stars that shine just as brightly in Roberto Firmino, Diogo Jota, and Captain Jordan Henderson. Granted, it also helps that the CL allows five subs which the Other 14 idiots among the PL clubs have finally agreed to shift to, only two years after everyone else in Europe and England. So, yeah, there have been some long waits in a number of contexts, but yesterday’s match was that only in the second half, whereas the first period could’ve been the picture perfect image of a fast start. This is where I tend to fall back on my “tale of two halves” device and it’s true that the game did change when Benfica charged out after halftime and decided to not cower away from our attack but meet it head-on. I can’t say it was that much more entertaining (due credit to Alisson Becker’s half-Cruyff in the face of the charging Rafa Silva) but at least it was more of a match.
But the strange thing was, for all of the outright domination that we exerted in the first half, there were quite a few moments of outright sloppy play. That trend continued in the second half and it was part of why Benfica reasserted themselves until around the 80th minute, when we began the slow chokehold that represents most of our late game scenarios with a lead. The returning warrior, Luis Diaz, putting the icing on the club for whom he’s been a bane of their existence (7 games; no losses) was just following the obvious plotline. One could say that sheer dominance, followed by uncertainty, has been another of those plotlines this season. Or perhaps it’s just a study in contrasts. When we play really well, it becomes expected. When we don’t, it’s not a question of giving credit to the opposition or even surrendering to the vagaries of the most random of major sports. It’s simply because we’re not playing well, despite having just shown how well we were playing in the first period with a two goal lead that easily could have been four or more.
Those contrasts exist in the short-term- How amazing was it to see Ibrahima Konaté get his first goal for the club only to whiff on a ball into the box that put Benfica’s goal on a plate? -and the long-term- Naby Keita had one of his best games in a Liverpool shirt after four years of too infrequent and occasionally uncertain performances. How will we look back on this season if we don’t manage to win another trophy, including losing a chance at two of them to our greatest rival of the past four years, despite most acknowledging that this may be the greatest Liverpool squad in the club’s history? None of us will stop being Reds fans if we do fail, but just how much will all of us look at it as an opportunity missed to stamp a place in history that’s easier to relate to others, rather than saying something like: “Statistically, this was the best squad in Europe…” Is there really a dividing line between the fans who only care about silverware and those who pay attention to more nuanced depictions of success like xG? After all, the statheads like trophies, too. I don’t think there are any easy answers to a lot of these questions that tread perilously close to the “What is the nature of fandom?” concept. Was yesterday’s match a good one because of the first half or just OK because of the second? In the end, we got the win and take a two-goal lead back to Anfield, where most would almost assuredly expect us to pave a pathway to the semifinals over our Primeira Liga opponents. We’ll undoubtedly discover new contrasts along the way.
Benfica 1 – 3 Liverpool
2.3 of that xG for the Reds was generated in the first half, as you might expect. The dominance was absurd and, despite Benfica’s surge in the second half, our control over the match was actually pretty sound the whole way through, as this equally ridiculous passing map indicates:
If you’re thinking that looks like we rarely let Benfica out of their own end, you’re right. Part of that control was the extremely measured play by the aforementioned Naby Lad:
That’s the ideal statline for a midfielder, even without the killer assist on a throughball that put Luis in behind the opposition’s entire back line. Much has been made of the fact that Mo’s contract ends next year because he’s been one of the best players in the squad (and the world) since he arrived. But Naby’s contract ends next year, too, and relatively few fans have taken notice because of the inconsistency of his overall career with the Reds. In that respect, the contrast could not be more stark; between one player who’s acknowledged as one of the best in the world and about whom we can count the games missed to injury on one hand in five years… and the other player who has had extended periods out of the squad and whom regularly features on the bench, instead of the pitch because the manager feels that someone else can do better. One of those players that Jürgen has come to rely upon is Thiago, whom was equally impressive in the first half, with the most passes (56), most passes completed (52), most final third entries (10), and most ball recoveries (8.) That, too, is sterling play for a midfielder. Speaking of sterling play…
Once again, we return to that theme of contrasts, where we think about the desperation of last year, whereas this year we’re so comfortable at CB that one of our best, Joe Gomez, is mostly deputizing at RB to give Trent breathers, as he did in this match. Ibou was great and he’s among the recent list of arrivals (Diogo and Luis being two more) who has been able to slot right in and begin playing just as we hoped he would when we bought him. It helps, of course, when you’re playing alongside the other rock.
Yawn. What? Again? Sure. When you compare his clockwork-like performances and the money we paid for him, compared to the money that, say, Man United paid for Harry Maguire, it’s laughable. His ability to churn out games like this one are like the records that Jürgen keeps breaking (first time the club has ever won 5 straight away games in European play; first time the club has ever won 8 straight away games in all comps; no first half goals conceded in 19 straight games (again, longest run in club history.)) They’re not huge records that stand out to casual observers, but they’re a measure of the undercurrent of quality that now runs through the squad, including its newest members.
Killin’ it, yo. He was whistled every time he touched the ball in the Stádia de Luz because they remembered his outstanding play against them for archrival, Porto, and this game was no different. And it’s not just about individual performance, as the remarkable team goal that was our second score displays:
And throughout this whole post, I haven’t even mentioned the continued amazing passes by Trent Alexander-Arnold, just like that one. Or the fact that Ibou’s goal means that we’ve had 20 different goalscorers this season; the most in the PL. Or that Sadio’s goal gave him the most in the CL knockout rounds since the Reds returned to the competition in 2017-18 (now tied with Karim Benzema, after today) and more CL goals for Liverpool than Stevie G (22), trailing only, of course, Mo. Or…
Yeah. It could go on like this, but I have work in the morning. Thankfully, the squad has a couple more days off before the game of the season on Sunday. Get down to Magee’s. If we pull off the win at the Etihad, the only contrast might be how every season in the club’s 130-year history pales in the face of this one. If Naby can duplicate the below display, it’s a real possibility.