Eagles soar into last eight as Atletico tame toothless Lions

All eyes were on the Lisbon rivals last Thursday, as they both resumed their Europa League journey.

There was still all to play for as Sporting had held Atlético Madrid to a 0-0 draw, while Benfica were surprisingly outplayed at home by Marseille and couldn’t get more than a 1-1 draw.

Benfica knew beforehand they had to score if they wanted to go through and, spurred by the opportunity to exact revenge over a team that had previously humbled them, they started the game more focused and organized than the week before.

The Eagles outfit created the best opportunities in the first half as Cardozo hit the post with a thunderous strike and Di Maria wasted a good chance when he only had goalkeeper Mandanda to beat.

The goal seemed just a matter of time but when the referee blew his whistle for half-time, the deadlock was still to be broken.

The second half was more of the same with Benfica creating goal opportunities and gradually piling more pressure on the French side. Ironically, just like the first-leg match it was the home side that scored against the run of play.

After a free-kick that seemed as harmful as a kitten, the ball fell to striker Brandão who managed to put the ball in play, much to the despair of goalkeeper Júlio César; Niang was quick to react and put his team in front with 20 minutes left to play.

Benfica didn’t wobble though and they levelled the game when Maxi Pereira’s deflected shot from out of nowhere beat Mandanda putting everything back to square one.

Realizing that Marseille were finding it hard to create opportunities from open play, Jesus replaced midfielder Carlos Martins for Brazilian starlet Alan Kardec with just four minutes to go in a last-ditch attempt to win the match before extra time.

And in dramatic fashion, it was the young striker who secured their passage to the next round of the competition. Pablo Aimar sent a free kick to the box and as the Marseille defence failed to clear, Kardec found some space and unleashed a shot that only stopped in the back of the net.

It was an incredible ending to a cracking match which has left Benfica and their supporters dreaming about a May trip to Hamburg.

Sporting were looking to emulate their neighbours’ heroics but were unfortunately undone by an Atlético Madrid side who were far from superior.

The Lions’ failure to advance to the next round can be explained by two facts: 1) their depleted backline (Grimi and Tonel were suspended and Carriço injured) and 2) a red-hot Sergio Agüero that single-handedly carried his team to the next round.

The home team couldn’t have wished for a worse start as Atletico scored with just three minutes in the game. Being one goal down at home meant that Sporting needed two goals to advance to the next round, but the players didn’t seem fazed by their tough task.

They immediately settled into Atletico’s own half and eventually reached a leveller when Liédson headed home from Carlos Saleiro pinpoint cross.

However, party-pooper-in-chief Agüero was able to ruin Sporting’s plan once again as he produced an individual masterpiece to give his team the lead.

Running onto a José Antonio Reyes’s through pass, the pint-sized Argentinean turned Caneira and sent the ball past Rui Patrício with the outside of his right foot.

Anderson Polga scored just before the break but Sporting were unable to push for a decisive third goal in the second half. 

It was truly a pity, because looking back at the two matches, the Spanish side was never better than Sporting. Still, in Aguero they had a standout performer that tipped the scales in favour of Atlético. And so the 2009/2010 ends for the Lions...

Talking points

Does someone know what actually happened to Marat Izmailov? The Russian withdrew from the crucial match against Atletico due to an alleged injury, but his club (through sporting director Costinha) claim there is more to this storyline than meets the eye. Who’s telling the truth?

Benfica were drawn against Liverpool in the quarterfinals of the Europa League. Definitely one of the sharks the Eagles were keen to avoid, but they have fond memories of facing sides from Merseyside, having beaten the Reds in 2006 and trashed Everton earlier this season. Can they defeat Rafa Benítez’s men again?

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