Luis Diaz’s celebration said it all. He knew how big a goal this was, and he was not about to miss an opportunity to enjoy it.
His name had been booed when it was read out before kick off at Estadio da Luz, but he would have the last laugh on the night.
The ex-Porto man did what Benfica feared he would; he came back to hit them where it hurts.
Diaz’s late strike sealed a 3-1 win which means Liverpool, surely, have one foot in the semi-finals of the Champions League.
It’s only the halfway stage of the tie, of course, but on a night when any win would have done, a two-goal triumph represents a huge success for Jurgen Klopp and his side, who will surely finish the job at Anfield next week.
They were made to work for their advantage here, mind.
Having looked at one stage as if they would run away with the tie in the first half, when goals from Ibrahima Konate and Sadio Mane had them firmly in the ascendency, the Reds were given an almighty scare after the break, pegged back by Darwin Nunez’s goal and hanging on for a spell before steadying the ship in the closing stages.
Diaz ensured the night ended on a high, the Colombia international running clear from Naby Keita’s superbly-weighted pass, three minutes from time, before rounding Odisseas Vlachodimos to finish into an empty net.
Inside the stadium, it was as if a pin had been taken to a balloon, all of Benfica’s hope and belief taken away by the man who used to wear the blue-and-white of their bitter domestic rivals. Diaz rubbed it in, dancing with Fabinho and sticking his tongue out. His third Liverpool goal was his most enjoyable, and the perfect way to mark his first Champions League start for the club.
Benfica could not argue too much about the result, in fairness. Liverpool deserved the win, and they deserved at least a two-goal cushion as well.
They were breathtaking at times in the opening 45 minutes and had they been a little more clinical, things could have gotten really messy. Were it not for Vlachodimos, the home side would have been battered.
Konate got Liverpool off and running, heading in his first goal for the club from an Andy Robertson corner, 16 minutes in. It was a goal of simplicity, and one which made the defender the first Frenchman to score for the Reds in the Champions League since David Ngog, all the way back in 2009.
Diaz would play a big part in Liverpool’s second goal, heading the ball down unselfishly for Sadio Mane to convert from close range. The strike owed everything, though, to the vision and technique of Trent Alexander-Arnold, whose magnificent diagonal pass made it all possible.
At that point we were wondering if the tie would be killed there and then. Diaz, cutting in with menace from the left, flashed a shot wide of the near post and was denied by the goalkeeper when clean through, while Mohamed Salah missed a great chance to make it 3-0 right on half time.
It was not the Egyptian’s night, his game a blur of loose touches and misplaced passes, and by the time he was substituted, along with Mane and Thiago Alcantara, the game had started to swing Benfica’s way.
Nunez, their impressive Uruguayan forward, got them back into it, finishing at the far post after Konate had missed his clearance from a Rafa Silva cross from the right. It came from nowhere, a bad error duly punished, and suddenly the tie was in the balance again.
Liverpool needed Alisson Becker, their goalkeeper, to bail them out when Everton, Benfica’s Brazilian wide player, pulled the trigger soon after, and the composure and incision we had saw from the visitors before the break started to evaporate.
Alisson had fans’ nerves on edge with a couple of risky plays outside his penalty area, while the noise from the home fans grew as they sensed a famous comeback.
And when Keita grabbed hold of a loose ball and drove forward in the dying stages, he was able to find the right pass for Diaz, who was able to find the right finish.
Benfica’s dismay was Liverpool’s delight. The semi-finals are well and truly in sight for Klopp’s men.