There was hushed silence as Pedro Marques gathered his players and staff for an impromptu meeting at the Benfica Campus.
It was May 2019, a beautiful summer’s day, and the Portuguese club’s technical director had an end-of-season surprise to reveal.
“Guys,” he told the room. “I have some bad news and some very good news.
“The bad news is that you are not going on holiday on Sunday. You have another week at work...”
Cue the groans.
“But the good news,” he continued, “is that we have a fantastic opportunity, something that will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for some of you…”
Cue the excitement.
“Next Saturday, we are going to play a match against one of the top teams in the world,” he smiled. “So I ask you, please, be ready!”
It had been a manic few hours. The previous day, Marques had taken a call from Julian Ward, a good friend who was then the head of loan pathways and football partnerships at Liverpool.
Ward needed a favour. The Reds were preparing to take on Tottenham in the Champions League final, but there was a three-week gap between their last Premier League match and the showpiece in Madrid.
As they had learned the previous year, when they lost to Real Madrid in Kyiv, that presented a problem in terms of sharpness and rhythm.
Would Benfica, Ward wondered, be able to send a team to Marbella to play in a training match against Jurgen Klopp’s soon-to-be European champions? Would they be able to play as Tottenham would, recreating the attacking and defensive patterns Liverpool expected to face against Mauricio Pochettino’s side in the final?
Liverpool had tried various clubs across Europe, but most had already headed off on their summer holidays. Others had links to Spurs, either through players, coaches or administrators, that would present a risk in terms of information leaks.
And so Benfica - or rather, Benfica B - were chosen.
“We were still in competition,” Marques tells GOAL. “The B team was about to finish the league season, and I said straight away that this was a fantastic opportunity for us, for the boys, so let’s see if we can do it.”
Despite having lost a few key players to international duty - left-back Nuno Tavares, now at Arsenal, and striker Goncalo Ramos, who faced Liverpool in this season's quarter-final, were among those missing - Marques and his coaches were able to put together a side they felt could be competitive, as well as carrying out the necessary tactical instructions from Liverpool.
“I couldn’t even tell the boys where we were going or who we were playing,” he laughs. “I’d agreed with Julian and Liverpool that we would keep it under the radar.
“Believe me, in Portugal that is not easy! There is so much media attention, and information can come from anywhere.
“As you can imagine, there was a bit of buzz with everyone trying to figure out who we were playing, but we managed to keep it a secret until we got to Marbella.”
Liverpool, through first team operations manager Ray Haugham, made the necessary travel and accommodation arrangements, with a 35-strong Benfica party making the short flight from Lisbon on Thursday May 23.
“They gave us everything we needed,” says Marques. “They were open to us staying for a few days after the game if we wanted, as either a mini training-camp or a short holiday.
“But what we decided was that we would go Thursday to Sunday, and take a bigger party than we normally would. That allowed some of the staff to go, staff who would not normally travel to an away game. It was sort of an end-of-season reward.”
Once in Marbella, Marques, B-team manager Renato Pavia and his coaching staff met with Pep Lijnders, Liverpool’s assistant boss, plus video analysts Greg Mathieson and Mark Leyland.
“We went through the gameplan of Liverpool, and how they felt Tottenham would play,” says Marques. “We went through how we could set up like them, in terms of shape, a few pressing patterns and some attacking plays.
“But they also asked us to play freely outside of those specific situations. They wanted it to be a proper game.”
And so Benfica became Spurs for the day.
Vinicius Jau, a Brazilian forward who now plays back in his homeland with Avai, took on the guise of Christian Eriksen, while the Guinea-Bissau born forward Jose Gomes played the role of Harry Kane. David Tavares, a towering central midfielder, was reported to have particularly impressed Klopp and his staff.
Marques, understandably, says that there was some trepidation, as well as excitement, among his players.
“It was a great opportunity, of course,” he says. “The boys wanted to give a good account of themselves, but they were also very aware that if they accidentally gave someone a knock and put them out of the final, it would not be good.”
The game took place on Saturday evening, mirroring the kick-off time for the final, and within a few minutes Liverpool had scored through Sadio Mane.
The move for the goal bore a striking similarity to the one which led to Liverpool’s second-minute penalty in the final, a lofted pass from midfield, played into the space between Benfica’s right-back and right-sided centre-back.
“We were thinking ‘woah, this is going to be a long day!’” laughs Marques. “But our boys were able to organise themselves, get themselves together and in the end it was a good game.”
It finished, as the final did, 2-0 to Liverpool. And afterwards, Klopp, his staff and his players made sure their guests were thanked and made to feel welcome.
“It was a privilege,” says Marques. “We all understood that we were there on a mission, but we knew we had to enjoy it as well.
“It was a great experience. I knew a few people from Liverpool, like Pep and [physio] Lee Nobes, so we were able to mingle. And the Liverpool players were top-notch. They mixed with our boys and gave them some shirts and boots, things like that. They were brilliant.
“What we said to the boys was ‘enjoy it, but learn as well’, look at all these top players. How do they arrive at training? How do they tie their boots, put their shinpads on, warm up? All those little things, soak it up.”
Benfica’s party, souvenirs tucked away in their luggage, flew back to Portugal the next day, and the following Saturday they watched on as goals from Mohamed Salah and Divock Origi at the Wanda Metropolitano gave the Reds their sixth European Cup triumph.
“We were all supporting them,” says Marques. “We were a tiny part of their preparation, so we were all very excited.
“All the boys were in the WhatsApp group sharing their thoughts. They were sending pics from where they were watching the final, some of them had their Liverpool shirts on from Marbella, which was nice to see.
“Everyone was watching and cheering for them.”