How Benfica Can Compete In The Champions League

How Benfica Can Compete In The Champions League
Jun 30, 2017

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Every year, Benfica, Porto and/or Sporting play in the Champions League and have to face off against European giants (or teams with a much bigger budget) such as PSG, Real Madrid, Juventus, Bayern Munich, etc. Most of the time, all three big clubs from Portugal can stay competitive and fight for the win, but how?

During the summer at the end of every season, Benfica lose key players from their squad. After they won the first of four league titles in a row, Benfica lost Rodrigo, Marković, Enzo Pérez, Oblak, Garay, Cardozo and André Gomes. All of those players were vital to their title win with Oblak piling up 22 clean sheets in 28 games, Garay being the rock solid defender we know and Enzo Peréz at the time was Benfica’s engine in the midfield.

To cover up those sales Benfica signed Pizzi, who was playing for Espanyol at the time; veteran goalkeeper Júlio César, who was playing in Toronto; Samaris, who was part of Olympiacos title winning team and Jonas, probably the best free signing in Europe over the past few years, who at the time was seen as one of the worst striker in La Liga with several Brazilian outlets calling him a bust ever since he moved to Europe.

None of those guys had a big pedigree, besides Júlio César, but Benfica managed to once again fully potentialize their players and although they had a poor outing in the Champions League (lost 3, tied 2 and won 1) they still won their second league title and the league cup with Jonas tallying up 31 goals.

The following year, after losing Jorge Jesus to arch-rivals Sporting Clube de Portugal, Maxi Pereira to Porto and second best goalscorer Lima to Dubai, Benfica picked up Raúl Jiménez and Kostas Mitroglou and this time their Champions League outing was far superior to past years, losing to Bayern in the quarter-finals (3-2 on aggregate).

Their Champions League group consisted of Atlético Madrid, Galatasaray and Astana. Benfica beat Astana easily in the first game although they struggled in the second one, mostly due to injuries as we saw Sílvio, Jiménez and Renato Sanches play, the latter having his first go at a European game before he set himself as a starter. They also won a game against Gala while losing the second, in an unfair fashion I must say, as they ended up with the most chances during the game but just never managed to score. Probably their biggest achievement during the group stage was a win away against Atlético, the score being 1-2 with Gaitán and, mostly unknown at the time, Portuguese youngster, Gonçalo Guedes.

What allowed Benfica to win that game was their ability to adapt to the situation, ever since Vitória took over at Benfica they weren’t shy to change formations during the game with constant changes between a regular 4-4-2, a 4-3-2-1 and an offensive 4-3-3 and that wasn’t different in this game, once Jonas came off the field Benfica fielded a 4-3-2-1 with Fejsa and Samaris holding the midfield, that allowed them to finish the game with a win and be the only thorn in Simeone’s home Champions League record (23-4-1). Benfica ended up losing at home against Atleti but once again they played a good game.

Up next they met up with Zenit, the same team that won both games two years ago when they met in the group stage. Benfica fans will know that it looked impossible to beat the Russian side and despite probably being the favourites, most fans weren’t too excited to play Zenit.

Benfica ended up winning both games, they won at home 1-0 and away 1-2 with Jonas, Jiménez and Talisca being the most important players during those two games. It’s important to say that Benfica went to Russia without 3 centre backs and Samaris had to play next to Lindelöf, forcing Vitória to play with a makeshift midfield of Fejsa and Renato. However, the team still managed to keep Hulk and company quiet as they rallied back to win the game.

Bayern were named as their next opponent and, as expected, Benfica wasn’t given a chance to win this tie by the pundits. By the time the first game rolled around, Benfica had set themselves with a defensive lineup with Samaris, Fejsa, and Renato in the midfield to fend off against Vidal, Thiago, and Kimmich but as the first few minutes rolled along it looked like Benfica’s plans were going down the drain after conceding just 2 minutes in with Vidal scoring the opener but, unlike Porto, Benfica managed to hold themselves and get back into the game, they ended up with plenty of chances but Benfica never managed to find the back of the net, but with a 1-0 loss, Benfica had high hopes they could use their home field advantage and beat Bayern to move on to the semi-finals.

