Argentine's class puts added importance on Benitez's defensive re-shuffleRafael Benitez has never been one for hyperbole, so when asked for his thoughts on Benfica’s Angel Di Maria at his pre-match press conference, the Liverpool manager responded in a typically understated manner. But the Spaniard knows that if his side are to have any chance of reaching the Europa League semi-finals on Thursday night, stopping the Argentine will be key.
In truth, Liverpool will have left the Estadio Da Luz last week cursing missed opportunities; Ryan Babel’s red card, issued half an hour in after a tangle with Luisao, may have been out of character, but it prevented Liverpool from being able to control the course of the game during the second half, and even build on Daniel Agger's opening goal.
It was little surprise to see the home side’s constant pressure tell, with two penalties converted faultlessly by top scorer Oscar Cardozo giving them a slender 2-1 advantage. Still Liverpool might have snatched a second away goal, with Fernando Torres squandering an excellent late chance.
But whilst many Liverpool supporters, and several players, were left bemoaning referee Jonas Eriksson and his plethora of assistants, it was hard not to be impressed by Benfica. Jorge Jesus’ side attacked with gusto and consistency, and their defending – whilst occasionally overstepping the line between good and evil – was proactive and committed. They may have been battering at 10 mens' door for an hour, but they deserved their advantage.
Di Maria, inevitably, was instrumental. The Argentine drifted from flank to flank throughout the game, unsettling either Glen Johnson or Emiliano Insua with his willingness to run with the ball, and delivering several telling balls into the box. It was his burst 11 minutes from time which won Cardozo’s decisive second penalty; awarded after a handball from Jamie Carragher, desperately sliding to cut out the winger’s cross.
As well as being blessed with lightning acceleration, and impeccable balance, Di Maria’s left-foot possesses equal measures of power and accuracy – though his career goal tally of around one every six games will need to improve if he is to move into the very top bracket of attackers. His awareness and appreciation of team-mates is plain to see. A healthy chunk of Cardozo’s 30 goals this season have been manufactured in Argentina, and it is little wonder that the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City have been linked with big-money moves for the 22-year-old.
For Liverpool, a price-tag of around £30 million is way out of their financial reach, but of more immediate concern is preventing the former Rosario Central man from wreaking havoc, as he did seven days ago.
With left-back Emiliano Insua suspended, and Fabio Aurelio injured, Benitez faces an interesting decision as to how he sets up his defence. The idea of playing three centre-backs is one that Benitez alluded to in his press conference but, given that Javier Saviola’s absence is likely to mean Benfica start at Anfield with just one centre forward (Cardozo), it seems an unnecessary policy. The lack of a genuine left-sided midfield player would also render the system incredibly risky.
Out of left field | Johnson could switch flanks
Some whispers suggest that Johnson will be asked to play as an orthodox left-back, with either Jamie Carragher or Javier Mascherano on the right. Johnson has played there before, but how would Carragher fare against Di Maria’s energy and pace? Mascherano, meanwhile, will be vital in allowing Liverpool to boss the midfield area, in which Benfica enjoyed plenty of success last week – albeit with a man’s advantage.
The likelihood, then, is for Agger to begin as the left-sided defender, with Johnson up against Di Maria. Agger may be a centre-back by trade, but his positional sense and intelligent use of the ball suggest he will make a capable deputy, and the system at least allows a degree of flexibility, without impacting upon other areas of the side.
Benfica are as much as 4/1 to record a victory at Anfield – as they did on their last visit, in 2006 – and Benitez spoke glowingly about the need for Liverpool’s supporters to help fire their side into the semi-finals. But whilst the Kop will need to be in full voice if the Reds are to succeed, Di Maria must be kept very quiet indeed. If he isn’t, it could be a long night.
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