Friday, December 12, 2014

FC Porto X Benfica: Dragons' comeback or Benfica's opportunity?

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In a league where the two major clubs have been running away with the title with increasingly greater ease, FC Porto and Benfica now must make the most of these showdowns between the two archenemies. The old saying used to act as a cautionary tale against the importance of these matches, drawing attention to the fact that smaller teams were usually the runners-up's undoing. Not anymore.

With that in mind, Sunday evening's match will treat us once again with two very different approaches - and even though the match won't probably reach the same levels of managerial proficiency of the now memorable duels between Vítor Pereira and Jorge Jesus as coaches and personalities, there will in fact be some common traits.

  • FCP's defence vs SLB's attack

Jorge Jesus might welcome Alex Sandro and Danilo, who has probably been enjoying his best season at FC Porto, with open arms, but truth be told the Dragon's defence has looked anything but impenetrable. While Bruno Martins Indi looks more and more like a shrewd (albeit not cheap) piece of business, his partner - whether it's Marcano or Maicon - leaves something more to be desired. On the other hand, FC Porto's ever marauding full-backs often leave space at the back that can be exploited by Benfica's Nico Gaitán and Salvio, and they're sometimes left exposed by Casemiro and Herrera.

In fact, the clash of styles may well begin on this part of the pitch. Julen Lopetegui's favoured possession-based approach relies heavily on the centre-backs seeing a lot of the ball. However, none of them look particularly adept and they are frequently found wanting while executing the strategy, which has offered more than a handful of opportunities to their opponents throughout the season. Jorge Jesus's Benfica, in turn, are more fond of transition-based matches, where they can make the most of spaces vacated by adversaries - something that might just play into the hands of Gaitán, Talisca and Jonas, with the latter being particularly keen on discovering pockets of space.

Advantage: Benfica

  • The midfield battle

While nominally playing with two central midfielders, Benfica might not be at a disadvantage. Jorge Jesus usually has his teams very well drilled as far as defensive duties are concerned, even when it comes to his forwards and wingers. Moreover, the team's movement and compensations improve dramatically as the season goes on and the players get to know the coach's methods. If Óliver Torres and Hector Herrera are to play ahead of Casemiro, as expected, it will probably open up spaces for the excellent Enzo Pérez, whose understanding of the game and ability to penetrate enemy lines stands head and shoulders above Herrera's huffing and puffing.

Andreas Samaris, conversely, may well be another matter, since he still does not seem too familiar with Jesus's ideas and may find it hard to patrol his assigned spaces, with all of Óliver, Herrera and Yacine Brahimi tending to converge to his area. The other side of the coin? Look for Enzo Pérez to immediately pounce the moment FC Porto give the ball away and open up acres of space with just Casemiro shielding the side's back four (or sometimes less). As Sporting showed when they played at the Dragão for the Portuguese Cup, it may be easier to take this FC Porto down by allowing them to shoot themselves in the foot.

Advantage: Benfica

  • FCP's attack vs SLB's defence

This is clearly where things get complicated for Benfica. While Luisão still commands a huge deal of respect by remaining able to stay ahead of the inevitable curve, Jardel is no Garay and Máxi Pereira has been showing signs of a gradual but constant decline. With Lopetegui's main attacking plan relying on 1v1 situations down the wings and Jesus's willingness to often allow his team to face even-numbers situations, the individual difference between Benfica's defenders and FC Porto's attackers might just be too much for goalkeeper Júlio César & Co. to handle.

If Gaitán is effectively deployed down the left, he will have to stay on his toes during the defensive phase, since the partnership of Danilo and (most likely) Cristián Tello will certainly prove too much for make-do left-back André Almeida, with Jardel - who will surely have his hands full with Jackson Martínez's skills and sheer strength - also wary of stepping out too far from his zone against such quick opponents.

If Benfica manage to stay compact, FC Porto will have a hard time breaking them down. If, on the contrary, the Eagles take the bait and start coming out in numbers, the Dragons' forwards will enjoy a field day.

Advantage: FC Porto

Friday, December 5, 2014

Benfica's Jorge Jesus: The fine line between perseverance and stubbornness

Benfica's Jorge Jesus.
Photo credit:
Life is usually pretty simple for a football supporter - not easy, mind you, but simple. You love your team. You hate (or at least profoundly dislike) your city rivals and/or archenemies. When your team win, it's one of the best feelings in the world. When they lose, getting to work the next morning seems just a tad harder.

This is one of the reasons why the phenomenon that surrounds Benfica's coach Jorge Jesus is so interesting. Every club - at least in Southern Europe - is subject to these virtually bipolar fans (straying away from the loyal supporters), but the Eagles are a club that seems to be constantly riding a wave of euphoria or experiencing the hardest of crashes with reality. There is hardly ever any in-between. During the same week, it is possible to hear supporters swearing on their mother's grave that Jesus has been the best thing that has happened to Benfica over the past two decades and others who assure their conversational partner that he's only lucky he's had access to such gifted players.

  • Team identity: a blessing or a trap?

