Two weeks before the end of last season, Benfica’s fans were in dreamland. A fortnight later, though, the dream had turned into a nightmare; from being strong favourites to complete a domestic double and being in the final of a European competition for the first time in over two decades, they ended up with nothing. The nature of those defeats made it even worse. Against Porto in the championship decider, and Chelsea in the Europa League final, the Eagles twice succumbed to stoppage-time goals.
Suddenly coach Jorge Jesus's position was uncertain, despite a five-year tenure restoring Benfica, a historical giant of the European game, to a serious force. But president Luís Felipe Vieira stuck by his man, against the wishes of several other board members and the majority of supporters. The pressure increased on Jesus when a stuttering start to the season saw Benfica fall five points behind bitter northern rivals Porto, despite a significant summer outlay on new recruits.
Faith in Jesus
When the club failed to negotiate a seemingly straightforward Champions League group containing Olympiakos and Anderlecht, and thus bringing a premature end to their dream of playing the final in their own stadium, the president again resisted the temptation to sack Jesus.
What has transpired since has fully vindicated Vieira’s faith and brought the coach back into favour. Benfica have been in sensational form over the past four months - only a different kind of sensational. Not the free-scoring, high-octane, non-stop attacking machine that has characterised the team over the previous four seasons. This devoutness to the mantra of goalscoring inevitably led to vulnerability at the other end of the pitch. It seemed JJ’s legacy was to be thrills and spills all the way, with precious little to show for it in terms of major silverware. Everyone’s favourite nearly men, if you like.
But Benfica and their boss have learned from their mistakes. You no longer see swathes of red shirts tearing up the pitch for 90 minutes. The secret of Benfica’s success this season has been balance. Goals continue to flow at a healthy rate, but it is the way they defend that has underpinned their astonishing run of form. Benfica have won 21 and drawn two of their last 23 matches, and are currently on an eight-game winning streak. Most remarkably, the Lisbon giants have conceded just one goal in their last 16 matches.
Young Slovenian goalkeeper Jan Oblak, captain Luisão, his centre-back partner Ezequiel Garay and the regularly rotated set of full-backs have been rock solid. But it is the way the team defends as a unit and effortlessly controls the tempo of matches that has impressed most. Ironically, the sale of Benfica’s best player last season, holding midfielder Nemanja Matic to Chelsea in January, has played a part in bringing about the newfound equilibrium. Replacement Ljubomir Fejsa, who has little of Matic’s inventive passing ability going forward, is happy to sit back as an anchorman, constituting a reliable first line of defence in front of the back four.
Likewise, the preference for Lima and Rodrigo as the starting strikers, rather than the free-scoring but less mobile Oscar Cardozo, means the team defends from the front. The energetic front two put in tireless shifts of hard running game after game, thus disrupting the opposition’s attempts to construct attacking movements.
Star quality in attack
In keeping with the club’s traditions, Benfica continue to benefit from an array of richly gifted attacking talents. Still only 19, Serbian Lazar Markovic – with a penchant for scoring wonder-goals and turning it on in the big matches – has justified the hyperbole that first suggested the club had acquired a future global star of the game. Nico Gaitán has now added consistency to his lavish skills; he and Markovic seem to be waging a private battle to score the most spectacular goal. Brazilian-born Rodrigo is scoring freely, and the joy with which he is playing exemplifies the current spirit flowing through the squad. “I’m having a great season, my best yet. I’m happy and I hope to finish it even better,” he told Benfica’s in-house TV channel yesterday.
Although Benfica go into the match on top of their game, Tottenham fans will be pleased to hear that Jesus has rotated his charges heavily in the Europa League this season. The Portuguese title has been lost to Porto in each of the last three seasons, and just last Sunday Jesus reiterated that winning the Primeira Liga was the priority. “The game against Tottenham is important, but our main aim from day one has been to win the league. I won’t be swayed from that objective and will make my team selections accordingly,” said the Benfica boss.
As such, winger Eduardo Salvio and striker Cardozo may well get a start at White Hart Lane. Despite being the two most expensive signings in Benfica’s history, injury has kept both players out for most of this season and neither are at their best. Moreover, in building the aforementioned magnificent sequence of results, Benfica have certainly not played against any team with the individual capabilities of the Premier League club.
Nevertheless, Spurs will surely have to be at the very top of their game to live with the Portuguese side aiming to take another step towards making up for last season’s trauma.
Argentine midfielder Enzo Pérez acts as the pendulum between attack and defence, combining aggression, skill and a phenomenal workrate. If he plays well – which he invariably does – Benfica play well.
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