Liverpool follow in glorious Champions League footsteps to Benfica

Liverpool’s road to glory has run through the Estadio da Luz before. The Merseyside club have won European football’s most prestigious trophy both times they have met Benfica in the quarter-finals. Jurgen Klopp’s team are aiming to make it a hat-trick, starting with the first leg of the last eight of the Champions League tonight in Lisbon.

The two previous occasions were in the old European Cup. In 1978, Bob Paisley’s team lagged way behind in the title race at home and effectively had only one trophy left to play for when they arrived in Portugal. Six years later there were still three pieces of silverware available when Joe Fagan’s side were drawn against Benfica; 1983-84 would become Anfield’s most successful season with the club winning the title, the League Cup and the European Cup. This is the campaign that Klopp’s men hope to emulate or even surpass in the coming weeks.

In terms of talent and coherence, Liverpool’s 2022 vintage are a much stronger team in many ways. Fagan’s squad contained a number of legendary names but were in the midst of a transition period. Paisley had retired after the previous season and although Kenny Dalglish, Ian Rush, Graeme Souness, Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson formed the backbone of the side, some of the mainstays of the previous decade were beginning to show signs of wear and tear. Phil Thompson and Phil Neal were at the tail end of their brilliant careers. Terry McDermott had left. The balance of the midfield was rarely right. There were times when Liverpool creaked.

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Dalglish was 33. On January 2, his cheekbone was smashed by Manchester United’s Kevin Moran in a 1-1 draw at Anfield. He was out for more than two months. Fagan was desperate to get him back on the pitch when Benfica came to Merseyside for the first leg. The Scot was not quite ready and he was named as a substitute.

The Portuguese side had been a power in the 1960s, winning two European Cups and reaching three more finals. Their coach was a 36-year-old Swede who was making a big reputation for himself. This was the first time many of the English public had heard the name Sven-Goran Eriksson. It would not be the last.

Eriksson was familiar with the Liverpool way. He had spent time at Melwood, observing and learning, in the early part of his coaching career. Benfica were excellent in the first half and the Kop held their breath on two occasions when the away team should have scored. After the break Fagan sat on Dalglish for his first action since January. He was gaunt and his face showed the scars of the operation to reset his cheek but his arrival invigorated Anfield. The visiting side had killed the crowd in the opening period but now the atmosphere kicked in. Suddenly Benfica were nervous and lost their shape. Although Dalglish did not play particularly well, Rush scored a header to give Liverpool a single-goal advantage to take back to Portugal. “It wasn’t so much what he did on the ball,” Fagan said. “His presence frightened Benfica.”

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Klopp has more options than his illustrious predecessor. Dalglish and Rush terrified defenses, especially when they were in tandem, but the dropoff when one of them was missing was huge. Mohamed Salah produces a similar fear factor and with the Liverpool manager able to shuffle Sadio Mane, Diogo Jota, Luis Diaz and Roberto Firmino around the Egypt striker, the Stadium of Light might be a dark place for the home side’s defenders tonight.

A storm engulfed Anfield when Liverpool beat Benfica in 1984

(Liverpool F.C. via Getty Images)

Still, in 1984 Benfica were confident they could turn around a one-goal deficit at home. They had the ability. What Liverpool had was strength. Klopp calls his team “mentality monsters.” Souness and co. could match them for psychological toughness.

They were masters of niggle – think Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. The Portuguese side were not allowed to develop a rhythm. Modern-day Kopites would howl with rage if opponents did this to their team. Liverpool asserted their dominance early and were a goal up through Ronnie Whelan before 10 minutes had passed. Craig Johnston made it two before half time and although Benfica pulled one back, Rush and Whelan killed the game completely with late goals. This was a taste of things to eat. Fagan’s team strengthened their way to a treble, outmuscling Everton in the League Cup final and then facing down Roma in the European Cup final in the most hostile of circumstances at the Italian club’s home ground.

The boys of ’84 could play, for sure. But they did not have the fluidity and pace of Klopp’s side. Today’s team are closer to their peak, too. They have more points of attack, with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson spreading the pitch and opening up space. Their ceiling is higher than the treble-winners. A quadruple is unlikely given the extent of the task but definitely not out of the question. They should have far too much for the Portuguese side.

The path to the Champions League final runs through Lisbon. Klopp’s team are strong enough to put this tie to bed tonight. The lesson of history is that good things happen when Liverpool get past Benfica in the quarter-finals.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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