Every (future) manager taking their badges will have heard countless times that designing your "modelo de jogo" - your tactical blueprint, if you will - is crucial. If you have no idea where you're going, you'll never get to your destination - or so the saying seems to go. You're told that that blueprint has to take numerous things into consideration, from the players at your disposal to the club's ambitions or the supporters' traditional reactions to results and displays. Your identity seems to be the cornerstone around which everything revolves.

The issue comes when you take that identity to the pitch, to face reality - and what you do when results do not come your way. What do you do with that identity when your players are clearly not good enough to execute what you had in mind? What do you do when the president insists that you play two strikers? What do you do when you hit a slump of form or face much harder competition on another environment?

The average supporter could not care less about all these questions and thus it is much easier to just sing their coach's praises when their team win and blast him to hell when they lose. In this specific case, Benfica's supporters are quite happy to watch their team destroy other sides in the Portuguese league, but find it much harder to stomach when Jesus implements the same tactics in Europe and crashes out of the Champions League.

  • When to stick to the plan and when to give in?

The issue always ends up at the same stop: over their last five seasons in the Champions League, Benfica have only progressed once to the last sixteen. And that seems to be the point where black and white do not suffice to address the Jesus conundrum: his know-how when it comes to materialising his ideas is undoubtedly impressive. The new players that are invariably signed during the off-season to replace the ones he molded over the past seasons and went on to greener pastures always seem extremely raw and totally uncomfortable with the coach's ideas. Some months later, some of them are touted for higher flights and mentioned on the foreign press.

But what baffles most - including this columnist - is the apparent (or perhaps evident) unwillingness to adapt his approach and options the slightest bit to what his team find in front of them. The cavalier attitude that is on display week in, week out in Portugal seems to do more harm than good, conveying the impression that system will be able to meet most needs. Used to dictate most matches domestically, Benfica often struggle in the Champions League, because their blueprint relies heavily on transitions - both defensive and attacking. In Europe's top tier, however, other teams are much more adept at punishing them for committing so many men forward with caution apparently thrown to the wind.

  • The grey area

It would be much easier to judge coaches simply on results. In truth, that's what always happens in the end. With Jesus, however, there is one lingering question: should he be criticised for never being willing to change or should he be praised for the courage to stick to his ideals no matter what? After all, at some point all geniuses were dubbed crazy and stubborn for believing in their work. Sometimes, good or bad are not enough to describe a (wo)man's work.

A year in the life of Arsenal

Arsène Wenger might just be wondering where things
keep going wrong. Photo credit:
Anyone who follows football up close - be it supporters, journalists or pundits - experiences a feeling of déjà vu every once while throughout a season: The feeling of almost being able to guess a final scoreline, the unshakable feeling that that passage of play, that goal, that dummy was already witnessed the year before. Whether it's the top clubs finally gelling and trouncing opponents in cold week nights or a weekend of flooded pitches, there is sometimes the impression that everything has indeed already been invented when it comes to football.

But perhaps nothing leaves us with the feeling of being smack in the middle of "Groundhog Day" like good old Arsenal. Following the Gunners' fortunes is nothing short of watching sequels of bad franchises, where despite the odd change of personnel here and there, we all seem to have a very well informed guess about how things will turn out eventually.

  • Summer

The previous season has just ended. After a tottery mid-season, Arsenal managed to finish in the ever precious fourth spot and clinch their place in the crucial Champions League. Wenger, true to form, assures supporters and journos alike that lessons have been learned and that the off-season will be spent plugging the glaring holes in his squad - namely virtually any position from central midfield backward.

However, by August there have usually been few pieces of business apart from the already traditional signings of potential game-changing youths that will be supposed to evolve into powerhouses within a few years under Wenger's tutelage. By then supporters start to get restless and Wenger duly abides; over the past few years he has ended up splashing some cash on an attacking player (in previous years not even that) promising to revolutionise the team's game. Any of the previous season's troubling positions end up being ignored.

  • Autumn 

By September and early October, Arsenal seem to get firing on all cylinders. The latest acquisition - Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski, Mezut Özil, Santi Cazorla, Alexis Sánchez, what have you - seems to be keeping the manager's promise and rumours start flying about the possibility of this being Arsenal's year at long last, the time where all the planning from previous seasons come to fruition. This is the time when Arsenal top the league (or hover nearby) and where changes in backroom personnel are put under the microscope to explain the latest change in the team's fortunes.

By late October, early November, some worrying signs start to surface. An important player gets injured, then another, then another. Late September's initial drubbings in the Champions League gradually give way to pale performances that usually end up costing the Gunners the group's top spot in the end. The inevitable elimination from one of the cups tends to follow, as well as the first points dropped in places where title candidates cannot afford.

  • Winter

With the Premier League's busy schedule over Christmas and New Year, this tends to be the moment where Arsenal wave a definite goodbye at any illusion they may have harboured of fighting for the contest. The home draw against a midtable team, the barely comprehensible defeat away to bottom-dwellers - all of it paints the picture of a distraught team with holes throughout that are too big to ignore.

