On Thursday, August 28, 2014 the UEFA Champions League groups were announced. Like previous years Benfica have their work cut out for them. In Group C Benfica drew AS Monaco (France) Bayer Leverkussen (Germany) and Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia). After looking at all of these teams, this may very be the “Group of Death” as all teams are of similar quality and show great talent and promise to advance out of the group stages. There won’t be any upsets or surprises as to who advances or who gets eliminated. Besides a big cheque book, head – to – head AS Monaco and Zenit St. Petersburg are not much better then Benfica or Bayer Leverkussen
What is interesting about Group E is all of the ties that Benfica have with these teams.
Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia) is coached by André Villas-Boas (FC Porto) who is quite familiar with Benfica and the mind of Jorge Jesus as he won the Portuguese League with FC Porto in 2011. Zenit features former Benfica players Ezequiel Garay, Javi Garcia, and Axel Witsel. Portuguese internationals Danny, and Luis Neto have experience playing against Benfica with their former clubs Maritimo, Sporting CP, and Nacional. Hulk spent four seasons at FC Porto and is familiar with scoring goals against Benfica.
Currently Zenit lead the Russian Pemier League with 6 wins and 18 points in the season. 3 ahead of Dinamo Moskavo. In the last two encounters, Benfica were able to defeat Zenit 2-0 at home but lost 3-2 away in Russia. Zenit play a very attacking style of footy and they start Hulk, and Rondón up front with Danny on the left and Shatov on the right. Garcia, and Witsel in the middle and Garay starting in the CB role. We all know it the quality of these players and how difficult it will be to get the win especially on the road.
Prediction: Benfica will be fortunate to play Zenit at home on Match day #1 September 16, 2016 and unlike their match in 2012, will avoid playing in Russia during the tundra like conditions in February of -30 and will play them away on match day #5 on November 26, 2014. Benfica will win at home if there is great momentum going into this game but I feel they will be unsuccessful in getting the 3 points away to Russia.
+3 points at home / 0 points away
AS Monaco (France) is coached by former Sporting CP coach Leonardo Jardim who is also quite familiar facing Benfica as he has many times throughout the years behind the likes of Braga, and Beira-Mar. Just like AVB, Jardim will have a lot to prove against Benfica hoping to score 6 points between both legs. Other familiar faces include Benfica‘s very own Bernardo Silva who has already played 1 game for Monaco and who may very well see at the Luz (If Benfica are already winning 3-0, i hope Bernardo scores just to stick it to JJ) Former FC Porto players Ricardo Carvalho, João Moutinho, have experience playing at the Luz. Former FC Porto star Radamel Falcão was transferred to Manchester United shortly after the draw took place. Another forward who has played against Benfica is former Manchester United forward Berbatov who currently has contributed 2 goals on the AS Monaco score sheet.
Currently AS Monaco are in the bottom part of the Ligue 1 table as they are 1-1-2 sitting with 4 points in the 15th spot. Bordeaux lead the Ligue 1 with 10 points so there is still room for improvement. Benfica will have their work cut out for them in both legs as well. AS Monaco steady cash flow may not be running out yet however with the likes of Radamel Falcão, James Rodriguez departing from the club, it is creating a few gaps for the French side. Although Benfica fans may be a lot more at ease with this encounter AS Monaco will not settle for an early exit of the Group stages of the Champions League and will give Benfica a hard time in both legs
Prediction: Benfica travels to France on matchday #3 October 22, 2014 and will then host them on matchday #4 November 4, 2014. Going into France Benfica‘s momentum will be up as they will hopefully defeat Arouca at home and will have some sort of Benfica following in the crowd. However, I am still weary that SLB will get those 3 points away but a tie is achieveable in France but hopefully I am wrong and they comes out with 6 points. Benfica defeated AS Monaco in a club friendly at home 3-2 on July 24, 2010, I feel a similar result will be in favour of Benfica at The Luz.
+3 points at home / 1 points away
Bayer 08 Leverkusen (Germany) Although this is not the strongest side in the Bundesliga they are currently leading their league on 6 points with wins over Dortmund and Hertha BSC. Benfica has often struggled over the years playing in Germany. However, during the 2012/13 Europa League campaign, Benfica were able to defeat Bayer 2-1 at home and 1-0 on the road. There is also a previous encounter in which Benfica advanced to the semi – finals of the 1993/94 European Cup Winners Cup defeating Leverkusen on away goals. Newly appointed coach Roger Schmidt is also looking to make a statement against Benfica. Although this Leverkusen side is not stacked with all-stars or cash flow the way Monaco, and Zenit are most of these players are familiar with each other and have been on the team for quite some time. Such players as lead forward Stefan Kießling, midfielders Castro, Bender, Reinhartz, and Rolfes came up the ranks through Leverkusen‘s youth system and have played with each others for a few years now. Benfica cannot underestimate this team.
Prediction: Benfica travel to Germany on Match day #2 on October 1, 2014 after facing an always tough away game to Estoril. It will be tough playing in front of 30, 000+ German fans. Their last game in the group stages will be at home to Bayer On December 9, 2014. Victory at home is not out of the question because that game will be the last of the group stages and if Benfica need 3 points to advance they will have better chances doing so at home then away.
+3 points at home / 0 points away
For Benfica to advance out of the group stages they will have to be match fit and have their key players in full form. There is still an adjustment period to be made with such additions to the team as Júlio César, Bryan Cristante, and Andreas Samaris. An injured Salvio, or Nico may cost the team especially looking for points on the road. Players like Ola John who are familiar with playing in the Bundesliga and should be utilized. Samaris has experience playing in UEFA competition and has a lot to bring to the squad. If JJ starts the likes of Artur, Tallisca, and Derley in key games, they will not only lose points on the road but at home as well. JJ needs to follow through and attack and not underestimate the opposition. A 3 man midfield is ideal especially if the likes of Pizzi, and Almeida are match fit and can replace Enzo, Cristante or Samaris. 10 points – 11 points is not out of the questions but what worries me is if the group is decided on head to head or goal differential which were crucial if Benfica struggle on the road.
Unfortunately, the way that the UEFA Champions League is set up there is no way that a team like Benfica can go all of the way beating the richest clubs of Europe such as Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona, PSG, and Manchester City to name a few. Their quality and all starting 11 lineups of $300-500 Million is no match for Benfica or any other team with limited cash flow. Another decent run in the UEFA Europa League and possibly a third consecutive final is a more realistic goal then a finals in the UEFA Champions League. I was not around in 1961 or 1962 but I will always remember May of 2013 in Amsterdam and May of 2014 in Torino.