By Carl Markham, PA
Liverpool eased into a Champions League semi-final against Villarreal as even a sloppy 3-3 draw with Benfica saw them progress 6-4 on aggregate.
On the last two occasions the two teams had met in the last eight of this competition the Reds went on to lift the trophy (1978 and 1984) and there has been little to suggest they cannot make it three this season.
Jurgen Klopp’s side have won eight of their 10 matches, scoring 25 goals – drawing a blank in their only defeat to Inter Milan – and conceding just 11.
Holding a 3-1 advantage from the first leg afforded them a considerable cushion and like in the Estadio da Luz last week centre-back Ibrahima Konate opened the scoring with a header.
Roberto Firmino scored twice, his first Champions League goals at Anfield since March 2020, after Goncalo Ramos had equalised in the first half.
A ragged finish saw the visitors’ Roman Yaremchuk and Darwin Nunez score late to dampen the party atmosphere and provide a warning – albeit it to a second-choice defence – that they cannot afford to take lightly the threat of Villarreal, considered the easier draw, who dispatched Bayern Munich to reach the semi-finals.
But ultimately Klopp’s seven changes to the side which drew with Manchester City on Sunday did not prove to be the slight gamble it may have looked on paper as Liverpool equalled Manchester United’s English record of reaching a 12th European Cup semi-final.
⏰ RESULT ⏰
Liverpool are in the semi-finals for the 12th time 👏
🔴 Konaté & Firmino (2) inspire Liverpool at Anfield
🦅 Benfica recover from 6-2 down to make it 6-4; Gonçalo Ramos, Yaremchuk & Núñez net
How far will Liverpool go❓#UCL pic.twitter.com/6kpY4aIF9R
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) April 13, 2022
Just like last week, Liverpool took the lead through Konate and just like last week they failed to capitalise on a dominant first half which should have put paid to any hopes Benfica had of staging a shock.
Everton posted an early warning with a fizzing shot across Alisson Becker and past the far post from a counter-attack after James Milner, on his first start since March 2, failed to clear the wall with a free-kick.
From that point it was virtually all Liverpool and Diogo Jota’s header, ruled out for a push by the Portugal international, was the portent for things to come.
After Odysseas Vlachodimos saved at the feet of Milner following a sweeping move involving Jordan Henderson, Luis Diaz and Firmino the breakthrough came via a 21st-minute set-piece.
A corner from Kostas Tsimikas, one of the seven changes, was met by Konate who jumped earliest, highest and hung in the air longest to get between former Premier League centre-backs Nicolas Otamendi and Jan Vertonghen and direct a downward header inside the far post.
The visitors’ response saw Nunez’s clever chip on the run beat Alisson only to be chalked off by an offside flag, before a Diaz shot and a Firmino restored the established order.
But just when Liverpool were building up a head of steam an inadvertent rebound from a Milner tackle dropped to Ramos beyond the last line of defence and he coolly beat Alisson in the 32nd minute and even a VAR review for offside could not save the hosts.
Firmino, who so often prefers the extravagant to the straightforward, inexplicably chose to play the percentages and run with the ball with the goalkeeper 30 yards off his line and his square a pass to Diaz was cut out by the recovering Alejandro Grimaldo.
Liverpool gained the much-needed breathing space they needed 11 minutes after the break when Vlachodimos fumbled an overhit through-ball from Naby Keita under pressure from Diaz.
So glad he's a Red ❤ pic.twitter.com/2byfK0m7o3
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) April 13, 2022
The clearance was hacked only as far as Jota on the left of the penalty area and although he skewed his attempted shot into an open goal Firmino was on hand to turn it in at the far post.
Klopp already had his triple substitution lined up as on came Salah, Thiago Alcantara and Fabinho for Jota, Milner and Henderson.
Firmino kicked off the party – in the stands at least – when he side-footed home at the far post from a Tsimikas free-kick 25 minutes from time only for the mood to be dampened when substitute Yaremchuk and Nunez both beat Alisson, both goals courtesy of VAR confirmation.
There was a brief moment of concern when Alisson had to save low to his right from Nunez but the hosts eventually recovered their composure.