By late February, Wenger sings the tune of being involved in several fronts, only to see the league's big dogs get farther and farther away. In the Champions League, the "bad luck" draws one of Europe's powerhouses and Arsenal crash out of the competition either in the last sixteen or in the quarter-finals at the very latest. The conclusion is always identical: positive brand of football but ultimately an approach that is absolutely unsuitable to Europe's top echelon.

  • Spring

The quicker players slowly start coming back from injury. With a less congested schedule, the team seem to get back to its best. A spirited comeback is needed to ensure the crucial fourth spot, even though it seems too far off this time around.

By March and April, some are left wondering where this Arsenal were all this time - the courage, the resilience, the excellent football, the joint effort of all the artists and hard workers on the same page. What once looked like a mirage - qualifying for the Champions League - now seems possible. Just.

By May, the Gunners end up achieving their (what one can only assume should be a) secondary goal. Whatever chances of putting their hands around some silverware dissipated in some unlucky clash with a Championship team or a side that ended up being relegated from the Premier League.

Wenger, true to form, assures supporters and journos alike that lessons have been learned and that the off-season will be spent plugging the glaring holes in his squad.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

FC Porto 2-0 Lille: Dragons claim their place in the Champions League

Starting line-ups

FC Porto have progressed to the group phase of the Champions League, successfully raising the number of Portuguese participants to three, after eliminating LOSC Lille over two legs.

The match at the Dragão between Portugal and France's third-best teams from last season was a touch more one-dimensional than expected, with Lille favouring a more reactive approach, despite trailing by a one-goal margin from the first leg.

There was some curiosity as to whether coach René Girard would remain faithful to the 4x3x3 formation he tends to deploy in the tougher matches or whether he would instruct his players to be more proactive with and without the ball. FC Porto coach, in turn, fielded the exact same starting XI he had presented last Wednesday in France.

  • Matching formations do not mean matching dynamics

One of football's greatest truisms is that games are not won on paper, which is usually a fair point when supporters and commentators discuss the virtues and flaws of the tactical arrangement of any given team. Case in point, both FC Porto and Lille took to the pitch organised in a 4x3x3, but the way went about it couldn't have been more different.

While Les Dogues kept allowing FC Porto time on the ball and (sometimes too) patiently waited for their opponents to get caught in possession - which almost came to fruition when starlet Rúben Neves underhit a pass, forcing Maicon to a desperate last-ditch effort - the Dragons stayed the course they have undertaken under Lopetegui and offered a very fluid display during the first 20 minutes.

Indeed, FC Porto's long(ish) spells of possession were followed by quick switches of play in an attempt to find vulnerabilities down Lille's weak side (the flank the ball is not on) and making the most of the excellent Brahimi and Óliver Torres. Despite being nominally stationed on the wings, both these players tended to drift inside and allow full-backs Danilo and Alex Sandro to motor forward.

  • Man-marking often equals vulnerabilities

Hector Herrera did not have the easiest or most successful season last term, but his particular traits allow him to shine on specific circumstances (as shown at the latest World Cup). Here he was able to take advantage of Lille's vulnerabilities in midfield. The gaping holes that kept surfacing all over the centre of the pitch were a direct result of the team's man-marking in midfield.

All it took was for Óliver or Brahimi to come inside to drag Balmont and Gueye out of position, which allowed Herrera to sprint in behind (usually at Gueye's expense), particularly down Lille's right side. Lille midfielders could be seen swapping man-marking duties on the pitch, instead of approaching the challenges in zonal fashion.

Marked improvement, but still work to do

When compared to last season, there are significant enhancements as far as FC Porto are concerned. With more men closer to the ball when in possession, the Dragons are often better equipped to react to giving the ball away, usually being fast at keeping their opponents from transitioning into attack. The few times that it didn't happen, Lille were unable to make the most of it because they invariably looked to the wings to provide crosses, allowing FC Porto defenders precious time to retreat into their positions.

On the other hand, it was already possible to see distinct moving and passing patterns, the concern seeming to be to offer several passing options to the player with the ball (for instance, if the centre-back has the ball at his feet, it's quite likely the full-back will offer width, the winger will come inside to offer a passing option and the midfielder on that side will sprint in behind on the wing).

Nevertheless, there were some periods during which Lopetegui's charges were not in total control of matters and where, against stronger opposition, slip-ups could have been punished. The team seemed somewhat surprised when the coach asked them to retreat after Brahimi's beauty of a first goal from a direct kick and Lille could have effectively got back into the match.

  • Evandro brings stability, Souaré kills all hopes

Four wins in four matches with no goals conceded is way too short to offer any kind of perspective, but Lopetegui should at least be praised for giving the team a solid identity (something the side lacked throughout all of last season) and for sticking to 17-year-old Rúben Neves on such demanding matches. The Portuguese midfielder eventually ran out of steam, making way for Evandro, who brought some much-needed stability to a midfield that was clearly coming short by the middle of the second half.

A couple of good chances for Lille ended up yielding nothing and it would actually be one of Les Dogues to kill the tie: left-back Pape Souaré's poor pass offered Brahimi the possibility to run at Lille's defence and play Jackson Martínez in with a perfectly weighed pass. The tie was definitely over.

