- Simão Sabrosa, now a director at the Lisbon club, scored against Liverpool at Anfield to knock the then-holders out of the Champions League. They meet again on Tuesday
Great Anfield European nights are the very stuff of Liverpool folklore, from St-Étienne to Barcelona, but for some, the best ones end by silencing the home crowd. Sixteen years ago, Benfica’s Simão Sabrosa picked out Pepe Reina’s top corner to quell a raucous atmosphere and send the Champions League holders crashing out in the last 16.
Simão raises a smile as he considers returning to Anfield in 10 days’ time in his suit to find the spot 25 yards out from where he scored. “If I get on to the pitch, I will try to do the same movement; I will take a ball but maybe I won’t score this time,” says Benfica’s head of international relations.
The clubs meet again in the Champions League, this time in a quarter-final first leg on Tuesday. Benfica are underdogs once more but, as in 2006, will be hosts at Simão’s “second home”, the Estádio da Luz, and hoping to create another fiery atmosphere.
“I remember everything,” he says of the opening leg, which Benfica won 1-0. “The atmosphere was brilliant thanks to the fans. Liverpool were the Champions League holders with the same team – they hadn’t changed too much – and when we saw the starting XI, I saw Steven Gerrard wasn’t playing, so we very happy because Gerrard was Liverpool’s best player, one of the best players in Europe. We started to play only thinking to win the game and we played for the win and Liverpool did not play for the win and did not play well.”
A Luisão header gave Benfica a vital lead to take to Anfield, where Liverpool were confident of turning the tie around. The Benfica goal withstood a barrage in the opening half-hour as Liverpool aimed to level things, backed by a wall of noise. Simão, however, made the telling impact when he picked up the ball in the 36th minute and scored one of his favorite goals before Fabrizio Miccoli added a late second.
“It was the first time we got the ball but we knew what to do. I took out two players and I scored. After that goal, the team started to breathe as it is difficult to play at Anfield emotionally.
“There was silence from the Liverpool fans but I screamed a lot as I ran to the bench to celebrate with my mates. It was great to hear the 4,000 Benfica fans. We celebrated the first goal a lot and then when Miccoli scored the second goal, it was epic. I will never forget that moment and I will never forget Anfield because after the game we celebrated and after we went inside the dressing room we came back out to celebrate with our fans and also with the Liverpool fans that stayed behind.”
In a parallel universe, Simão could have been trying to help Liverpool through rather than knocking them out after the club made an offer to sign the winger in the summer of 2005. “Everything I was thinking was about moving to Liverpool. I remember I was with the national team and my manager called me to come into the office as Liverpool had made an offer. Luiz Felipe Scolari gave me permission to go for talks but when I arrived at Benfica’s office, they said it was impossible and they told me I didn’t have permission to take the plane to Liverpool, so I stayed with Benfica,” the 42-year-old says.
“I am happy but I think most players have a dream to play in Premier League for the big clubs. But I am a lucky ex-footballer because I played in big teams, I played with Benfica for six years – and it’s my team – I played in different countries for big teams. Unfortunately, I didn’t play in the Premier League but I’ve scored against Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea, so I have great memories from playing against English teams.”
Barcelona ended Benfica’s Champions League run in the next round, although the Portuguese club gained revenge of sorts this season by eliminating them at the group stage after taking four points from their two meetings. Benfica have not gone further than the quarters in more than 30 years and few are backing them to improve on that record in the next fortnight despite a 3-2 aggregate win over Ajax in the last 16.
This Benfica are a long way from the side that won consecutive European Cups in the early 1960s. They are redrawing their identity, with Rui Costa taking over as president last year and promoting the Benfica B coach, Nélson Veríssimo, to replace Jorge Jesus at a club who have not won their domestic league since 2019 and will miss out again this time.
Veríssimo’s knowledge of Benfica’s academy, which has produced Bernardo Silva, João Cancelo and Rúben Dias in recent years and is described by Simão as “the best in the world”, will help put the club back at the forefront after being arguably overlooked during Jesus’s tenure.