Vitoria Setubal 0-5 Benfica
The first Liga match in September would be remembered for many things – but most of all the emergence of (initial) goal machine Talisca.
It wasn’t a vintage 5-0 by any means though. Setúbal weren’t particularly effective and their defensive transitions offered several counter attack opportunities that Benfica failed to leverage. This wasn’t a fluid Benfica team by any means. Lima didn’t seem capable of hitting a bus parked across the pitch, let alone the corner of the goalmouth. Samaris looked unconvincing as the defensive midfielder and the team’s rhythm of play was lacking in melody and pleasant composition.
But this would emerge into the typical performance of a gritty Benfica. There aren’t too many teams in the world who would complain about winning by 5 away from home with an unspectacular performance, and this was no different. Salvio opened the scoring with a rare left footed long range strike, followed by three opportunistic goals from Talisca; a well-controlled half volley off a clumsy clearance in the area, an unsighted free kick and a relative tap in from one of several promising counter attacks. Ola John rounded out the match with the 5th goal. The win wasn’t just significant for the size of the win – but because it propelled the Eagles past all their peers to the top of the table, a spot they would occupy for the rest of the season, as it turned out.
Porto 0-2 Benfica
It’s extremely seldom that a Clássico doesn’t have a significant impact or definition upon the season. The fact that the visit to the Dragão in 2013/14 was largely inconsequential because Benfica had already wrapped up the title is rare.
Nevertheless, the first of the big title matches arrived in typically tense fashion. Benfica enjoyed a 3 point lead over the Dragões. Porto were fresh off a relaxed and successful qualification to the round of 16 in the Champions League, while Benfica had tried in vain to salvage some pride from their midweek encounter with Bayer Leverkusen.
Porto fielded as good a lineup as their squad allowed, and the game was both competitive and calculated. All of Porto’s dangerous players made the threat to impress; Tello, Jackson, Brahimi, and in particular Óliver Torres all played solid games. Benfica meanwhile lined up relatively conservatively with Almeida at left back, while Jorge Jesus persisted with the goal threat of Talisca behind Lima, though the young prospect’s form had already started to wane by this point.
Porto asked serious questions early of Benfica, who appeared timid initially, but as the wore on, would become more settled with the idea of allowing Lopetegui’s side to keep the ball, and focus on quick transitions into attack. Veteran goalkeeper made a huge save off Jackson Martinez on 31 minutes which was replied to opportunistically off a scripted Maxi throw in to Lima, who tapped in the goal for the lead.
The second half was just as efficient – Porto made the mistake of allowing Talisca to take sight of the goal for a piledriver, which was spilled by Fabiano only for Lima to once again escape his marker to tap in the 2nd. Not to say it was comfortable – Porto caused Benfica serious anxiety with 2 opportunities that fortunately hit the crossbar.
By the time the mist settled on the 2-0 win, Benfica had played a game in clever efficiency. They had frustrated Porto to limited opportunities and seized their moments. There may be arguments to who played the better football, but possession means very little if you can’t make the most of the key chances you get.
Benfica 3-0 Guimarães
By the time Benfica hosted the tricky 3rd placed Guimarães at the Luz, they’d won 7 in a row and 11 of the last 12 league fixtures.
Not bad for a team lacking in reinforcements from the previous season. Some key figures were in the process of emerging by this point. Capricious Argentine Enzo Pérez had left the club in strange circumstances, Samaris had suddenly evolved into a proficient defensive midfielder, and veteran Jonas had managed to make some (minor) goalscoring impressions on the league table.
Team absences would cause some anxiety as well with Luisão, Maxi and Salvio’s absences effectively forcing Benfica to accept a less than ideal configuration of Cesar, Almeida and Ola John on a side which usually functions superbly in both attack and defence on tactical levels. (Gaitán would play on the right to compensate a little though.) Ultimately, Benfica elevated themselves to handle the well-coached Guimarães side that featured highly rated players André André and Hernâni who both had moments of influence, but were superbly nullified or channelled by the Benfica defence. Júlio César also featured with some dramatic saves on the way to a 6th consecutive clean sheet.
It was a game in which Benfica were expected to struggle, but their ruthless efficiency and quality spoke volumes – and maintained the pressure on Porto to keep up.
Pacos Ferreira 1-0 Benfica
Take nothing for granted.
At least, that was the message that whispered loudly in the deafening silence that followed the discontent and surprise that followed Benfica’s defeat to Paços de Ferreira. The narrative didn’t exactly strike alarm bells. 9 consecutive league wins, 7
consecutive clean sheets. The previous Liga game against Marítimo had posed a false sense of comfort; the key creative threat of Nico Gaitán left the field injured after 15 minutes, allowing substitute Ola John to play superbly in the resulting 4-0 win. But Paços was different. Benfica appeared sluggish, lacking urgency and ruthlessness. Not that chances didn’t fall to them. Still appearing light on confidence, there was certainly an argument to suggest Lima shouldn’t have taken the penalty gifted to Benfica in the first half. Júlio César was also far busier than he should have been, with several saves needed from various long range attempts and set piece attacks from Fonseca’s men.