  • Conclusion

A very positive result for both FC Porto and Portuguese football. The Dragons' expensively assembled team needed to make sure they were in the Champions League to justify the huge investment made and the weapons at their disposal make them clear favourites for the Portuguese title (even though one can't help but feel this is the club's swansong as far as high-profile signing are concerned in a desperate attempt to wrestle the title from the hands of Benfica).

There already seem to be some good routines and patterns in the squad, and the positive results will surely help the players believe their coach's ideas. Still, this possession-based approach has its drawbacks, namely when the centre-backs are called upon to start out attacks or when opponents remain compact and patient.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

FC Porto and Manchester United: two parallel paths (part 1)

  • Portugal and England: The Background 

The historical relations between Portugal and England (later the United Kingdom) go a long way back. In fact, the alliance between the two countries (the Anglo-Portuguese alliance) is the oldest one in Europe and dates back to 1373. During most of this allegiance, Portugal was something of a protectorate of England, with the English helping Portugal several times - including the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century - and Portugal going into (I World) war for England, among many other examples.

During that period, Portugal and England celebrated numerous other (mainly economical) treaties, including one of the most important ones: the 1703 Treaty of Methuen that stipulated "English textiles and Portuguese wines were exempt from custom duties". It was one of the most innovative treaties between nations.

But a lot more than just economical agreements has endured the test of times and brought both nations a bit closer; while it is generally accepted that the Portuguese Catarina de Bragança introduced tea to the Brits, she was also critical to England's geopolitical ambitions, as her dowry included Tangiers and Bombay. In Portugal, the English presence is felt everywhere: the name of Port Wine companies line the shores of the river Douro, "snack-bar" is just another Portuguese word and the Portuguese tea-time snack (the Portuguese-spelled "lanche") is inspired by the English lunch.

On the other hand, the UK remains one of Portugal's key investors, focusing primarily on financial services and tourism. In fact, the Algarve (something of a British enclave) still accounts for nearly 70% of all destinations from the UK - so much so that anyone sitting at a restaurant in Portugal's southernmost region will probably be greeted in English and handed a menu in the same language.

  • Porto and Manchester: The Common Thread

Steeped in centuries of history and tradition, the cities of Porto and Manchester have been somewhat accustomed to playing second fiddle to capitals Lisbon and London, respectively. The latter's economic and political power was (and still is) a factor in the former's dwindling influence in some spheres, which has lent itself as a perfect excuse to harbour some less positive feelings towards the South.

The similarities don't stop there. Even though Porto played an important role in terms of intellectual leadership (such as spearheading the Liberal Revolution of 1820), both Northern cities became even more important with the advent of Industrial Revolution. With it, they suddenly became densely populated areas as the city's factories drew virtually everyone from the surrounding towns and villages.

To this day, there remain in Porto numerous "ilhas" (Portuguese for islands) - a street door that opens into a group of subpar quarters with a common bathroom and kitchen for factory workers - near ruins of old factories.

Shorn of their roots and family, these workers often found themselves stranded. As the 20th century made its way, football clubs took the place of religion - still offering a place of weekly worship and a sense of belonging. Identities were forged and allegiances were made among many a football stand. It is absolutely no coincidence that one of the features both Mancunians and "Tripeiros" most take proud on is their resilience against all odds.

  • Manchester United and FC Porto: Losing and Finding The Way

Up until a few years ago, the strongest football teams tended to hail from these sorts of places - industrial cities with clubs that had become so important that there was barely any space for any other teams of similar dimension (FC Porto, Manchester United, Juventus, Bayern Munchen, etc.). The local support was immense and the identities of these clubs and cities often blended together.

In fact, clubs from capitals often floundered, with the obvious exceptions of Benfica and Real Madrid, sides that clearly benefited of being standard bearers of dictatorial regimes (the difficulties both clubs went through when the Portuguese and Spanish regimes were overthrown should not be overlooked).

The fates of Manchester United and FC Porto have sometimes seemed umbilical tied to each other over the past decades. However, while FC Porto's history mirrors the country's political events (the club's drought took place between 1921 and 1976, an almost perfect parallel to the fascist dictatorship that ruled the country between 1926 and 1974), Manchester United were rather more successful during Sir Matt Busby's years.

The end of the both clubs' lean years was virtually simultaneous and coincided with the arrival of the two figureheads that have left their mark over the past 30 years: Pinto da Costa on the Portuguese side, Sir Alex Ferguson on the English side.

Both men were able to steer their clubs in the right direction and transform the clubs they lead into their country's dominant footballing force. During that time, the two clubs have won numerous domestic titles and twice conquered the Champions League (formerly European Cup) and one Intercontinental Cup - effectively imposing a new cycle on the national scene. Manchester United became one of the richest clubs in the world while FC Porto went from regional minnows to a force to be reckoned with on the international scene, albeit to a far lesser extent when compared to the Red Devils.

(to be continued)

FC Porto and Manchester United: two parallel paths (part 2)

  • A season to forget - or the typical Northern stubbornness

Last season's biggest journalistic scoop was clearly Sir Alex Ferguson's departure and the arrival of David Moyes, formerly of Everton. Moyes was handed a six-year contract as a sign that any poor results that might surface as a result of the changing of the guard would not do him any harm. Things were done differently at Manchester United, or so the saying went.

