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Liverpool

Benfica done, now for Manchester City: Firmino leads the way as Klopp's Liverpool super squad continues to deliver

08:00 WAT 14/04/2022
Roberto Firmino Liverpool 2021-22
The Reds booked their place in the Champions League semi-finals on Wednesday, and now all roads lead to Man City in the FA Cup semi-finals on Saturday

At the end, it was the losers who were making all the noise.

Long after the final whistle had sounded at Anfield, long after Liverpool’s place in the semi-finals of the Champions League had been confirmed, it was the fans of Benfica who could be heard.

They stayed behind for more than half an hour, singing their hearts out. Their coach, Nelson Verissimo, and his players emerged from the dressing room to salute them, and no wonder. As European away support goes, this was as good as it gets.

The Portuguese enjoyed their trip to Merseyside, that’s for sure, and their team certainly gave them something to get behind. Verissimo’s men scored three times on the night against the would-be Premier League and European champions, but their 3-1 first-leg loss in Lisbon cost them.

And so Liverpool march on to a third semi-final in five seasons and a tie against Villarreal that they will be strong favourites to win.

No time to think about that now, though. Before that come other examinations, big ones and crucial ones, starting with the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City on Saturday.

Jurgen Klopp insisted on Tuesday that Wembley would have no bearing on his team selection for Benfica, but few believed him.

And sure enough, his starting XI on Wednesday night showed seven changes from the one which had begun Sunday’s pulsating Premier League draw at the Etihad.

Only Alisson Becker, Joel Matip, Jordan Henderson and Diogo Jota kept their place, which meant we were treated to perhaps the strongest bench Liverpool have ever named for a competitive fixture, with the likes of Virgil van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson, Thiago Alcantara, Fabinho, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah all among the substitutes.

Thiago, Mane, Fabinho and Salah all got a run-out in the second half, when the tie was pretty much done and dusted, but Van Dijk, Alexander-Arnold and Robertson were given the luxury of a rare night off, snuggled into their tracksuits and big coats.

How important that proves to be, we will know at around 6pm on Saturday. But on a night when Manchester City were put through the ringer by Atletico Madrid, suffering injury scares to both Kevin De Bruyne and Kyle Walker, Liverpool were able to conserve energy, juggle their resources and play the longer game, while still securing safe passage to the last four.

They got there thanks to Ibrahima Konate’s second header of the tie, and to a second-half brace from Roberto Firmino, who became the fourth Reds player to reach double figures for the season, and who is now closing in on a century of goals at Anfield (he has 98).

The Brazilian may not be the automatic pick he once was, but his worth to Klopp’s side should not be questioned. For all the good form of Diogo Jota and for all the impact Luis Diaz has made, Firmino has a very good chance of starting at Wembley.

Konate, too, will be pushing for inclusion. The France Under-21 defender, as he did in the first leg in Portugal, gave his side the lead in the first half with a towering header from a left-wing corner.

And though there were some wobbly moments defensively, particularly in the last 20 minutes when Benfica struck twice, Konate’s speed and strength could make him a more than useful asset, particularly on a pitch as big and as energy-sapping as Wembley. If not, he is a certainty to start against Manchester United at Anfield next week.

Kostas Tsimikas, too, has done his chances no harm for that game. The Greece international proved a more-than-able stand-in for Robertson at left-back, picking up two assists and earning the Player of the Match award from UEFA.

There are few more popular figures than the former Olympiacos man, but he is far from just a happy mascot. He can play as well.

As for Klopp, he understandably cut a satisfied figure, post-match. No theatrical fist-pumps for the Kop this time, just a business-like pat of the badge on his chest. There is work to be done, games to be played, decisions to be made. The business end of the season is well and truly upon us.

“We never take it for granted,” he told his post-game press conference. “And the day I’m not over the moon about getting to a Champions League semi-final, then something is really wrong. Maybe then it would be the right time to just quit!”

No danger of that, of course. The pressures of management will one day catch up with Klopp, but for now he looks as alive as he ever has. He is relishing each and every challenge, embracing each and every fixture.

And with a team like this, with a squad like this, you can see why.