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.


Benfica test for Liverpool

Liverpool players do warm up exercise during a training session at their Melwood training ground on Wednesday ahead of their Europa League tie against Benfica.Photo: AFP
Rafael Benitez's tenure at Liverpool has lost a lot of its sheen in the past couple of seasons but the Spaniard could do his chances of remaining in the post a power of good by landing the Europa League this season.
The three-time winners of the old UEFA Cup - the last time in 2001 - would have preferred to have still been in the Champions League but Benitez will take anything out of another season that promised much but has delivered little.
Benitez takes his side into a challenging quarterfinal first leg clash with Portuguese side Benfica this week.
He has sour memories of the last time the two sides crossed swords in European competition as Benfica brought a premature end to the defence of their Champions League title in 2006.
However, Benitez, who turns 50 on April 16, comes into the match on the back of a 3-0 victory over Sunderland which keeps them in the hunt for the coveted fourth spot and a place in the Champions League next term.
The Spaniard, though, is focused on getting a good result from Portugal and finishing off the job in Liverpool with the tantalising possibility he could face former club Valencia in the semifinals should they win the all-Spanish clash with Atletico Madrid, the former club of Liverpool's star striker Fernando Torres.
Benitez, who guided Valencia to the 2004 UEFA Cup trophy, is not taking Benfica for granted.
"We know they are a good team and, of course, we have played them before in the Champions League," he said.
"They are a massive club with a lot of support from their fans and it will be a tough game.
"They are top of the table and playing really well at the moment. I know a number of their players well - Pablo Aimar (who played under him at Valencia), Javier Saviola, Javi Garcia - so we know they have a lot of quality."
Benfica, unlike Liverpool, have had a successful domestic campaign and are six points clear of their championship with just six matches remaining and with players such as Argentinian duo Aimar and Saviola they possess a team that, if on song, can test the best in Europe.
Rui Costa, Benfica's sporting director and a member of Portugal's golden generation as a player, acknowledged that their league form counts for nothing in such a tie though he has taken heart over their easy victories over Liverpool's city rivals Everton in the group stage.
"We were always going to be drawn against a difficult team," said the 38-year-old Champions League winning midfielder, who won 94 caps alongside such fellow golden era team-mates as Luis Figo and Paulo Sousa.
There are neither easy nor impossible opponents at this stage. We got Liverpool and I hope it will be a great match."
Liverpool's English rivals Fulham pulled off the result of the previous round with victory over Juventus and now face German champions VfL Wolfsburg who the 'Cottagers' manager Roy Hodgson respects enormously.
"German champions and Bundesliga sides can prove a handful historically," said the 62-year-old, who took Inter Milan to the 1997 UEFA Cup final.
"They are solid defensively and Wolfsburg are also pretty useful up front. So the Juventus match is for me a great result but it is in the past and we have to deal with a different challenge," he added.
Atletico and Valencia's clash should be a cracker with the latter side desperate to avenge a 4-1 humbling in the league earlier in the season.
Atletico - who have recovered somewhat from a poor start to their league campaign but still trail third-placed Valencia by 16 points - will be without two key players in former Arsenal wing Jose Antonio Reyes and Juan Valera, who both suffered injuries in last Sunday's 3-2 derby defeat by Real Madrid.
The other quarterfinal pitches unfashionable Belgian side Standard Liege against Hamburg.

Benfica (POR) v Liverpool (ENG)
Fulham (ENG) v Wolfsburg (GER)
Hamburg (GER) v Standard Liege (BEL)
Valencia (ESP) v Atletico Madrid (ESP)


Benfica s'attaque à Liverpool 31/03/2010 23:46


Qui dit jeudi, dit Ligue Europa. Au menu : quatre quarts à consommer avec délectation dont un choc attendu entre Benfica et Liverpool, les deux tombeurs des clubs français, mais aussi une belle confrontation espagnole entre Valence et l'Atletico Madrid. (Photo Presse-Sports)

Tout plane en ce moment pour les Aigles du Benfica. Invaincus depuis vingt-cinq matches toutes compétitions confondues et leaders de leur Championnat, les Lisboètes sont irrésistibles depuis quatre mois. L'Olympique de Marseille l'a appris à ses dépens au tour précédent (1-1, 1-2). Si Hatem Ben Arfa avait évité in extremis la défaite en égalisant en toute fin de match à l'aller, le Stade de la Luz se transforme souvent en «Stade de la Loose» pour les visiteurs. Liverpool ne l'entendra évidemment pas de cette oreille. Mais les Redsrestent sur trois revers en déplacement : à Wigan et à Lille (0-1 à chaque fois), puis sur la pelouse de Manchester United (1-2). En revanche, le grand motif d'espoir se nomme Fernando Torres. De retour en très grande forme, «El Niño» vient d'inscrire sept buts en quatre matches !

L'Espagne a son choc fratricide

Mardi, l'Hexagone a connu son premier quart de finale 100 % français, ce jeudi c'est l'Espagne qui va se déchirer. Sévèrement battu à Saragosse (0-3), le week-end dernier en Championnat, Valence avait sans doute déjà la tête à l'Europe. Les Valenciens accueillent l'Atletico Madrid, qui s'est de son côté incliné à Bernabeu dans le derby madrilène face au Real (2-3). Il y a un mois, les Colchoneros s'étaient nettement imposés (4-1) en Liga face à une équipe réduite à neuf. Valence - qui vient de prendre sept rouges en onze matches ! - doit d'ailleurs apprendre à calmer ses nerfs.

