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.


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