Benfica 1 Liverpool 0
Giant defender Luisao applied the finishing touch to Benfica’s vibrant performance with a winner against Liverpool in the Champions League tonight.
Without Steven Gerrard for all but 12 minutes – he was carrying a leg injury - and with Mohamed Sissoko carried off early on after being kicked in the head, Liverpool did not possess the midfield strength to halt the Portuguese flow in the second half.
Previously this season Liverpool had lost just one of 13 European games, and they had lost just five of their previous 41 European away matches. Their quest to retain their crown is not over yet, but it will need a much better performance than this to keep the dream alive.
The loss of Gerrard meant Luis Garcia started this tense collision of styles in the Estadio da Luz.
The Portuguese outfit, who knocked past champions United out of the competition in the group stages with a display of blinding pace, were looking to do the same thing to the current champions of Europe.
Robbie Fowler started up front with Fernando Morientes, with Xabi Alonso in central midfield after recovering from a thigh injury.
The pre-match sight of Benfica’s fabulous eagle mascot soaring majestically around the stadium which stuns the audience into silence every time, was replaced by the constant whistle of referee Konrad Plautz.
His first act after 35 seconds was to book Luis Garcia for a wild, ill-timed lunge at Leo, and there were plenty of free-kicks to follow.
A neat Fowler backheel from a Xabi Alonso free-kick almost squeezed through to Sami Hyypia in the six yard box, but that was as near as anybody had even come to a chance in the early stages.
Steve Finnan stuck tight to Laurent Robert, an old adversary, and Liverpool began putting some passing and possession together.
The game livened up when keeper Moretto dropped a swirling cross and the ball fell behind him and in front of an open goal, but Fowler could not turn quickly enough to tae advantage.
Then Robert got away down the left and surged into the box only to be met by an excellent last ditch diving block from Jose Reina.
Liverpool were then hit by more misfortune and had Sissoko carried off after being kicked in the head by Beto’s high kick, which earned him a booking, and eventually Dietmar Hamann was able to come on as substitute after 34 minutes.
That incident unsettled Liverpool’s rhythm and Benfica soon had them on the back-foot with some rapid attacks down the flanks. John Arne Riise sent Robert flying and was fortunate to avoid a booking.
Benfica turned up the pressure after the break, having turned on the sprinklers at half-time only on the half of the pitch they were to be attacking, no doubt trying to increase the zip off the surface.
But it was Luis Garcia, who volleyed wastefully over from an unmarked position after Harry Kewell’s chip, that threatened to break the deadlock.
Hamann was booked for a foul on Nuno Gomes before Petit fired a dipping free-kick over the bar. Beto was replaced by Giorgos Karagounis after 57 minutes before Petit then tried to lob Reina from 40 yards, but the keeper just managed to get back to claw the ball away.
Djibril Cisse took over from Fowler after 65 minutes, to provide the pace so sadly lacking in Liverpool’s attacks.
But Benfica still kept coming forward, probing for the openings with Jamie Carragher and Hyypia at full-stretch.
Liverpool, through Xabi Alonso and Hamann, did get the ball forward but there was little sign of any real chance to give the holders something to defend in the final minutes.
Benfica took off Robert after 76 minutes and replaced him with Nelson.
With 12 minutes to go, Benitez took the risk of throwing Gerrard into the fray in place of Morientes, the need for some meaningful midfield destruction clear for all to see.
But when Hamann conceded a free-kick 25 yards out after 84 minutes, it opened the way for Benfica to grab a crucial goal. Petit lifted the ball into the box and giant defender Luisao was there to guide a header just inside the near post.
A defiant late flurry from Liverpool failed to make any impression on the Portuguese, and they were able to celebrate yet another famous victory.