Is the tide turning on Porto after cup defeat to Benfica?

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Back in August when Benfica and Porto locked horns for the Portuguese Super Cup, most pundits tipped the Eagles to win the match.

After all, they had been crowned champions and pre-season had given Jorge Jesus false hope the team would play the same high-octane football showed the previous season. That didn’t happen and Porto comfortably beat their old nemesis.

When they met again in the Portuguese League, things got even worse for Benfica, as Porto subjected them to a 5-0 thrashing and removed any lingering doubts their streak was a mere ‘flash in the pan’.

Therefore, when both teams met for the third time in the first leg of the Portuguese Cup semi-finals, Porto went into the match as clear favourites.

Important changes

Both sides made a few changes to their starting line-ups. Porto were without their injured star striker Falcao, so Villas-Boas opted to play Hulk upfront and named James Rodríguez in his starting XI.

At the back, and after the horrific leg break sustained by Emídio Rafael in the previous match against Gil Vicente, Porto were forced into changes, and resorted Sereno as makeshift left-back, a somewhat surprising change considering that Fucile has played in that position several times.

Meanwhile, Jesus made one very significant change by giving midfielder César Peixoto a starting role against his former club, while Sidnei partnered Luisão at the back, with David Luiz having jumped ship for Chelsea.

There are a fair few reasons to complain about Peixoto’s inclusion. First of all, he’s neither a defender nor a winger. He can't defend if his life depends on it and his knee problems have stripped him of the pace and flair of his early years. And secondly, if Benfica’s plan was to keep things tight at the back, Airton would prove a stronger, more industrious option.

Action and (lack of) reaction

Unlike those earlier meetings, Benfica pounced on a Porto’s mistake and grabbed an early lead through Fábio Coentrão in the fifth minute. 

The Dragons reacted and almost got an equalizer when James Rodríguez failed to connect with Varela’s cross, but Benfica would eventually double their lead through a Javi Garcia’s mid-range shot in the 26th minute.

After the second goal, Porto looked unsteady, probably because they had only been that situation one time this season.

At the break, Porto were trailing Benfica by two goals but, knowing how they usually react to adversity in home matches, the Portugeezer was expecting a second-half onslaught.

Porto only possess two out-and-out strikers: Falcao and Walter. Having prior knowledge of Falcao’s condition, most coaches would forget the fact Walter has been living up to his moniker ‘The Anvil’ – oh yes, he’s that heavy – because Porto simply don’t have anyone else!

With Hulk left alone upfront, Porto lose two players: an actual striker who can work in the box and a winger who can open up defences and create dozens of opportunities.

So, André Villas-Boas was left with a slightly tougher decision and decided to take James Rodriguez off to introduce the more experienced Cristían, hoping the Uruguayan could bring an extra spark in the second half.

But that’s not where he failed: he made a questionable decision of introducing Guarín for Belluschi after Coentrão received his marching orders and failed to break down Benfica’s fortress.

Had Sereno been replaced with another winger – Mariano González, perhaps – maybe the Dragons would have split Benfica’s water-tight defence.

So, even against a 10-men opposition, Porto failed to create a single chance and could have seen Cardozo scoring what would have been an embarrassing third goal.

What does the loss mean?

Porto’s previous match was against Gil Vicente for the League Cup. With few chances to go through – having lost at home to Nacional – and with the match against Benfica on his mind, André Villas-Boas understandably opted to tinker the team.

Still, after the 2-2 draw against the Liga Orangina side, some people pointed out Porto’s ‘evident’ slump in form.

The loss against Benfica, however, is slightly different. They were outsmarted and considering they’re not used to losing this season, it will be interesting to see how Porto react now that the season is reaching that interesting February checkpoint, when European competitions resume and title races are shaped.

Also, it is a bit curious that Porto’s only two losses to date may just result in two lost cups. Granted, they still have a chance at beating Benfica, but they certainly don’t have the upper hand.

This weekend they claimed a dull 1-0 success against Rio Ave at home, but next week will provide a slightly sterner test in the form of a trip to Braga.

Will they dash Benfica’s faint hopes for a title or will things eventually get more interesting? Stay tuned…