As the season went on, both top management and supporters showed huge constraint by not sacking the manager or booing him - the odd fly-by incident notwithstanding. United were adamant that the Ferguson-backed Scot was there for the long haul and that that wasn't the first hard spell they had 

A squad that had comfortably won the Premier League the year before suddenly looked like a withering set of players not good enough for a better standing that 7th. Adding insult to injury, the team's displays never seemed to improve. The manager's tactical grande scheme seemed to be to replicate what had previously worked at Everton, i.e. defending compactly, attacking down the wings and crossing the ball into the box. For a club of Manchester United's stature, it was clearly not enough and Moyes didn't even make it to the league's final round. So much for the "being different" credo.

Back in Porto, the Dragons were making history of their own by parting ways with the man that had brought them one of the best, hardest, most satisfying titles in the club's history - a victory over Benfica at the Dragão with a 92nd minute-goal on the 29th of 30 rounds when, just two weeks earlier, FC Porto trailed their arch-rivals by 5 points. Vítor Pereira would be replaced by Paulo Fonseca, a young tyro that had excelled at Paços de Ferreira and led them to a Champions League playoff berth.

As it turns out, the story that was unfolding at United virtually repeated itself in Portugal. Fonseca was never able to dominate the dressing room (contrary to usual proceedings, rumours flew about with the greatest of ease) and the tactics he tried to implement were baffling. More proactive than Moyes, Fonseca insisted that the team attack relentlessly, but apparently without any order or collective ideas. The poor results came pouring in and a 3rd-place finish was all FC Porto could muster.

Like at United, however, the club were doing everything they could to preserve their image of moral leaders, twice declining Fonseca's request to resign. The third time would be the charm, however. The results certainly didn't help, but, like Moyes, it was the evident inability to steer things in the right direction and take centre stage as the emotional leader that was Fonseca's undoing.

  • A similar line of reasoning

For this season, both FC Porto and Manchester United seem once again to go hand in hand. The Red Devils seemingly threw away the notion of everlasting continuity and hired Louis Van Gaal, a tried and tested victor that will, on one hand, certainly bring much-needed order to the dressing room. On the other hand, the Dutch is one of the most revered coaches as far as tactics are concerned and bears the knowledge and ability to create drills that allow players to imbibe his ideas. An European-style coach is considered to be the way forward.

As far as the Dragons are concerned, the chosen coach was Julen Lopetegui, the former leader of Spain's U21 team. Club president Pinto da Costa wanted someone who had clear ideas on how to move forward, based on a possession-based brand of football. Even though Lopetegui's career includes precious little experience at club level, his results and work methods have clearly impressed those around him.

As it turns out, both Manchester United and FC Porto will be relying on managers who are willing to bet on young players, who are on the cutting edge of the game (at least in tactical terms) and who are direct heirs to the notions of Total Football/tiki-taka - two concepts that are often blended and blurred. The clubs have also opened their cheque books as if to vindicate their respective managerial bets by any means necessary, as the signings of Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera on United's side and Adrían, Óliver Torres and Bruno Martins Indi on FC Porto's side have confirmed.

In conclusion, it remains to be seen whether the fates of Manchester United and FC Porto will go on hand in hand and whether the huge investments made are really the thing that lacked from Moyes and Fonseca's time at the helm. On the other hand, the arrival of a Dutch and a Spanish coach brings some curiosity as far as the results of both sides are concerned, at a time at a time where possession-based football looks like a concept from the past. Will it be a case of too much too late?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The fine line between supporter and writer

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  • The supporter*

As a diminutive, sickly young kid, I was never any good at sports. I went through the regular bouts of running, cycling and hide-and-seek, as well as some tennis, but sports were never a thing in my youth. On the other hand, I come from a family with precious little interest in sports as a whole. Therefore, a lack of interest in football was to be expected. It was just outside my scope.

It all changed when I was 14 - hence the "late bloomer" label. I attended my first match in a proper stadium (the first one I had been to was so bad that the home supporters mutinied when one person had the audacity of praising one of the best goals I've ever seen - unfortunately, for the away team). It was one of the first Champions League games in Portugal, no less.

I knew there were 11 players on each side, two goals and some lines, but that was pretty much it. I had no understanding of tactics or even positions. All I could remember was that a goal always seemed to be the centre-backs' fault. I couldn't really understand why nor did I know who or what the centre-backs were.

I was immediately taken aback by all of it: the roar of the crowd, the floodlights, the life-sized players, the proximity to the pitch, the seemingly endless elation of a goal, the constant singing and standing from supporters, as if by standing they would be closer to their heroes or mimicking at least part of their idols' effort, pushing them onward.

Things would never be the same. I immersed myself in the game as hard as I could and developed a profound love for the game that lasts to this day.

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  • The writer

The years that have elapsed between then and now have been spent going to all sorts of football matches, supporting, but also playing, studying and learning - so much so that I would often go to bed quite late after analysing the stats of one of my five-a-side team's matches.

