The search for more silverware will only get harder for Liverpool from here on in, warned Jürgen Klopp in Lisbon, but it was with unmistakable and understandable relish that his thoughts turned to what might prove the first of three defining matches with Manchester City this season.
Benfica went perfectly on Tuesday, the opening 25 minutes of the second half notwithstanding, in terms of a Champions League quarter-final first leg result away from home, preparation for a potentially decisive moment in the Premier League title race on Sunday, and beyond.
Liverpool will arrive at the Etihad Stadium with another slice of club history to their name. The 3-1 win at Estadio da Luz was their eighth consecutive victory on the road in all competitions, a new Liverpool record, and while Klopp spoke of his team “really digging deep and fighting with all they have” to extend the sequence in Portugal , overall it was Liverpool’s most commanding performance for several weeks. That is not to suggest City will be anywhere near as compliant as Benfica were in an almost one-sided first half, however.
Klopp used and rotated his rich resources to tell effect once again. Jordan Henderson, Joël Matip, Roberto Firmino and Diogo Jota started on the bench – only Matip remained there throughout – ahead of the City game when all will be in contention to return. Trent Alexander-Arnold was given a valuable 89 minutes to rediscover his rhythm and truly outstanding passing range after a hamstring injury, likewise Naby Keïta, who offered creativity, bite and threat from midfield, following his recovery from a knee problem.
For the second Champions League away game in succession it was a triple substitution – and not the quintuple – that enabled Liverpool to stifle an opponent in the ascendency around the hour mark. As at Inter, when Henderson, Keita and Luis Díaz were introduced with the hosts increasingly dangerous, it was circumstances on the night rather than with a mind on the next game that prompted Klopp to withdraw Thiago Alcântara, Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah in the 61st minute against Benfica. But they should all feel the benefit.
Afterwards the Liverpool manager again mentioned the strains – mental and physical – that Mané and Salah have been under of late. The time is clearly approaching for the strikers to be given a break having carried the burden of expectation in Senegal’s and Egypt’s run to the Africa Cup of Nations final, and again in the recent World Cup play-offs, with Salah suffering deflating defeat in both . Liverpool’s leading marksman has scored once in his last nine outings for club and country, a penalty at Brighton, and will view City as the perfect occasion to respond.
The comfort of the two-goal lead in a Champions League quarter-final, and Liverpool’s evident superiority over Benfica for most of the night, offers Klopp an opportunity in the second leg to rest Salah before the FA Cup semi-final against Pep Guardiola’s team three days later. Klopp will admonish any talk that could be construed as complacency, as he did in the aftermath of Tuesday’s win, but the task confronting Liverpool next week is certainly less taxing than what faces City on their travels to Atlético Madrid. The prospect of the Premier League and FA Cup rivals also meeting in the Champions League final will increase should both emerge unscathed.
The Liverpool manager embraced what lies ahead before leaving Lisbon. “If we win against City, which is difficult enough, nobody would think ‘That’s it decided’ because of the quality of the opponent. We play now against the best team in the world, that’s how it is, but we will give it a try anyway. What we did in the last six, seven, eight months is create the basis, and a better basis you cannot create. We are in the quarter-final, the semi-final, but the further you go in competitions the harder it gets. That’s unfortunately the truth – you rarely reach a final and play against a team who beat you 8-0. That doesn’t happen. The Chelsea final was incredibly intense, two top-class sides and that is how all the games will be for us from now on.
“We know it since late December. It was clear then that if we want to achieve something we better win all our games. This is not really likely but that’s why we take it game by game and then it’s maybe a little bit more possible, but it will be really tough. Everybody knows about the importance of the next game, but after this game there will be other games in other competitions but in the Premier League as well, so if you cannot be first you want to be second. If you are behind, you want to come closer, if you are close, you want to overtake. We will give it a proper try.”