Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A one-sided tale

Yesterday's match between Benfica and Zenit St. Petersburg was all too familiar. Just like it had happened against FC Porto during the group stage, the Russian team didn't seem to want the ball at all, meaning it was a one way-street all along. Even when they found themselves trailing and opened up, they couldn't muster more than one shot on goal. Therefore, the report for this match will try to shed some light on Benfica - the team that actually wanted to play football - and just a pinch about Zenit. Here are five things we have learnt.

  1. Unlike the match vs FC Porto, Benfica coach Jorge Jesus allowed Witsel to play  further up. While it left Javi García somewhat outnumbered in the midfield battle, it allowed the Eagles to exert pressure in more advanced areas while defending and to create overloads on the wings while attacking. It's no coincidence that Benfica spent the whole first half harassing Zenit's left wing.
  2. Maxi Pereira is an unsung hero. Never mind the decisive goal he scored last night. The Uruguayan is capable of going back and forth for the whole match, overlap his winger, shoot on goal and still be on the right place to make a defensive interception a few seconds later. He is definitely Benfica's little engine that could.
  3. Nélson Oliveira is clearly the man for the job. While taking notes about the game during the first half, I was scribbling something like "Why not Nélson Oliveira for Rodrigo?". Now, it's not my intention to act all prescient, but the Portuguese forward showed last U-20 World Championship that he can singlehandedly inflict damage on any defence. Even though he is not as technically gifted as Rodrigo, he is much more combative and intense, which was just what Benfica needed, especially when all eyes were on Cardozo.
  4. Jorge Jesus seems to have finally understood the need to shut up shop some times. After scoring the first goal, the team didn't seem eager to go for the second and third and fourth, all the while opening up spaces behind them. If anything, they went perhaps too far back, but controlling the game is an essential aspect, particularly in the Champions League. The fact that Matic came one for Gaitán was proof that the Portuguese manager is capable of learning from his mistakes.
  5. Despite the many Russian players in their squad, Zenit is clearly an Italian team. Luciano Spalletti managed to instil the classic Italian values on to his team, taking us all back to the nineties, where catenaccio was king. The only problem about that approach is that, after finding yourself trailing on aggregate, you're left with a team that was planned and selected for the draw. As many a manager find sooner than later, changing your team's chip during a match is one of the hardest tasks you'll ever get.

No comments: