Facing another free-flowing attack, Benfica will take on Liverpool in the Champions League likely betting on the same defensive formula that worked so well against Ajax.
Benfica hosts Liverpool in the first leg of the quarterfinals on Tuesday in Lisbon, with the English club bringing another attacking-minded squad similar to Ajax’s.
Liverpool has the competition’s fourth-best offense, while Ajax had the third-best attack after being held by the Portuguese team in the last 16.
Benfica’s low defensive block and quick transitions worked well for a 3-2 aggregate win against Ajax, putting the team back in the quarterfinals for the first time since 2016.
“We can suppress Liverpool’s strengths," Benfica coach Nélson Veríssimo said. “Like any team, they have weaknesses that we can take advantage of.”
After a 2-2 draw in the first leg in Portugal, Benfica comfortably sat deep in the return leg. Ajax had more touches and crosses than almost any other team in the round of 16, but could not get past a Portuguese defense that played with several players behind the ball.
Ajax only got two shots on target from 16 attempts, while Benfica scored on its only attempt on goal — Darwin Núñez’s 77th-minute header that secured the 1-0 victory.
“We knew we were going to suffer and we did,” Núñez said after the match.
Benfica, a two-time European champion, is near the top in defensive statistics in the Champions League this season, including in clearances and tackles. The team also resorted to solid defending and quick transitions to defeat and help eliminate five-time European champion Barcelona in the group stage.
Benfica had to contain a red-hot Sébastien Haller against Ajax. Now it will have to stop the likes of Mohamed Salah, Digo Jota, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané.
“We have to recognize that Liverpool is a team with great collective and individual competence, with a great coach, and that will force us to be at a very high level in both games," Veríssimo said. "It’s going to be a tricky tie but, as I said with Ajax, it’s going to be 50-50.”
Liverpool’s only loss in this season’s Champions League came in the second leg against Inter Milan in the last 16, when — like Ajax — it dominated possession but couldn’t get many attempts on target in a 1-0 setback at home. It was still enough to advance after a 2-0 victory in Italy in the first leg.
Benfica is hoping for a repeat of its triumph over Liverpool 16 years ago, when the team eliminated the then-defending champions with a 1-0 win at home and a 2-0 victory in England.
“It’s possible to repeat history,” former player and current Benfica director Simão Sabrosa, who scored one of the goals in England, told BTV. “Of course it’s scary to look at Liverpool’s team, but we start at 0-0 and 11 against 11. And playing at home we will have a great support from our fans.”
Liverpool got the best of Benfica in the Champions League quarterfinals in 2010, advancing after losing 2-1 in Lisbon and winning 4-1 at home in the return match.
This time, Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp will have a full squad available for the first time since he took charge of the team in 2015.
Benfica hasn’t gone past the quarterfinals since 1990, before the new Champions League era had begun. The closest it got to the semifinals recently was in 2016, when it was eliminated by Bayern Munich in the last eight.
Veríssimo is expected to count on all of its players for Tuesday’s match, including Morocco international Adel Taarabt, who had been out injured.
Benfica started this year’s Champions League campaign in the third qualifying round. It had been unbeaten in nine straight matches in all competitions before losing at Braga in the Portuguese league on Friday.