Rafael Benitez enjoyed an unforgettable Madrid homecoming as a late Yossi Benayoun header helped Liverpool defeat Real Madrid 1-0 in the first leg of their last-16 UEFA Champions League duel at the Santiago Bernabeu. Benayoun headed in a Fabio Aurelio cross in the 82nd minute for a vital away goal and Liverpool now hold the advantage ahead of the return leg at Anfield on 10 March.
"We worked very hard and we scored a very good goal," said Benitez who added that he took off star striker Fernando Torres as a precaution. "He hurt his ankle in the first minute so he wasn't fully fit. I took him off because he could be at risk for the next few games."
Deprived of their inspirational captain Steven Gerrard - scorer of five goals in this season's UEFA Champions League - Liverpool lacked punch with former Atletico Madrid star Torres starved of service but a set-piece undid Real in the closing stages. The build-up to the match had surrounded Benitez's return to Real Madrid where he coached the youth team and the former Valencia coach, who continues to stall on a new contract, has consistently been linked with the Real job.
But for now his loyalty lies firmly with Liverpool and Real will have to pull out all the stops to eliminate the 2005 champions. "We wanted to try and score a few goals for the second leg but Liverpool played their game and were very good in defence," said Real coach Juande Ramos. "They scored from a set-piece but it was meant to be a 0-0 as there were hardly any chances from either side. We were unlucky to concede and now we need to win in Anfield. We are behind in the tie but it is far from over as we are capable of winning anywhere."
Gerrard, out since the beginning of February with a torn hamstring, lost his fitness battle and started on the substitutes bench with Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano forming the midfield axis. Torres started as a lone striker and Liverpool's Spanish influence was evident as they fielded five Spanish internationals in Pepe Reina, Albert Riera, Alonso, Torres and Alvaro Arbeloa, who came through the youth system at Real. Real had just three Spaniards in their starting XI with UEFA EURO 2008 victors Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas along with captain Raul.
Dutch winger Arjen Robben, twice beaten by Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League semi-finals in Chelsea colours, shrugged off a slight hip injury to start on the right wing. Real were full of confidence after nine straight league victories and a 6-1 drubbing of Real Betis at the weekend, while Liverpool were low on confidence with rumours of Benitez ready to jump ship and poor domestic results seeing them fall behind Manchester United in the title race.
In the early minutes Torres was penalised for a foul on Pepe drawing a chorus of jeers from the Real fans who showed their dislike for the former Atletico Madrid striker despite his heroics in Spain's EURO 2008 success. Real had the first opening after five minutes when Robben, constantly cutting inside on his left foot, fed Raul but his weak shot was saved by Reina. Nine-time champions Real were making the early running with Liverpool happy to soak up pressure and use the pace of Torres on the counter attack.
In the 20th minute Liverpool had the first clear-cut chance with Torres clean through after a defensive lapse, but international team-mate Casillas parried his shot with a fine reflex save. It would have been Torres's first ever goal at the Bernabeu. Casillas was again called into action a minute later to deny Benayoun. Liverpool gradually asserted their authority on the match as the half progressed and Benitez's name was chanted by the travelling fans showing their support for their popular manager.
Robben was Real's main threat and he fizzed a great cross in that took a deflection into Reina's grateful arms. The highlight of the first half was a spectacular shot from Alonso from close to the halfway line that was tipped over by Casillas.
Benayoun was an increasing menace for Liverpool but Torres was looking off the pace and Benitez took him off on the hour mark for Ryan Babel. Robben had Real's two best efforts in the second half with Reina tipping over his fierce 71st minute drive following a mazy run. But Liverpool hit the Spanish champions with the sucker punch eight minutes from time with Benayoun's header to gain the upper hand in the tie.