In a match that resembled a rerun of past Europa League matches at Estádio da Luz, Benfica found a way to overcome a less than stellar performance for the better part of the first half and got themselves a positive result for the game in Newcastle in a week's time.
Despite their domestic concerns, both Benfica and Newcastle coaches chose not to rotate their squads too much. Jorge Jesus played André Almeida, André Gomes and Rodrigo so Maxi Pereira, Enzo Pérez and Lima could rest. As for Newcastle, a team that has been constantly battered with injuries throughout the season, Krul, Santon and Perch got the nod for this match.
Without Salvio, Gaitán remained on the left while Ola John played down the right, even though the two players had distinct roles. While the Dutch winger tried to get some chalk on his boots, Gaitán would often play narrower, opening the flank for Melgarejo's forays. Newcastle were clearly looking for that opening - and it took approximately 3 minutes to see Papis Cissé exploiting twice the space between Benfica centre-backs and full-backs - a clear indication of a plan, if there ever was one.
|The players' distribution offers a stark contrast between the teams' intentions.|
Notice how Garay clearly leans towards the touch line.
Newcastle started off more proactive than expected, not reverting too much to their usual mode while playing away. Indeed, they were often dangerous down the flanks, especially the left one, which they kept targeting relentlessly while they could, with either Cissé or Sissoko exploiting the space vacated by Melgarejo. Sissoko, in particular, was always allowed too much space behind Matic and André Gomes.
Gomes' display was a bit like Beckham's for Paris Saint-Germain against Barcelona: while he was not particularly at fault for anything, he didn't bring much to the table and the team were sometimes made to pay for it.
|The chalkboard for André Gomes' unambitious display|
As mentioned before, for the first 25 minutes Benfica didn't put Newcastle under great pressure, often transitioning idly into defence, which opened up spaces for the excellent Sissoko and Cissé to break into. It was therefore hardly surprising when the English team found their way into Artur's net, with Melgarejo mistiming his pressing, Garay arriving late at an attempted compensation and Sissoko (who else) crossing for Papis Cissé's simple tap-in.
|The play that led to Newcastle's goal. Notice the 20-yard vertical pass, |
splitting open Benfica's defence.
By that time, Benfica looked a bit lost, unable to put Tim Krul to work (with Newcastle hitting the woodwork). Without Enzo Pérez, Matic was unable to provide the creative spark and still cover for his team-mates when passes went astray. The Eagles managed to level things a bit out of thin air, with Cardozo firing a powerful left-footed shot that Krul was only able to parry, and Rodrigo reacting quicker than Yanga-Mbiwa. Suddenly, Benfica were back into the match.
|The difference in Newcastle's passes in the attacking third before and after Benfica's goal.|
After Benfica's goal, Newcastle immediately seemed deflated, no longer able to create chances. Rodrigo was instrumental by dropping back, confusing the English team's marking duties, forcing their midfield to spread too much. Newcastle's uncoordinated defending must be highlighted - putting as many players as possible behind the ball does not necessarily mean defending well. After the 25th minute, Tim Krul was the the main responsible for keeping Benfica from getting a better score line.
|Rodrigo was much more involved as soon as Benfica leveled the score.|
The start of the second half was remarkably similar to the first period. Papis Cissé found once again a way past between Luisão and André Almeida, but he was unlucky as he saw his chip over Artur Moraes hitting the woodwork once again. Despite the good finish to the first half, Jorge Jesus would soon after resort to his go-to selection, replacing André Gomes and Rodrigo with Enzo Pérez and Lima. The move didn't take long to pay divididends, when the indefatigable Lima pounced on a ill-advised backpass from Santon to his goalkeeper.
With Newcastle getting more and more tired by the minute, Benfica felt a goal could be just around the corner - but still the clear-cut chances were not presenting themselves. It took a very clumsy handball in the penalty box from Steven Taylor to allow Benfica to get a more comfortable result when they travel to Newcastle in a week's time.
In the end, Benfica deserved the win, but they must stop presenting their opponents with wobbly starts if they are to mount a serious challenge for this trophy. As for Newcastle, the first 20 minutes showed that this team are capable of doing something more than what they have been showing this season, but on the whole the team looks quite feeble defensively and without a proper attacking bite when they play away.