The penalty that Paços earned from Eliseu’s tackle was controversial but it was the tip of the iceberg – Benfica seemed to disrespect the occasion and lost an opportunity to go 9 points ahead of Porto. It was a critical warning sign that this team wasn’t able to simply rely on superior quality to make the difference.
Sporting 1-1 Benfica
If there’s one thing Benfiquistas have become used to in recent years, it’s the notion that Jorge Jesus will often choose some big, pivotal fixtures to implement experimental formations, or players in different roles.
By the time Benfica visited the Alvalade, Benfica were still in the process of trying to figure out how to replace the industry and technical value of Enzo Pérez as the 8. Talisca had proved ineffective, and given the attacking potency expected (or gifted) to the Sporting frontline, JJ chose this moment to play the gambit of André Almeida in the midfield.
In truth, Benfica were timid. There was little doubt a point was sought and the approach drew quizzical glances from Benfiquistas and Sportinguistas alike. There’s an understandable cynicism about playing defensively, but there’s a lot of reason to applaud Benfica’s approach here. When a title chase is on the line, and your team lacks the weapons its used to having, it’s reckless to expect attacking football for the sake of aesthetics; no-one should value beating Sporting at the expense of the league, and there was a very clear danger posed by the Lions in this case.
Benfica’s approach was similar, if not as effective, as that against Porto. They had fewer moments of attacking value, but their defence was imperious. Artur, stepping in for the absent Júlio César , produced one of his best performances in a Benfica shirt, and the goal he ultimately conceded was unfortunate given his heroics to respond to the one-on-one.
The key moment though – the fortuitous equaliser from Jardel, who not only reinforced a cult hero status with a goal against the old enemy, but awakened the belief that Benfica could just make good on their title promise.
Benfica 2-0 Braga
While the draw against Sporting illustrated Benfica’s grit and ability to grind out undeserved, crucial results, the game against Braga showed every bit of magnificence, class and magic that Benfica are capable of.
The performance was immaculate. Benfica were a team clearly incensed by Braga’s previous two victories against them, and they responded with urgency, incisiveness and vigour. Braga’s counter attacks were massively nullified by intelligent defensive traps set by Benfica to ensure the outball from the ball-winner to the likes of Pardo, Tiba or Rafa Silva seldom found its target. Braga spent more of the game facing an onslaught of red shirts – but clearly didn’t consider the long range threat of Jonas, who showed his finishing ability isn’t just limited to clever headers, incisive tap-ins and composed shots in the box. Braga were punished a 2nd time for not closing outside the box as Eliseu, on the 3rd time of doing so, found the net from range with a vicious piledriver.
The match was emphatic, not just for its result, but because an annoying opponent had been bested, and one of the opponents remaining considered to be likely to upset the dream were conquered. For the near sellout crowd at the Luz, it wasn’t just a win; it was a cathedral of song in the belief that the champions were starting to emerge.
Benfica 0-0 Porto
In fairness, Jorge Jesus hasn’t always had the best of track records against Porto. Even the superbly assembled team of 2012/13 wasn’t able to beat Porto in its 2 league encounters. And yet, it’s very clear that even if one takes into consideration the change in Porto’s squad composition and strength the last couple of seasons, Benfica seem to have found the right level of performance to get the points against the most critical rival they have for the title.
It’s strange to be celebrating the prowess of a Jorge Jesus side in defending, but it’s highly appropriate. The stats don’t lie – this season’s Benfica have produced the most clean sheets (21), the least goals conceded (15, despite playing 3 games more – granted, that is taking into account that 1 more Liga match remains to be played), the best goal difference (67) and the highest proportion of
clean sheets to matches (64%) in the JJ era.
So it shouldn’t be too surprising when this season’s Benfica sets out to earn their title keep in a title decider by frustrating Porto’s scoring efforts, despite the attacking qualities in possession of the Dragões. But defend well Benfica did, and they did so while patiently waiting for the key transitional opportunities that would arise on a few occasions. It was a game of few chances but a game that characterised the maturity of game management by Benfica. True, it would have been more spectacular to see Benfica take more risks, but apart from the fact that it would have been dangerous, ironically it would also have been out of character of this particular squad.
The 2014/15 champions won’t be known for a series of superlative, dominant individuals (even though there is obviously quality in the squad); it will instead be known for playing as a composed unit, tactically mature, composed, efficient, effective and above all, ruthless to punish mistakes both created by design or gifted. And that makes it all the sweeter – because it’s clear the team performed beyond its obvious limitations, greater than the sum of its parts.
As true champions do.
Marco Lopes – Twitter : @Footy_MarcoL