Saturday, June 22, 2024

Champions League: Liverpool survive late collapse to book Villarreal semi-final clash

Liverpool's Greek defender Kostas Tsimikas (L) fights for the ball with Benfica's Brazilian forward Everton during the UEFA Champions League quarter final second leg football match between Liverpool and Benfica at the Anfield stadium, in Liverpool, on April 13, 2022. AFP

LIVERPOOL, April 14: Liverpool booked a Champions League semi-final showdown against Villarreal as the quadruple chasers survived a late collapse in Wednesday’s 3-3 draw against Benfica.
Jurgen Klopp’s side already had one foot in the last four after winning 3-1 in the quarter-final first leg in Lisbon.
They were on cruise control for long spells in the second leg at Anfield, but had to hold their nerve before advancing 6-4 on aggregate after an uncharacteristic meltdown in the closing stages.
Ibrahima Konate put Liverpool ahead before Goncalo Ramos equalised late in the first half.
When Roberto Firmino netted twice after the interval, the tie looked all but over.
However, Roman Yaremchuk and Darwin Nunez struck for Benfica to briefly give the visitors hope of an astonishing escape act, before Liverpool finally restored order.
The Reds will face Spanish side Villarreal in the semi-finals as they look to reach their 10th Champions League final and claim a seventh title in the competition.
Despite Villarreal’s impressive wins over Bayern Munich and Juventus in the last two rounds, Liverpool will be firm favourites to make a third Champions League final in the last five seasons.
That would put them a step closer to an incredible clean-sweep of all four major trophies in one campaign.
Significantly, Klopp was able to keep Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Virgil Van Dijk fresh as he started with his stars on the bench.
Klopp made seven changes from Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Premier League leaders Manchester City as he opted to keep his stars fresh for Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final against Pep Guardiola’s side at Wembley.
Inevitably, Liverpool’s much-changed line-up took a while to get into their stride after a pre-match minute’s silence to mark this Friday’s 33rd anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy.
Ironically, it was a player named after Liverpool’s rivals Everton who threatened first for Benfica when the winger curled just wide from long range.
But it wasn’t long before Liverpool flexed their muscles.
Konate had headed the opener in the first leg at Benfica and Liverpool’s towering centre-back tormented the Portuguese side with his aerial prowess again in the 21st minute.
Kostas Tsimikas whipped an outswinging corner towards Konate and he climbed above three Benfica players to head into the far corner from 10 yards.
Benfica snatched their equaliser against the run of play in the 32nd minute.
Diogo Goncalves’ pass clipped off James Milner and ran through to the unmarked Ramos, who smacked a fine finish past Alisson from just inside the area.
Any hopes of a stunning Benfica fightback seemed over when the visitors shot themselves in the foot in farcical fashion in the 55th minute.
Goalkeeper Odysseas Vlachodimos was the instigator of Benfica’s meltdown as he fumbled what should have been an easy interception of Naby Keita’s over-hit pass.
Jan Vertonghen’s panicked attempt to clear the danger wasn’t much better and Jota crossed back into the six-yard box, where Firmino had the simple task of tapping into the empty net.
Firmino followed his first home Champions League goal for two years with another 10 minutes later.
Tsimikas curled a superb free-kick to the pass and Firmino eluded Benfica’s sloppy marking to volley home from close-range.
With Klopp’s men taking their foot off the gas, Yaremchuk struck in the 73rd minute, rounding Alisson to slot home after beating Liverpool’s offside trap.
There was a sharp intake of breath around Anfield when Nunez scored with a predatory finish in the 82nd minute.
Moments later, Nunez’s low strike tested Alisson, but Liverpool held on to keep the quadruple dream alive.
Manchester City see off Atletico Madrid to set up Champions League semi-final with Real Madrid
Manchester City secured the goalless draw they needed to edge out Atletico Madrid and advance to the Champions League semi-finals on Wednesday but the match was marred by a mass brawl late in the game that continued to rage in the tunnel after full-time.
Police were seen in the tunnel at the Wanda Metropolitano as video footage showed heated arguments breaking out between the players, including Atletico’s Stefan Savic and City’s Jack Grealish, with staff trying to keep the players apart.
“I didn’t see it,” said Diego Simeone. “I was on the pitch applauding the fans. By the time I went inside there was nobody there.”
Pep Guardiola was asked about the behaviour of Atletico’s players. “Nothing to say,” he said.
The trouble began on the pitch, as Atletico defender Felipe sparked a huge brawl in the corner after a taking a wild swipe at City’s Phil Foden.
Felipe was sent off but not before a crowd of players, substitutes and staff swarmed in.
“We knew it was not an easy place to come, it is a hostile environment, it was a difficult night all round and how we defended and controlled ourselves over the two legs was incredible,” City defender John Stones told BT Sport.
In the end, Kevin De Bruyne’s first-leg strike last week at the Etihad Stadium proved enough for City to claim a 1-0 victory on aggregate in Madrid, although the Belgian had to go off with an injury which, if significant, would be a hammer blow to their hopes of winning the treble.
Kyle Walker also hobbled off in the second half.
City will now face Real Madrid, with Liverpool up against Villarreal in the other semi-final to complete an all Spanish-English line-up in the last four.
Simeone was widely criticised for Atletico’s negative tactics in the first leg and there was only a minor shift here, with the plan still to keep the game tight ahead of a final push.
Atletico came close, spurning a number of late chances, but instead City advance to the semis for a second consecutive year, in sight again of their first Champions League triumph.
“If we play like we did in the second half we have no chance,” said Guardiola. “We are playing Real Madrid, the kings of this competition. We will have to suffer.”
After a rousing ceremony before kick-off that saw the words “Pride, Passion, Feeling” spelt out across the crowd, Atletico made a stirring start, harrying City high up the pitch and snapping at their heels in midfield.
Foden was clattered by Felipe, Stefan Savic bulldozed Ilkay Gundogan over and Walker poked a ball out of play, under stress from the Atletico press.
But City survived the early, physical onslaught and established control, even if Atletico looked a threat on the break, failing only with their final pass.
City’s possession should have told midway through the half when a wonderful Riyad Mahrez pass released Walker, whose cross evaded the sliding Atletico defenders and found Foden at the back post.
He teed up Gundogan for what looked a simple finish but the ball cannoned back off the post. In the scramble, Gundogan’s headed rebound was blocked by Felipe.
Atletico, though, surged again after the restart, the crowd coming with them. Antoine Griezmann dipped a volley just wide of the post, Ederson lashed a nervy punt downfield and Marcos Llorente barged the ball off Joao Cancelo. Guardiola flapped on the sideline, trying to jolt his team back into life.
With 25 minutes left, De Bruyne was replaced by Raheem Sterling and soon after Simeone decided it was time to attack, Angel Correa, Yannick Carrasco and Rodrigo de Paul all coming on.
De Paul’s first touch was to fire just past the post and City were retreating now, camped in their own half, accepting or unable to prevent the Atletico pressure.
Simeone rolled the dice, Luis Suarez and Matheus Cunha thrown on for the last eight minutes.
In the 86th minute, Correa chested down for Cunha but his finish was blocked by the left leg of Stones. From the corner, Ederson failed to clear and the goal was gaping but Savic was unable to steer in.
A feisty contest erupted at the end when Foden was taken out again by Felipe, who swung his leg at the City midfielder on his way down. A swarm of players, substitutes and staff rushed in and it was only a few minutes later that Felipe was sent off.
With nine minutes of added time, Gundogan should have settled it for City but Atleti survived. De Paul tested Ederson with a free-kick, the Brazilian then parrying away as Correa had the last shot. (AFP)