14 May 2013

All or nothing as Benfica seek salvation- Europa League final preview

My Europa League final preview for Eircom Sports Hub

Joseph Sexton
  • Chelsea 3 Basle 1 (5-2 on agg)   Chelsea advanced to a European final for the second successive season with a comprehensive Europa League semi-final second leg defeat of Basle at Stamford Bridge.
It was all set up to be the most glorious season in Benfica's modern history. Leading the league for the majority of the season, they knew they could clinch the title with a win at Porto. A surprise draw at Estoril had upped the stakes, reducing their point lead from four to two ahead the penultimate round of the Liga Sagres.

After a breathless opening where goalkeeper Artur's error had allowed Porto to equalise Lima's opener, they had resisted everything Porto could throw at them after the break. With the clock ticking they were content to defend, with one hand on the title while the hosts looked fresh out of ideas.

Then, as the game entered the 92nd minute a throw in found its way the substitute Kelvin. The Brazilian beat Artur with a first time shot, and suddenly the title was out of Benfica's hands. The manager Jorge Jesus immediately sank to his knees in anguish. Unbeaten all season domestically, they couldn't have picked a worst time to be beaten.

Trudging off the field like a zombie, he could barely believe the fate that had befallen his team. The last place in the world he wanted to be was in the enemy's den, answering the questions of a Sport TV reporter.

"When you lose like that, I believe it has to leave a scar. It hurts because of how it happened, at the death, a ball played forward like that. It's hard to take with the final coming up on Wednesday. All defeats hurt but this one all the more so emotionally."

Yet those scars will have to heal quickly.  A year ago, they lost in similar circumstances to hand Porto the title. Considering the sparkling football they've produced in Jesus' four-year tenure - the longest of any Benfica manager since the 1950 - a solitary league title in 2010 looks a scant return.

There are parallels in the situations of the respective managers of the Europa League finalists. Both have been playing for their jobs - Jesus, his current one; Benítez for the next one. Both have had to juggle their resources across multiple competitions. Frank Lampard's 88th-minute winner offered Benítez the sweetest of vindications in a season where he's been attacked by press and supporters alike. Stronger on paper, those late, late goals leaves the Londoners in a stronger position mentally than the Lisbon club.

Benfica, of course, is a club steeped in history. Winners of more league titles than any other Portuguese side, they also created the second dynasty in European Cup history in the early 1960s. That dynasty came to an abrupt end when their Hungarian coach Bela Guttman stormed out of the club having been refused a pay rise following his second consecutive European Cup title.

Guttman it is said cursed the club upon his exit, warning that 'not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever win another European crown’. In the last 50 years, they've contested six UEFA finals, losing every time. Not even a prayer from the great Eusebio at Guttman's resting place in Vienna ahead of the 1990 European Cup final could lift the course, as Sven Goran Eriksson's side went down 1-0 to AC Milan.

Benítez last week praised Jesus in an interview on Portuguese radio. “What I know is that he's a great coach, who's not afraid of hard work,” said the Chelsea interim manager. “He's tactically savvy, and very competitive. He's got some excellent players, such as Pablo Aimar who played under me at Valencia, a really clever attacker, and Oscar Cardozo, who always scores goals. But I also have David Luiz and Ramires who played for him, so I'll be looking to them to give me the inside track.”

Jesus was slammed in many quarters for the perceived negativity in Saturday's title decider, particularly in the last half hour. More than this, his side's big game temperament has been called into question. The former seems a touch harsh. While it's true that Benfica altered their usual 4-4-2 in playing with one up front, they had played 12 more games than Porto and looked fatigued as they dropped deeper, but Porto for all their possession rarely looked like getting in behind - until the goal.

But the fact remains that Jesus is an attacking coach, and Porto are a side blessed with talent in the final third. Having lost Axel Witsel and Javi García in the summer, two midfielders who expertly screen the defence, Jesus' answer has, for the most part, been to adopt an all out attack approach. To do anything else would involve the placing of square pegs in round holes.

Nowhere was this illustrated better in the semi-final tie against Fenerbahce. In the first leg in Istanbul he adopted a cagey approach. His side were lucky to emerge with a one-goal defeat. In the return leg in Lisbon, having reverted to type, the Turks were blown away. Indeed, trailing with 10 men in last years Champions League quarter-final second leg against Chelsea his side came to life, almost knocking the eventual winners out in the process. Finding the right balance will be key here if they are to reach to promised land.


10 May 2013

O Clássico – Battle of the big guns

My preview of the Portuguese title decider for Back Page Football

It couldn’t have been scripted better. All season long in Portugal’s Primeira Liga, Benfica and Porto have been clear at the top. Neither side have been beaten, and neither have let up, leaving surprise package Paços de Ferreira trailing in their wake. Now in the penultimate round of games, they go head to head.
When the Lisbon side took on sixth place Estoril on Monday night knowing a win would restore their 4 point lead over their northern rivals, they finally blinked.