Après avoir fait tomber Anderlecht en huitièmes, Hambourg affrontera un autre club belge : le Standard de Liège, qui a éliminé le Panathinaïkos de Djibril Cissé. Au match aller, le HSV recevra dans son HSH Nordbank Arena, l'enceinte qui accueillera la finale de cette C3. Le dernier quart de finale met aux prises Fulham, qui a renversé la Juve (1-3, 4-1), à Wolfsburg, qui a dû attendre les prolongations pour venir à bout du Rubin Kazan.

Julien Penna


Javier Saviola has warned Liverpool that Benfica are not obsessed by Fernando Torres and that they do not fear the Reds.
The two sides meet in Portugal for their Europa League quarter-final first leg on Thursday.
Torres goes into the game with a 20 goals in only 29 games this season, but Saviola has also impressed and has scored 11 times in 22 matches.
The former Barcelona man therefore insists that Benfica are not intimidated by Liverpool's star striker.
"Fernando is one of the best strikers in Europe, but the Benfica frontline isn't bad either," Saviola said in The Sun.
"We're not obsessed with him. It would be stupid to forget players like Steven Gerrard, Javier Mascherano and Dirk Kuyt, who are also dangerous."
He added: "This round against Liverpool is nearly a final because it's going to be an enormous battle. Nobody in our squad fears the Reds.
"Liverpool have a big history in Europe, but no way are we inferior to them."


The Benefits of Being Benfica

Portuguese football team has a global following and may be on its way to a league title

SL Benfica centerback Luisão isn't a player who immediately comes to mind when one thinks of Portuguese football, in which panache is prized ahead of pace and power.
Fittingly, for a man whose name literally means "Big Luís," the Brazilian defender's 6-foot-4-inch frame is long and muscular and, while his main responsibility is taking opposing center-forwards out of the game, he has a knack for popping up with important goals.
Benfica's Javier Saviola, center, celebrates his goal against Belenenses with teammates Oscar Cardozo, right, and Pablo Aimar during a September match
He did just that this past Saturday, giving Benfica, at the top of the Portuguese League, a 1-0 win over second-place Sporting Braga, which, in all likelihood, will seal the club's record 32nd domestic championship. Benfica boasts a six-point lead with six games to go, and it's hard to see it throwing away the title.
"Benfica is always considered a title challenger, and nothing is decided yet, but I think we have taken an important step toward" the title, Luisão told reporters after the win over Braga. "We are working toward that goal."
You can only imagine what the party will be like when the league crown does return to the club's Estadio do Luz for the first time since 2005. Benfica is far and away the country's best-supported club, and has more than 200,000 fans world-wide who pay around $34 a year for the privilege of calling themselves "socios" or club members.
According to club officials, no team in the world has more paid-up members. And, for a relatively small nation like Portugal, its fan diaspora stretches all over the world. "Casa do Benfica" ("House of Benfica") fan clubs can be found in places as diverse as Johannesburg, South Africa; San Jose, Calif.; Luanda, Angola; and Sydney, Australia.
Yet, Benfica has become something of a byword for underachievement. In the past 15 years, the club has won just one league title, watching helplessly as Porto—its bitter rival from the north of the country —established itself as a force, not just in Portugal, but also in Europe: witness the UEFA Cup and Champions League trophy it won under José Mourinho.
Last summer, Benfica rolled the dice and spent heavily to redress the imbalance. About $45 million was spent, with $7 million recouped in sales. In came, among others, Ramires—at 23 years old already a regular in midfield for Brazil—and Javi Garcia, a promising defensive midfielder from Real Madrid. One of the more interesting signings, however, was Argentine striker Javier Saviola, who rejoined playmaker Pablo Aimar a decade after the pair set South American soccer alight.
Back in the fall of 1999, Mr. Aimar and Mr. Saviola, aged 19 and 17, respectively, at the time, formed a devastating partnership for Argentina's River Plate, whom they led to the Apertura and Clausura championships. Their precocious success led to call-ups to the national team and big-money moves to top European sides. Mr. Aimar joined Valencia in January 2001 for a club-record $32 million and, six months later, Mr. Saviola transferred to Barcelona for $20 million.
Both hit the ground running. Mr. Aimar led Valencia to two Spanish titles and a UEFA Cup, while Mr. Saviola scored 60 goals in his first three seasons at Barcelona.
But then something unusual happened: Their performances dropped off severely.
Mr. Aimar remained at Valencia until 2006, though by the end, he was a shadow of his former self. Having scored eight goals in the 2002-03 season, the playmaker managed just 13 in the next three years amid a succession of injuries.
This was followed by two lackluster seasons at Zaragoza, the second blighted by relegation. Mr. Saviola was loaned out to Monaco and Seville, both times failing to make his mark. After another year as a bit-part player at Barcelona, he was picked up as a free agent by arch-rival Real Madrid, but, again he was a marginal figure, making just six league starts in two seasons.
But in the summer of 2008, Benfica took a gamble on Mr. Aimar and, after an injury-slowed first half of the campaign, he excelled toward the end of the 2008-09 season. So much so that the club decided to repeat the exercise with Mr. Saviola, whom Real Madrid was looking to off-load.
The pair have since enjoyed a renaissance—Mr. Saviola has scored 17 goals, and Mr. Aimar is back to his creative best—and, at 28 and 30 respectively, both have a number of good seasons left in them.
Together with countryman Ángel Di María—arguably Benfica's player of the season and, at 22, a likely target for Europe's top clubs this summer—the Argentinian trio have been the driving force behind Benfica's resurgence.
With the domestic league title all but wrapped up, Benfica can now focus on European competition: On Thursday it takes on Liverpool in the quarterfinals of the Europa League, the new name for the UEFA Cup.
Benfica's legion of fans are once again dreaming, harking back to the early 1960s and the days of Eusebio and Mario Coluna, when the club twice won the European Cup.
—Gabriele Marcotti is the world football columnist for The Times of London and a regular broadcaster for the BBC.