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Benfica Preview – Liverpool fans in the mood to banish ghosts of 2006


By Phil Dickinson.

When clubs of genuine European pedigree clash, thoughts inevitably turn to encounters gone by.

When Manchester United squared off against Champions League opponents Bayern Munich yesterday, memories of United’s Barcelona smash-and-grab in 1999 understandably were brought to mind, the unavoidable comparisons drawn.

For players, these past encounters matter very little, of course, at least when so much time passes between meetings and when so few players remain in the respective squads to tell the tale. But no matter how much time passes, for fans, a fresh chance to tackle old European foes always becomes a chance to reminisce or to exorcise demons of defeats gone by.

Let’s turn the clock back four years.  The 8th of March 2006, Anfield. Sweeping forward on the break, an incisive pass fizzed in from the right hand side bounced up off Fabrizio Miccoli, and the Italian substitute volleyed spectacularly into the corner of Pepe Reina’s goal. There were Red shirts back, but already being 2-0 behind on aggregate, still needing to score 3 times with only minutes remaining, all hope was lost. Miccoli looked invincible as he smashed home that goal, the sea of defending red shirts not even close to their grey shirted counterparts.

Liverpool’s defence of their European title was over, dumped out by Benfica at the 1nd Round Knockout stage. And the Portuguese side fully deserved to go through. They had beaten the heroes of Istanbul twice and had not at all struggled in the face of Anfield’s infamous European night atmosphere.

And I remember that result quite vividly as one that was especially difficult to take. After all the previous year’s campaigning to make sure we were able to defend our Champions League crown, including the bitter complaining of Toffees, after battling so hard to finish top of our group ahead of rivals Chelsea and, after laughing unreservedly at Manchester United for finishing rock bottom of Group D behind Villarreal, Lille and, yes, Benfica, this 3-0 aggregate defeat felt like such a monumental letdown. While my many Arsenal supporting University friends celebrated knocking out Real Madrid, I was left crying into my pint that night.

It’s a result that still rankles with me. Until this season’s dismal failure to emerge from the group stages, that defeat to Benfica was the only real blot on an otherwise impressive Champions League record, a record that manager, players and fans alike have drawn pride from.

Looking ahead to Thursday night’s Europa League tie in the Estadio da Luz, Liverpool fans will undoubtedly recall that disappointment of March 2006. Rafa Benitez hasn’t forgotten it either and has already promised he’ll be preparing his players to avoid making the same mistake the class of 2006 made in Portugal, namely, conceding a goal without reply. This, incidentally, is exactly the same mistake The Reds made in the last round of the Europa League against Lille.

“We had been talking to the players about a free kick Benfica use and we warned them about it.

“For 87 minutes we concentrated, but then Sami fell asleep and they scored a late goal.

The second leg was easy for them because we lost Riise and Hyypia after both got injured playing international friendlies and so we had to change our defence. We brought in Traore and Warnock and it was an easy game for Benfica because they could just play on the counter-attack.

As always we have to get the balance right between defending and going forward. I think we are stronger than when we last played them, but they are stronger too.”

Four years on, it is easy for Benitez to blame players who have long since left the squad for what happened that year. Moreover, since Gerrard, Carragher and Reina are the only ones who remain from the team that suffered defeat at Anfield that night it will be difficult for the squad as a whole to learn lessons and draw inspiration from what happened last time the sides met.

But that won’t stop the fans looking for some kind of retribution tomorrow night. It’s been a long time in coming and, considering the turmoil the club has been in as of late, laying some old ghosts to rest will be just what the doctor ordered.

Having put in a genuinely impressive first half performance against Sunderland, it seems as though Benitez’s men have bounced back from the disappointment against Manchester United with more steel than they have shown after other losses this season. They go into this game now needing to re-establish a run of wins ahead of a month in which there will be absolutely no room for Premier League slip ups.

Liverpool again will be without Alberto Aquilani who, having suffered a knock to the ankle he has recently had operated on, has been withdrawn from the squad as a precautionary measure. Lucas is likely to return to the middle with Kuyt moving back out onto the right to replace the ineligible Maxi Rodriguez.

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