Somewhere along the line, I decided to combine my love for writing with the passion for the game (which included the mandatory coaching badges). After a few years of trial and error, I started getting a few more calls, a few more requests, a few more questions. I developed a more clinical eye for specific details and started breaking the game down.

I had completed the transition from a football supporter to a football writer.

Even though I still get the same goosebumps whenever I enter a stadium, the emotion has to do with the sport, rather than any specific team. I don't think I've ever supported a team in blind fashion, but my allegiances have surely waned as I delved deeper into the game's minutiae. Every now and then I find beauty and thrilling emotion in the most dreary of matches; other times I find something of note from a purely tactical point of view and become aware of the difference of opinions between supporters and myself - and that's when I realise I'm no longer a supporter, just a writer.

  • The World Cup

The first facet allows me to understand the celebration that was the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The sport had come back to its spiritual home, the country that springs to the mind of every single person when they think of football. The scenery was magnificent, the crowds were colourful, the competition was a goal feast (with the possible exception of the latter stages, including the final). There were comebacks, great goals, even better saves and nice little nutmegs. There were fascinating narratives on and off the pitch and Germany's triumph harvested a seldom seen consensus.

However, as an analyst, I can't help but find some worrying tendencies from a purely footballing perspective.

1) Three steps back. For the past 10/15 years, the death of specific positions and formations has been heralded as a certainty, whether it was the no. 10 or the 3-man defence. It also seemed football was heading down a socialist path of sorts, where everyone on the team had a specific role to fulfill. It was the times of commentators complaining how tactically shackled the Ginolas of the world were and how much better it was when players had the freedom to sprinkle their fantasy at will (or disappear altogether, in a time where hardly any games were televised). It was the advent of the 4x3x3 virtually everywhere (with the exception of the United Kingdom, where the 4x4x2 was and still is a force of nature).

As it turns out, football seems to have regressed 30 years. Or so I thought while watching the past few club seasons - teams comprised of players only instructed to defend while others seem to have the exclusive responsibility of attacking, effectively breaking the team in two. The 4x2x3x1 formation seems to strengthen that same notion, the prevalent idea being that the two men in the centre keep the team from losing their balance.

That same idea came to me once again when watching the first stages of the World Cup. I searched for the goals scored average of previous World Cups and what I found was eerily accurate:

There had never been such a high number of goals scored after the famous World Cup of 1982 - where the likes of Sócrates, Conti and Falcão lit up the pitches. The notion of artistic freedom and of the beautiful game ran rampant. (Not unlike 1982, Brazil's attacking abandonment without much defensive care ended up being their downfall.)

Unfortunately, I find it impossible to ascribe great merit to that. Given the characteristics that seem to affect most teams, it's only natural that most goals stem from balls given away and/or set pieces. That was one of the main reasons why there were loads of goals in the group stages: worse players tend to give the ball away more often and take up worse positions. As the tournament progressed, better teams were more reluctant to be proactive and there were a lot less goals. There was clearly no collective idea of organisation, no notion of strategy to attack anyone's enemy. The few teams that had those ideas were the surprises: Chile, Algeria and Costa Rica. I can't remember a World Cup when all you had to do to progress was just to be organised.

While I understand that fans and supporters alike find the tournament all the more alluring, it does not bode well for the sport. All of which segues quite well into the next issue.

2) The pop-star player. As teams become increasingly unable to collectively cope with the challenges opponents throw their way, they become ever more reliant on their figureheads. It was therefore hardly surprising to see entire nations living and breathing the fate of their stars - whether it was Neymar, Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Brazil went into nationwide shock when they found out Neymar would not be involved in the rest of the competition. An entire country was discussing Ronaldo's best positioning while his team-mates didn't want to have anything with the ball. Messi is not even considered all that Argentinean in his own country - nothing short of a World Cup would suffice for the Barcelona star. Manchester City's Pablo Zabaleta went as far as claiming Argentina were "playing for Messi".

While there will always be and there will have been idols that draw crowds (the very notion of football hangs on the inspirational abilities of a team and/or player), such a one-dimensional approach to a sport that moves billions of euros around begs belief. The temptation of pinning every hope on the shoulders of a particular player turns football into an amalgamation of average players toiling so that one particular player can shine and solve matches. However, the flip side is that, by resigning from performing other duties, those very players are diminishing the possibilities of success of their best player (think Messi against four Dutch players) - and ergo their team.

* "Supporters" was used throughout the text rather than "fans". I dislike "fans", devices - and people - who blow wherever they're told to, with very little passion or personality. The secret of "supporters", on the other hand, lies in their own name: They support, i.e., they act as the foundation upon which their team is based.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Portugal's World Cup: The Aftermath

Portugal's campaign at the World Cup ended in rather predictable fashion, but is a lack of planning at the heart of it all? You can check it out here.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Portugal: What lies behind and ahead

Despite its high-profiled nature,
Pepe's ill-tempered reaction was not
the root of all evil for Portugal.
Photo by
Up until 5pm on June 16, 2014, everything seemed to be tip-top in Portugal. The sun was (finally) shining, summer was in bloom and the TV, press and Internet were littered with motivational jingles and clichés. The national team was just about to kick-off their World Cup in the fraternal soil of their "país irmão" and the side boasted Cristiano Ronaldo, the world's best player and figurehead of recent Champions League victors Real Madrid.

