Well, what do you know? After a week of Lionel Messi, Arjen Robben, creative Catalans, ‘typical’ Germans and destroyed dreams, an English club will be heading to the Spanish capital in the latter stages of a European competition this season. It’s Liverpool, it’s the Europa League, it is Atletico Madrid next up in the semi-finals, and it’s all proving to be quite a lot of fun.
It took a double take from many of the supporters inside Anfield, but it really was Lucas Leiva racing on to Steven Gerrard’s 34th minute through ball last night, before coolly rounding Benfica goalkeeper Julio Cesar and doubling Liverpool’s lead on the night. The Brazilian was excellent, and a sly smirk was evident on his face in the closing stages of the match, as all four corners of Anfield – a ground where he’s been on the receiving end of one of two boos in the past – were singing out his name. Following on from his Anfield display in the last round against Lille, Lucas has shown that there is much more to his game than just sideways passes and an ability to at times look like he is man marking Javier Mascherano. The 23-year-old still is not everyone’s cup of tea but his army of followers is growing, and he more than anyone has benefited from Liverpool’s involvement in the Europa League, where expectations are lower and the pressure isn’t as intense.
He is energetic, can put his foot in and can pick a pass too. Freed from his shackles in Europe, he’s a huge part of the Reds’ attacking play as well as the defensive, often starting moves with a clever pass or strong tackle, such as the one he made in the build-up to Fernando Torres’ second, tie-clinching goal. Ah, Torres. You could have a team of hard-working, improving Lucases, but for that real star quality you have to turn to the Spanish ace. He has now scored two goals on each of his last four Anfield appearances – a club record – and shot his current club into what should be a cracking semi-final against his former one. His first goal should earn a permanent place in the football handbook under the heading ‘how to counter attack’ and came from three brilliantly precise passes from first Mascherano, then Yossi Benayoun and finally the best of the lot from Dirk Kuyt, but it was the second that revealed the number nine’s true ability. Never was there any doubt amongst the 42,377 people inside Anfield about what would happen next once Torres raced onto Mascherano’s through ball.
A bit like Messi’s third goal against Arsenal, the idea of the finish was a simple one, but the execution of it was what made it so stunning. Torres simply clipped the ball over Cesar and into the corner of the net like he’d been doing it all his life, which of course he has. It came at a vital time too, as giant striker Oscar Cardozo – a player who scored two penalties in the first leg and who only seems to function correctly when faced with a dead ball – had set nerves jangling inside Anfield with his 70th minute free-kick. Torres’ intervention was vital. His, Lucas’ and their team-mates’ desire to win the Europa League has been evident from the moment they first kicked a ball in it, a trait that they’ll share with their opponents on Sunday.
On May 12th, Liverpool and Fulham could be walking out in Hamburg before the final of the Europa League. A month and a day earlier they’ll do battle at Anfield in the Premier League. Roy Hodgson has worked miracles with a small squad and a small budget in west London, but this represents the first of three matches in a row that the Reds simply have to win if they still want to retain hopes of a top four finish. The others are West Ham at home and Burnley away, but there will be little point bothering about them if victory is not achieved here. It will be tough, Fulham have had a superb season, and the energy levels that the Reds put into last night will ensure that there a lot of tired limbs this morning and in the build-up to the game, and few will be more tired than Lucas. It will be a pleasant tiredness for him though, he probably barely felt it this morning. The sound of thousands on the Kop bellowing out your name probably tends to have that effect.