As the referee blew the final whistle last night at Anfield, confirming Liverpool FC’s passage into the semifinals of the Europa League, the Kop were in full voice belting out their famous anthem. But what the cameras also picked up, was an uncharacteristic smile of satisfaction from Rafa Benitez.
Liverpool’s home form has been awesome and last night, they brushed aside a Benfica side bristling with attacking menace.
The Reds’ defence was forced into a re-shuffle, as Benitez had no left back to choose from.
Daniel Agger slotted into that berth and looked far from a square peg in a round hole. His powerful forays into the opposition’s half, alongside his obvious defensive capabilities, gave Benitez food for thought for the future.
Sotirios Kyrgiakos played alongside Jamie Carragher and once again put in a more than useful performance. Although the giant Greek is no Sami Hyypia, he has certainly not let the team down when Benitez has called upon his services.
From the first whistle, it was clear Benfica were a threat. The pace and attacking mentality that the side possessed, coupled with the confidence that flowed through them given their long unbeaten run, made them dangerous.
But once again, Dirk Kuyt’s knack of scoring pivotal goals was on display last night, as he opened the scoring with a header goal that was almost a carbon copy of his winner in the Merseyside derby a few months earlier.
The Dutch striker's header gave the Reds the all important goal that they so badly needed and seemed to settle the nerves that were jangling a little before it.
But it must have been Lucas’s goal that bought Benitez the most pleasure. It was sound vindication indeed, as he has been roundly criticized for his continued support of a player that the media and some fans have poured unjustified scorn all over.
To Lucas’s immense credit, he has grown in character and stature and has been a solid performer in this campaign, going a long way to prove to the Kop that the faith shown in him by his manager is justified and bearing fruit.
The young Brazilian’s run into space and cool finish was a timely reminder of the player that Lucas was in his own days playing in the Brazilian league.
Given the mandate by Benitez to play further forward than he currently does, may allow his attacking skills to come to the fore and allow him to make the penetrating breaks from midfield that are sorely missed in this Liverpool team.
Their third goal was a lesson in counter-attacking football. The Portuguese champions elect were torn apart by sweeping passes, lightening pace, and a firm finish.
Fernando Torres is a striker bang in form and he made his confident finish look far easier than it was. The Liverpool striker did well to rifle the ball into the net from Kuyt’s low driven cross.
All seemed to be going according to plan, with the Reds cruising into a 3-0 lead. But a deflected free kick that shot past Pepe Reina sent shades of Manchester United’s elimination from the Champions League around Anfield.
And it was left to Torres to once again calm the nerves and send Liverpool into the semifinals, with a sublime finish with only the goalkeeper to beat.
Benitez then made a string of substitutions and the Kop sang its way through the final minutes of the encounter and looked forward to a trip to Madrid.
Of all the Liverpool players, it will surely be Torres that will be looking forward to the semifinals more than any of the others.
Having missed out on Liverpool’s previous encounter with his former team Atletico Madrid, Torres will be hoping to mark, what will undoubtedly be an emotional return home, with a goal or two.
And given the form of the Spaniard at the moment, there are few that will bet against him once again putting a smile on Rafa Benitez’s face.