By 7pm, everything was a mess. The football team that used to unite all Portuguese people (or some thought or wished) had become a joke, its players a cluster of pampered professionals who did not deserve the money they got nor the pride their fellow country men had invested in them. In short: same ol', same ol' back in Portugal. Love and embrace 'em when they win, crush 'em when they lose.

Rather than discussing the result and what it all means - or may mean - at length, we will be looking at the process, namely where some of the problems lay and how/if they can be sorted out in time.

  • The formation

The formation of any given team is of little importance in the grand scheme of all things football. As the saying goes, tactics stand for nothing on paper - meaning that it's rather the dynamics that are implemented within said tactical framework that are relevant, not the theoretical representations of a 4x3x3 or 3x5x2.

In the case of the Portuguese national team, there seems to be little to no collective thinking, not in terms of group cohesion, but rather in terms of what to do in the game's different phases. The centre-backs seem to have the ball or their direct opponent as their sole responsibility, regardless of where it ends up taking them. The midfielders do not provide the necessary coverage for each other, let alone for their defence. The poor attackers are left to their own devices, with a game plan that essentially boils down to "get the ball to Ronaldo now!"

Therefore, it results utterly pointless to dissect the formation, since none will work if there is no tactical blueprint and if the players' features do not fit into it (when in doubt, please see Spain's case during the current World Cup). Whether in 4x4x2, 4x3x3 or 4x2x3x1, without an underlying collective understanding of the game, few teams will prosper.

  • The Ronaldo conundrum

Cristiano Ronaldo is by far the team's most gifted player. He is the captain, the man everyone turns to for guidance. That much was clearly on display when Nani (for instance), presented with a clear-cut opportunity, kept looking over his shoulder to give the ball to Ronaldo. However, it's become painfully clear that Ronaldo's numerous shots, sprints and goals come at a defensive cost.

The chances created by the German team and the absence
of defensive input down Portugal's left paint an explanatory picture.

It is no surprise then that Real Madrid managed to grab their Décima by pairing him with Benzema up front, thus efficiently covering both wings. Most opponents had identified Portugal and Real Madrid's left wing as their main gateway. If Portugal coach Paulo Bento is to insist on this formation based on the same principles, the left wing - now without Fábio Coentrão, no less - will be a primary target for upcoming opponents.

On the attacking front, Ronaldo actually suffered from being offered little service down his side, despite the scare Portugal gave Germany in the match's initial period, where Hugo Almeida ended up squandering a good opportunity presented by his captain.

Despite his limited playing time at Manchester United, Nani was often called upon to carry the ball forward.

In fact, it was Manchester United's once super-sub Nani that saw the ball more often, while also contributing a little more defensively. All this seems to confirm that Ronaldo might just be better off stationed up front - playing off a proper, designated no. 9 such as Éder - than parading all his abilities down the left.

Portugal ended up favouring their right side both offensively and defensively.

  • Miguel Veloso

When Miguel Veloso first burst onto the scene of Portuguese football, it was a breath of fresh air. It seemed Portugal would have a gifted ball-playing holding midfielder for years to come. Unfortunately for him, it did not pan out that way and Veloso now finds himself plying his trade for Dynamo Kiev after being considered for greater heights. He has become slow and apparently lost even the ability to put himself in the right spots according to his position, often jeopardising the team's defensive solidity.

Miguel Veloso contributed precious little defensively against Germany.

If William Carvalho is to replace him against the United States (a possibility formulated elsewhere), the defensive dashboard of Portugal's defensive midfielder might be a tad busier than the above one.

  • Éder

During his early years, Hugo Almeida was thought to be the answer to many Portuguese supporters: A tall, strong, robust, left-footed striker. The long-standing issue of "good football but the balls never goes in the net" that harassed the Portuguese national team (and clubs to a lesser extent) seemed to be all but over.

However, like Veloso, Almeida's evolution stagnated. A good four-year spell at Werder Bremen earned him a move to Turkish side Besiktas, all of which did not grant him an extension of his somewhat limited bag of tricks. Despite his physical presence, Almeida does not offer the link-up play the maligned Hélder Postiga provides and he's not exactly the most mobile of players.

Éder replaced the injured Hugo Almeida and immediately improved Portugal's incisiveness.

When Almeida was forced to limp off the pitch, on came Braga's Éder, a forward who, despite his long-term injury, seems to combine most features of his two fellow strikers: On one hand, he is able to hold the ball up and allow his team to progress up the pitch. On the other hand, he's fast enough to create problems, as Germany's Mats Hummels can attest.

  • Conclusion

All in all, there seems to be a glaring beckoning for greater collective organsiation within the Portuguese team. In a tournament where most teams have fared apparently under no detailed instructions from their managers and relied hugely on their top performers, the only way to improve the side's odds is to offer them a map they can follow, rather than leaving them to their own devices. In a competition that has been so dominated by individual displays, Portugal must make use of a clear plan if they are to stop the progressively decaying talent pool from drying out altogether.

