Mohamed Salah, left, competes for the ball with Benfica's Alex Grimaldo | AP
Liverpool: Liverpool didn’t need its best players to secure progress to the Champions League semifinals on Wednesday.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp opted to rest stars like Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Virgil van Dijk and Trent Alexander-Arnold, and saw his backups play out a wild 3-3 draw with Benfica in the second leg of the quarterfinals to wrap up a 6-4 aggregate win.
Villarreal awaits Liverpool in the last four.
Ibrahima Konaté, one of the scorers in Liverpool’s 3-1 win in the first leg, netted another header for Klopp’s team for the first goal and Roberto Firmino added two more in the second half at Anfield.
Gonçalo Ramos had made it 1-1 on the night in the 32nd minute — keeping Benfica in with the unlikeliest of chances — but Liverpool never looked like squandering its big advantage, even though substitute Roman Yaremchuk and Darwin Núñez scored goals for the visitors in the 73rd and 82nd minutes, respectively.
Liverpool stayed on course to win the competition for a seventh time, and for an unprecedented quadruple of trophies this season. That Klopp was able to rotate so heavily after building a commanding lead in Lisbon last week should enable Liverpool to field a full-strength team against Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinals on Saturday.
City wasn’t in such a luxurious position Wednesday, taken all the way by Atletico Madrid in the Spanish capital where a 0-0 draw sealed a 1-0 aggregate victory. City will face Real Madrid in the semifinals.
Liverpool is into the last four for a 12th time in the European Cup or Champions League — tied for the record for an English team with Manchester United — and the first since the last of its six triumphs in 2019.
That felt inevitable even before Konaté leapt highest at a corner whipped in by Kostas Tsimikas to plant a header into the bottom corner, in a similar fashion to the goal he scored in Lisbon — his first both for Liverpool and in the Champions League.
Ramos' goal had a hint of fortune about it, with the ball ricocheting to the 20-year-old forward from a tackle by Liverpool midfielder James Milner. His finish from the edge of the area was emphatic, though, flying past Alisson.
Firmino is no longer first choice for Liverpool following the arrivals of Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz but he staked his claim for a starting spot in the team's big upcoming games with a double in the space of 10 minutes.
His first goal came after mistakes from goalkeeper Odysseas Vlachodimos, who fumbled as he attempted to gather a through-ball, and Jan Vertonghen, who hurried his resulting clearance. Jota drove the ball back into the middle of the area and Firmino applied the finish in the 55th.
The Brazil striker volleyed in Tsimikas' free kick to make it 3-1 but Liverpool eased off, and Benfica took advantage by breaking the offside trap for both of its late goals.
“At one point we were 6-2 up on aggregate and maybe we relaxed,” Jota said.
Playing Benfica and Villarreal, the two outsiders in the quarterfinal draw, to reach the final is pretty much a dream scenario for Liverpool, though captain Jordan Henderson was taking nothing for granted.
“They beat Juventus and Bayern Munich, two very good sides — they are a very good team in their own right,” Henderson said of Villarreal.
“It was pretty comfortable,” he said about Liverpool's display against Benfica, “but we’re disappointed with the goals we conceded.” AP