European champions came to an end

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Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez admitted his team paid for their failure to convert chances as their reign as European champions came to an end tonight.

The Reds were beaten 2-0 by Benfica at Anfield to exit 3-0 on aggregate at the last-16 stage of the Champions League.

Benitez said: 'If you analyse the game you can see the chances we created in the first 20 minutes.

'Then we conceded the goal, and we leave more space. In the second half we played with three defenders to try to go forward, and they played good counter-attack. For me, the key was the first 20 minutes.

'I had confidence because we were creating chances; then we made a mistake, and everything changed.

'We had to score a goal before the other team - and if we didn't it would be more difficult.'

Benitez admitted to being 'deeply hurt, very, very disappointed' as his team conceded the Champions League title won so magnificently in Istanbul last May.

This defeat at the last-16 stage was anything but magnificent, as Liverpool's continual problems in front of goal again let them down.

Benitez said: 'What happened was clear. We started well, made chances and then made a bad mistake and conceded a goal. From then on the game changed.

'But I will not blame my strikers. Mistakes were made at the back, and that is why we lost.

'Once we had conceded that first-half goal, we tried to come forward but left gaps and failed to control midfield.

'For the first 20 minutes we were better than them - but when the goals didn't come Benfica improved and played very well.'

They played well enough, in fact, to convince Benitez they are capable of making a bold bid to succeed Liverpool as European champions.

'I believe that they can progress further in the competition. They are organised and play very well on the counter-attack,' he said.

For Liverpool, it is a very different story.

'I had great confidence in my side and I know how much they wanted to retain the trophy,' said the Reds boss.

'You could look at their faces beforehand and know they also believed they could win this time - but their faces now show their hurt.

'I told them that they had the best fans in the world behind them and they owed them a top-class performance.

'I cannot criticise their effort - and I will not criticise individual players, because mistakes were made by the team.'

Liverpool suffered badly because of the late injuries which forced the withdrawals of Sami Hyypia and John Arne Riise from the defence.

Benitez said: 'They were injured, and there is nothing you can do. 'I would prefer not to talk about people who could not play but only the ones who were out there.'

Liverpool squandered a number of chances before Simao Sabrosa - whom Liverpool tried to sign last summer - gave Benfica the lead. Substitute Fabrizio Miccoli added the Portuguese side's second late on.

Benfica coach Ronald Koeman admitted his side rode their luck but felt Liverpool's scoring problems may be down to a mental problem.

Koeman said: 'In the first 30 minutes they played well and had two or three big chances to score - but after that they were less confident.

'We scored the goal from Simao and we played better. In the second half they tried again - but they did not have the opportunities they had in the first half.

'We needed to be lucky. If you are not lucky you cannot beat a team like Liverpool.

'Not only today, but they have a problem to score - maybe it is a mental problem.'

Of his side's chances of winning the competition, Koeman added: 'We can still surprise big teams - but maybe after today the rest of the teams will be more attentive of Benfica.'

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard also highlighted his team's failure to convert chances as the key reason for their defeat.

Gerrard said: 'The fans were superb tonight and got behind us - but when you are 1-0 down it is important to get a goal.

'We created two or three chances in the first 20 minutes - and when they don't go in and they score you start to worry.

'Good luck to them, but it is very frustrating. We never took our chances - we could not put them away.

'It is a lack of confidence, and I think we need to work on it - extra shooting sessions in training, I think.

'We need to pick ourselves up. The FA cup becomes even more important now; we need a trophy.


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