Braga keep the dream alive, while Benfica are stuck in a nightmare

Benfica and Braga entered the penultimate matchday of the Champions League group stages with everything to play for. But while the Minho Warriors have managed to keep their faint hopes of advancing to the Last 16 alive, the Eagles  were left ruing a gruelling night in Tel Aviv that they won’t forget anytime soon.

Braga v Arsenal

This blog has stated it before, but Braga really did overachieve last season, and in a rather cruel way are now paying the price of the fickleness of the average Portuguese football fan. That’s the main reason why the stadium was only half filled on Tuesday evening for the match against English giants Arsenal.

The odds were heavily stacked against Braga: they had only six points, trailing both Shakhtar and the Gunners by three and with the additional disadvantage of a far inferior goal difference.

Yet, the home side approached the match positively, as if they still had a good chance of going through, even though their opposition was naturally stronger. Arsenal’s line-up differed slightly from their weekend defeat to Tottenham, with Denilson replacing Alex Song, Nicklas Bendtner replacing Marouane Chamakh, while Emmanuel Eboué, Johan Djourou and Kieran Gibbs all earned recalls at the back.

Though Arsenal held the initiative for large periods, the bulk of the match was pretty uneventful with both sides struggling to craft a clearcut opportunity. Braga coach Domingos Paciência, however, decide to gamble on forward Elton in the 81st minute and within seconds the Brazilian played in talismanic forward and compatriot Matheus, who raced towards Fabianski and applied a simple curled finish. The lethargy felt on the terraces was suddenly broken and the locals quickly found their voices.

Arsenal, perhaps a bit shocked by conceding a goal against a team who they had scored six against without reply back in September, pushed heavily for an equalizer, and were caught on the break with the last – and definitely the most beautiful - play of the match. After an Arsenal free-kick was cleared, the ball eventually fell to Matheus near the halfway line. Braga's No.99 raced towards Fabianski as fast as he could, bamboozled three Arsenal defenders and curled a left-footed shot in off the crossbar for the second goal!

Braga now possess the same points as Arsenal but need to either beat Shakhtar by four goals or hope that Arsenal somehow drop points against winless Partizan in order to qualify. Yes, it is a small miracle, but they fought for it and will travel to Donetsk in high spirits.

Hapoel v Benfica

Hero-almost turned-zero Jorge Jesus was spot-on when he said – in a deceivingly condescending fashion – that Hapoel could play a part in determining which team would advance to the knockout stages of the Champions League.

What he didn’t foresee was that it would be Benfica that would succumb to the Israelis. The manager and players had all the pre-match talk prepared: “This is going to be our final”, “This will be the turning point of our season” and the objective lens of maths said their qualifying hopes remained entirely in their own hands: firstly, beat an arguably weaker Hapoel side and then thwart Schalke’s hopes at home in front of 60,000 partisan supporters. Straightforward stuff.

But, like so many times before in this kind of situation, the Eagles disappointed and left the so-called Promised Land with an embarrassing 3-0 mauling, the wounds from which will take some time to heal.

Benfica started the match on the front foot knowing a faster tempo and high pressure would give them an edge. However, their plans were quickly undone as Zahavi gave Hapoel the lead in the 24th minute when he headed home from a free-kick.

Hapoel weathered a storm early in the second half, where only sheer lack of inspiration and a disjointed team prevented Benfica from scoring more than once. They say lightning never strikes twice, but that proved to be false, perhaps unsurprisingly, as the home side – happy to sit back for most of the match - gained a rare corner kick, resulting in their second goal 15 minutes from time. How telling is it that a team that failed to make anything of 21 corners ended up conceding from a corner to a team that only had two?

With their hopes of a win dashed – bar a miracle – Benfica players lowered their guard and concentration levels, and Hapoel took advantage to pile more misery on Jesus’s team.

The unthinkable happened and Benfica left Israel wondering how on Earth they lost a match in which they had showed more quality, created more opportunities and enjoyed more possession. The Eagles are still favourites to land the Europa League spot, but they shouldn’t be careless against Schalke 04….just in case.

Jesus has already had to ride out the turbulance that followed the 5-0 hammering at the hands of mortal enemies Porto; can he somehow rebound from this humiliating result? What with the season of good will upon us, perhaps he will be granted one last reprieve...

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