Unluckily, when the second leg was set to take place, Benfica had a lot of injuries and they fielded a starting eleven with André Almeida, Carcela, and Jiménez but they set themselves the challenge to go through and they pushed Bayern to the max.

Benfica fans were able to dream thanks to Raúl opening the scoring, but unfortunately Vidal and Müller killed Benfica’s chances of going through but Talisca still managed to tie the game up (and set the aggregate to 3-2) confirming that, despite the money difference, Benfica still pushed teams forcing them to play to the best of their abilities and truth be told, a bit more efficiency by Benfica, a call or another going their way and a more solid defence would have led Benfica to an upset but Benfiquistas were proud of their team either way. I’d also like to point out that Pep Guardiola had nothing but kind words to say towards Benfica and Rui Vitória. One of the best managers in Europe knew Benfica made their win more valuable. An exit to Bayern in the Champions League, their third league title in a row and a league cup win? Another successful year for Benfica.

Last season was more of the same with Benfica losing Renato, Guedes (mid-season), Gaitán and, out of favour, Talisca. But this past year was probably the season where the signings beat the departures because with Živković, Cervi, Rafa, Carrillo, and Horta,x the players who left were a distant memory by the start of the season.

Benfica had a Champions League group consisting on Dynamo Kiev, Besiktas, and Napoli. Right off the bat pundits considered Benfica and Napoli to be the best teams in the group and that they’d both fight for first place, this ended up happening with Napoli finishing first with 11 points and Benfica second with 8 points. This could have been a different story, however, if the Portuguese champions could have held on to two leads against Besiktas (both games ended as a draw) and didn’t collapse in 10 minutes away in Italy.

A common problem with Benfica this year was the fact that for a few minutes during a game the team, especially the defense, would fall “asleep” and play sloppy football, this happened when they lost in Italy, Germany and Turkey (as well as in the Portuguese League), this is something that Vitória needs to rectify and make sure the team can stay consistent throughout the game because in the Champions League if you’re not 100%, teams will make you pay.

Dortmund was Benfica’s next opponent in the round of 16. After our great performance against Bayern, most fans were confident that they could beat the German side, despite them beating Sporting home and away, fans truly believed Benfica could win and the team proved them right, at least in the first game. Benfica won 1-0 thanks to a Mitroglou solo goal, but obviously, a big praise needs to go to Ederson who made some key saves, including saving a penalty. The team played really well and despite not having the possession they played their own way and, were going to Germany with the advantage.

The outcome of the second game is widely known, Dortmund ran out as  4-0 winners with Aubameyang scoring a hat-trick. The game got away from Benfica when just 2 minutes in they conceded 2 goals (at the time making it 3-1 on aggregate) with, once again, the inconsistency problem showing up, especially because just a few moments before conceding Cervi had a golden chance to tie the game (and give Benfica the advantage on aggregate 2-1) but unfortunately he didn’t score and Aubameyang showed up sending Benfica home.

That was obviously a sad outcome but it was the first time in more than a decade that Benfica had made it past the group stage twice in a row. The future is made of ups and downs but Vitória has shown us he can put Benfica back on the European map. Another solid outing in the Champions League alongside a domestic double allowed Benfica to have another fantastic season.

So, what makes Benfica (among the other two big Portuguese clubs) stay competitive in Europe are:

  • The signings, that’s especially important to us because we continuously lose key players every year, whether they’re strikers, midfielders or goalkeepers, Portuguese teams seem to always have the right replacement in hand;
  • The fluidity of the squad, that means, the ability to adapt to a team and play whoever and however makes us a more competitive team during the game.

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