In the end, they couldn’t overturn Jefferson’s opener. 1-1 it finished. giving fresh life to the battle at the top. On Saturday night, they travel to the dragon’s den for a clássico that will define the domestic season. Win and Benfica will be crowned champions; lose and they’ll surrender control of their destiny.
The stakes could not be higher for Jorge Jésus’s side. On Wednesday, they’ll take on Chelsea in the Europa League final. Ten days later, they’ll duke it out with Guimarães in the final of the Portuguese Cup. Navigate the coming fortnight, and they’ll emulate André Villas-Boas’ treble winning campaign of 2011. But after a hard-fought campaign, they could end up with nothing.
All or nothing. Jésus has endured his ups and downs in his four years at the helm. For better or worse, he’s been defined by his stunning first season, when a free-wheeling, attacking Benfica side ran riot to claim their first league crown in five seasons.
The problem is that they’ve never quite scaled the same heights. A year later, they had to endure the triple coronation of Porto. They even missed the boat on an all-Portuguese Europa League final in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium, falling to SC Braga in the semi-finals.
That first season left him with enough credit in the bank to continue, and they excelled for three quarters of last season. Having dumped Manchester United out in the group stages, they gave Chelsea an almighty scare before bowing out in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. But then fatigue caught up, leaving Porto to steal a march on the home stretch.
His opposite number, Vítor Pereira, is also no stranger to the vagaries of fate. Number two to Villas-Boas, his elevation owed more to circumstance than design. The timing of Villas-Boas departure caught the club hierarchy by surprise. Domingos Paciência would been their first choice but after quitting Braga, he’d already taken charge at Sporting.
The president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa opted for continuity. But Pereira endured a testing start to the campaign. Despite holding on to all but Radamel Falcao from the treble side, they flopped in the Champions League. With Domingos Paciência available again, Pinto da Costa’s patience was wearing thin.
Their subsequent title defence sparked a change of heart.
Both sides entered the season depleted following the summer transfer market. For Porto, that meant losing Hulk, the driving force behind recent successes. This is a fact of life in Portuguese football, and one against which Porto have repeatedly proven adept at insuring themselves.
His replacement was already waiting there, in the wings. The Colombian James Rodríguez had steadily assumed greater responsibility in the side last term. This season he’s not been found wanting in the Brazilian’s absence, chipping in with 10 league goals.
Matters proved tougher for Benfica. Having already lost Javi García to Manchester City, Zenit St Petersburg came in with an 11th hour bid to meet Axel Witsel’s buyout clause. With the Portuguese transfer window already shut, they were in no position to reinforce.
But Jésus has adapted. Without those two guarding the defence, the task has fallen to Nemanja Matic and Enzo Pérez; the latter of whom is expected to return from injury this weekend. The step-up proved too great in the Champions League, where they finished behind Barcelona and Celtic in their group.
But domestically, having played with a solitary striker in recent times, we’ve seen a return to a more attacking style by necessity. Oscar Cardozo, the beanpole Paraguayan, had continued to bang in the goals. Alongside him, the Brazilian Lima has been in scintillating form in their 4-4-2.
Porto’s template remains 4-3-3. With James injured in their previous encounter in January, a thrilling 2-2 draw, Pereira opted to play Steven Defour in a spoiling role on the right.
The Belgian has failed to nail down a consistent starting place, so expect to see a midfield three here with Fernando at the base. Lucho González will pull the strings alongside a standout performer from last summer’s European Championships, João Moutinho.
Alex Sandro has been passed fit at left back and his work down the left flank with Silvestre Varela ensures a busy evening for Benfica’s right-back Lorenzo Malgarejo. Nicolás Gaitán, Benfica’s main creative outlet, has to keep his defensive discipline to assist on that side of the park.
At the tip of the Porto attack, the Colombia international Jackson Martínez has been in exceptional form, finding the net on 33 occasions in all competitions – including one in these sides’ last meeting  at Benfica’s Estádio da Luz.
The clash will define both sides’ seasons, and most likely the future both coaches. Vítor Pereira – linked yesterday with a move to Everton – has nothing else to play for. Equally, he knows his chances of staying in his post hinges on the outcome here. Having played 47 games this season to Benfica’s 56, their freshness – and home advantage – offers them the edge.
Jorge Jésus, for his part has everything to lose. But he refused to dwell on talk of ‘dark clouds’ following Monday night’s draw. Speaking on Thursday, he was clear where his focus lies:
Outside of Portugal, it’s true that winning the Europa League is more recognised; but our priority has been the league title from day one.
If they go all the way to claim a treble to match Porto’s two years ago, no doubt he’ll be hailed as a messiah. But should they bomb, he knows he can expect to be crucified by the Benfiquistas.
Kick-off: Saturday 20:30 GMT
Probable Teams
Porto: Hélton; Danilo, Mangala, Otamendi, Alex Sandro; Lucho González, Fernando, Moutinho: James Rodríguez, Jackson Martínez; Varela
Benfica: Artur; Pereira, Jardel, Garay, Malgarejo; Sálvio, Matic, Pérez, Gaitán; Lima, Cardozo
Referee: Pedro Proença. Will be in the spotlight here. In last season’s run-in, he over-ruled his linesman to allow Maicon’s winner for Porto to stand when these sides met with the title in play. Subsequent replays showed the assistant had been correct.