Cardozo makes 10-man Pool pay penalty twice
AS Vitoria, Benfica's eagle, swooped from the stands, as the smoke from the flares and the firecrackers drifted across the pitch, a huge banner was unfurled at one end of Estadio Da Luz. 'Benfica: What Else?' it read.
Ninety minutes later, the Portuguese side had given their answer. A memorable victory.
On an evening of the highest drama, Rafael Benitez's team absorbed everything fate could throw at them; reduced to 10 men with little more than 30 minutes played, victims of two controversial penalty decisions, before they were eventually overwhelmed by the ruthless red tide. That they are alive in this tie at all is to their credit.
Forget the notion that this was only the Europa League. Estadio da Luz is a Champions League arena, its deafening roar a Champions League atmosphere. Benfica, proud owners of Europe's most prolific attack, stand 11 points clear in the Portuguese league. They are a Champions League team, and few will relish facing Jorge Jesus' side in the competition next season.
Liverpool needed all of the nous, all of the resilience they have acquired under Benitez's tutelage on Europe's grandest stage to survive in one of Europe's most hostile environments.
Even after Daniel Agger secured that priceless away goal, there was to be no respite. No sooner had the Dane finished wheeling away in jubilation, his back-heeled conversion of Steven Gerrard's low free-kick leaving Julio Cesar and his defence flat-footed, than the noise rose.
There was no wallowing in self-pity, in the stands or on the pitch. Backed by a wall of sound, Benfica's red brigade poured forward. Oscar Cardozo might have levelled just two minutes later, bundling Carlos Martins's cross over from five yards.
Cardozo headed wide an Angel Di Maria free-kick, then could only nod tamely at Reina from a Fabio Coentrao cross. Pablo Aimar's touch was slightly too heavy as the Paraguayan striker Cardozo, a player who appears the most rudimentary of bludgeons, displayed a delicate side to his nature with the most pinpoint of chipped passes.
Di Maria, seemingly the most coveted player on the continent, twisted his opponents' blood, jinking to the edge of the box before losing his footing.
He shot just over, he shot just wide. The decibel level rose. When Luisao, together with David Luiz and Javi Garcia, indulging in some of the game's darker arts to quieten Fernando Torres, flattened the Spanish striker, he was booked for his trouble, and the noise grew deafening.
When Ryan Babel, foolishly raising his hand to the Brazilian's face as the two argued, saw red, the noise became deep and guttural, punctured only by the regrettable few who indulged in monkey noises to accompany the Dutchman's desolate trudge from the pitch.
Di Maria had sent another shot whistling past Reina's post when Liverpool, still re-organising their attack, almost grabbed a second, Torres tapping in Gerrard's free-kick after Julio Cesar flapped the ball into his path only for Jonas Eriksson, the Swedish referee, to signal offside.
There was more to come, on a day on which Liverpool had already had the dubious pleasure of learning they'd have to put up with Albert Riera for the rest of the season -- the winger declaring his undying love for Benitez's "sinking ship" after a move to Spartak Moscow fell through -- and they steeled themselves to learn today that they will most likely be without Alberto Aquilani, victim of an ankle injury, for a similar period.
That disappointment paled into insignificance, though, compared with the hammer blow of seeing their resistance broken on the hour. Cardozo, guilty of a quite criminal miss from a Di Maria corner immediately after the break, won a soft free-kick on the edge of the box, much to Agger's chagrin. His fierce shot shuddered against Reina's right-hand post.
As Emiliano Insua and Aimar tussled for the rebound, Eriksson blew his whistle, amid the din, and pointed to the spot. Emphatically, Cardozo converted the penalty. Benfica swarmed forward. True, Torres might have won it, but dragged his shot wide.
Liverpool, paid the ultimate price, Eriksson again pointing to the spot for an apparent handball from Jamie Carragher. Cardozo, this time with a soft, chipped finish, notched his second, the comeback complete. (© Daily Telegraph, London)