Jurgen Klopp ends 564-day wait as Liverpool fans prove correct with long-lasting wish

Liverpool defeated Benfica 3-1 in the Champions League quarter-final first leg and it was the first time Naby Keita and Thiago Alcantara started a match together.

When it comes to Jurgen Klopp's high-profile midfield purchases at Liverpool, Naby Keita and Thiago Alcantara cannot be eclipsed.

Their names had long been mentioned before their respective arrivals and it meant Kopites built high hopes for different reasons.

Bundesliga build-up

In the case of Keita, he was extolled as one of the best engine-room operators in the Bundesliga.

Liverpool splashed out a then-club record fee of £52.75 million for his services in 2018.

They even allowed RB Leipzig to keep him on loan for an additional season to secure the deal.

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Thiago Alcantara, on the other hand, had won just about everything a footballer can at Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

When he was snapped up for £20 million in September 2020 after Bayern had claimed the Champions League, it was regarded as a major coup.

Yet it came as a shock that before the Reds' Champions League quarter-final first leg at Benfica on Tuesday, they hadn't started a game together.

In fact, they'd been on the pitch at the same time for only four games and a total of 92 minutes.

Given the hype surrounding each when recruited, you'd have thought Klopp's had designs on Keita and Thiago featuring in the middle of the park simultaneously more frequently.

Certaintly, it’s something sections of supporters have clamoured for at various times.

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Yet both have struggled with injuries at Anfield. It's a significant reason why, despite sharing a dressing room for 564 days, they finally began a game from the outset together against Benfica.

Thiago Alcantara and Naby Keita during Liverpool training. Picture: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

Bold call

Indeed, it was a bold call from Klopp in a game of such magnitude.

With a fully-fit squad to select from, it would have been more prudent for Jordan Henderson to have featured in the three-man midfield. Curtis Jones, James Milner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Harvey Elliott were also options.

But the opening 45 minutes of the 3-1 win at the Estádio da Luz, which ensured Liverpool have one foot in the door of another Champions League semi-final, offered a tantalising glimpse of what might be to come.

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With Fabinho taking up his usual screening role, Keita and Thiago were allowed to dictate further up the pitch.

The former's had his critics during his time on Merseyside. A lack of consistency, along with injuries, has been his main fault.

But Keita displayed all of the attributes you'd want from a centre-midfielder - thrust, penetration and positivity.

A high-intensity display persistently put Liverpool on the front foot. There was one sumptuous through ball that set away Luis Diaz, who was thwarted by Benfica keeper Odysseas Vlachodimos.

Keita could have even had a goal himself. The Guinea international will be disappointed by the lack of purchase he made with a header from a Sadio Mane cross, while he forced a decent save out of Vlachodimos.

Having produced a swashbuckling performance against Watford last weekend, Thiago's potent passing was in abundance for a second straight game.

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The Spaniard completed the most passes (56), most final-third entries (10) and most ball recoveries (eight) before the interval.

Keita and Thiago's dominant efforts were a fundamental reason why Klopp's troop went into half-time two goals ahead courtesy of Ibou Konate and Mane.

Thiago Alcantara in action for Liverpool against Benfica. Picture: Julian Finney/Getty Images

That’s a stat

Darwin Nunez's finish four minutes into the second half gave Benfica a lifeline and things got a little frantic after that.

Thiago was withdrawn in the 61st minute after he gave the ball away then made a cynical foul which saw him go into the book.

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In the past, it would have been Keita sacrificed for Jordan Henderson when Klopp felt he needed added experience.

Instead, Liverpool's most decorated player in Thiago was hooked.

Again, Klopp's decision paid off as Keita engineered Diaz's late goal to restore a two-goal cushion.

He reacted first to a loose ball and drove at Benfica's rearguard before his pass took a slight deflection that Diaz fully profited from.

Come the final whistle, Keita had 106 touches, the most in the game, completed five tackles and three dribbles - more than any other Reds player.

As Liverpool's quadruple aspirations remain alive, Klopp will be wary that rotation will be key.

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Fans have had to wait significantly longer than expected to see Keita and Thiago in the same starting XI - but there's an unexpected partnership that could prove pivotal from now until the end of the season.