Braga finally end Benfica's faint title hopes

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After an 18-match winning run, Benfica’s faint title hopes were effectively crushed on March 6, when they were defeated 2-1 at Braga.

It was another ‘final’ for the Eagles who were hoping to heap some pressure on table-toppers Porto and coming off a League Cup win against Lisbon rivals Sporting, momentum was on their side.

It wasn’t to be, though, as Braga dismantled Benfica with a polished performance. Ironically, unlike their previous matches against Sporting and Marítimo, Benfica started the match on the front foot and broke the deadlock in the 25th minute through Saviola. From that moment on, the home side grew and started to take control of the match.

Controversy or lack of arguments?

The dynamic of the match would shift completely just before the break when Spaniard Javi Garcia hit Alan in the chest and the Brazilian midfielder showed-off his acting skills by making the most of the contact.  Garcia was given a straight red, but what immediately followed it was even worse. Hugo Viana – who apparently has a knack for scoring against the Eagles – sent a long curved ball that somehow lobbed a hapless Roberto and gave the home side an equalizer.

No matter how many good saves the former Atletico goalkeeper has made, he still hasn’t proven he’s better than Quim. Just more expensive and prone to big-time howlers.

In the second half, Benfica tried to hit Braga on the break, but Braga’s persistence would pay off with 12 minutes remaining when Márcio Mossóro hit a wonder curling 25-yard effort. Game over, streak over and title over.

Tinkering strategy

The Portugeezer has stated on more than one occasion that Benfica have been looking a bit ragged this season. The desperate late home wins against Stuttgart, Maritimo and Sporting hinted that Benfica was a team running on perspiration, rather than inspiration. In those matches, they gave away possession far too often, miss-hit many passes and overall looked a bit sluggish, only for second-half pressure to give them an adrenaline rush to complete a comeback.

Jesus opted to name a full-strength team against Maritimo and Sporting, but against Braga – arguably the toughest league match with the exception of the Porto game – the Benfica coach opted to name Felipe Menezes and Franco Jara in the starting XI.

Menezes had only played 32 minutes in the league while Jara had been mostly involved as a sub. Maybe it was too much to expect both players to perform against a tough side when they haven’t even regularly featured against weaker opposition.

Not all gloom and doom

Much of the alleged title race was fuelled by the mainstream media. After all, Benfica were trailing Porto by eight points and needed to win every single match till the end of the season - while hoping the Dragons dropped points in two or three matches - to have any hope of finishing in top spot. Porto have been both consistently amazing and amazingly consistent this season and have only drawn twice, which should tell you the odds of such meltdown happening.

But now that Benfica were brought down to Earth again, they can and should focus on the remaining competitions. They have a good shot at the domestic cups and if they win against PSG and get reasonable draw they can be contenders in the Europa League.

Even though Jesus doesn’t like to tinker the squad, the Portuguese League can now be a place to test players such as Roderick Miranda, Carole and Alan Kardec who are regarded as prospects but haven’t seen much playing time.

The other side of the story

Most pundits were quick to talk about the significance of Benfica’s loss, apparently dismissing the importance of Braga’s victory. After playing to such a high level at the beginning of the season, the Minho Warriors soon ran out of steam; a major overhaul during the January transfer window didn’t help the cause and their sluggish series of results put them in seventh place prior the match against Benfica, which squeeze them out of contention for a European berth.

With such a morale-boosting win, they climbed one position and have closed in on both Guimarães and Paços de Ferreira.  Domingos Paciência – who is rumoured to be replaced at the end of the season for former Beira-Mar manager Leonardo Jardim – stood tall once more and showed he can still end the season on a high. Whether he signs a new contract or not, one thing is clear: there will be no shortage of options for Domingos shall he leave Braga.