Portugal vs USA: The Preview

After last Monday's dreadful performance and worse result against Germany, Portugal will certainly have a lot to improve if they don't want to start packing their bags just yet. A match preview that includes the reasons why Éder and William Carvalho might be the men to help them do just that can be found here.

Portugal: The truth behind the numbers

The Euros that saw "football coming home" to England in 1996 marked a revolution for Portuguese football. After that tournament, Portugal were present at every major competition with the exception of the 1998 World Cup in France (the start of a trend), with the Golden Generation taking centre stage.

The nearly twenty years that followed have seen Portugal progress to two semi-finals and one final, which led many to believe the side would finally be able to be a member of the elite club of European powerhouses. Boasting one of the world's two best players in Cristiano Ronaldo certainly didn't hurt matters; the future looked rosy.

  • Those dreaded World Cups

What those handpicked stats hide is that Portugal are usually terrible when it comes to World Cups. In 1986, Portugal defeated England 1-0 (the start of another trend) but crashed out after losing to Poland and Morocco, amidst disputes over bonuses and scandals involving prostitution. The tournament yielded bruised egos, one fired coach and a few banned players. In 2002, there were again squabbles over monetary compensation, poor managing choices and seemingly endless shopping sprees (besides defeats against South Korea and the United States). The tournament yielded bruised egos, one fired coach and a few banned players.

Luís Figo watches Landon Donovan's celebration at the 2002 World Cup.
Photo by

Only in 2006 did Portugal show up and manage to actually look good (the fact that the competition was played on European soil should not be deemed a random factor), reaching the semi-finals. However, it should be noted that the two opponents Portugal overcame to play Germany in the semi-finals were England and the Netherlands, the only two top teams Portugal have consistently beaten over the past 20 years. Against Germany, France, Spain or Italy, the track record is less than impressive.

  • Those happy Euros

One of the unheralded advantages of Euros is that if one team qualifies from the group stages, they immediately earn bragging rights about reaching a competition's quarter-finals. If the draw is favourable on top of that, players, coaches and directors (as well as supporters) might even go as far as saying that they've reached the semis.

In 1996, Portugal were eliminated by Karel Poborsky's (who would later play for Benfica) expertly taken lob in the quarter-finals. For a nation that had remained absent from tournament finals for so long, it was an honourable display. In 2000, the feared France put the Portuguese out of the tournament at the semi-finals with the penalty that spurred so much controversy throughout the nation (Turkey were the quarter-final opponents).

A tearful 19-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo will be out
to make sure such moments don't happen once again.
Photo by

The 2004 history is well known, of course, but it hides the fact that the opponents that Portugal defeated were precisely England and the Netherlands - the two teams that have become as close to automatic knock-out wins as possible for the Portuguese side. In 2008, Portugal crashed out against Germany (no coincidences there, then) in the quarter-finals and 2012 saw them being eliminated in the semis via penalty shoot-out at the hands - and feet - of Spain, after losing to Germany once again in the competition's first match. The team the Portuguese had beaten to reach the semi-finals was the Czech Republic.

  • Conclusion

While history might be cast aside as a mere collection of facts, it might help us shed some light on a few tendencies. In this particular case, it seems to show that Portugal fare rather well on European soil (whether it is the Euros or World Cups) and less well on other continents. It also reveals that, contrary to popular belief - and the 3-0 win against Germany back in 2000 notwithstanding - Portugal have consistently failed to punch above their weight and that their best results are usually linked with favourable draws.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Portugal 0-4 Germany: Where to go from here?

Portugal certainly had a nightmare of a start to their World Cup in Brazil, but all is certainly not lost. You can check out why here.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Portugal vs Germany: The preview

Today's main course at the World Cup pits Portugal against Germany. If you want to whet your appetite even further, you can have a look at the preview for Metro.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Combination Play on the Web

Despite the lack of new posts, there has been a lot going on during these pre-World Cup times. In fact, you can find me talking to Ireland's radio NewsTalk about the Portuguese National team (including the possibility of Cristiano Ronaldo playing up front or trying to find a proper comparison to William Carvalho) here.

Last night I had the privilege of being on CCTV America's The Heat, with Anand Naidoo, where we talked for a few minutes about the other side of the World Cup - whether the investment is really worth it, the FIFA scandals, among other things; you can watch the whole show here.

Finally, yesterday saw the launch of the official coverage of the World Cup for UK's newspaper and website Metro, where I will be covering Portugal throughout the tournament. The first piece is available here.

Stay tuned!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Real Madrid 4-1 Atlético Madrid (AET): The deceptive scoreline

For the first time in the history of the competition two teams from the same city met in the final of the Champions League. Atlético Madrid, recently crowned Spanish champions (at the Camp Nou, no less), were facing Real Madrid, still in search of the ever elusive Décima.

Given the injuries and suspensions on both sides, there were no major surprises on the teams' line-ups apart from the impressive Raphaël Varane in Pepe's place, with Sami Khedira offered the spot that usually belongs to Xabi Alonso. On the colchonero side, Diego Costa managed to recover only to limp off after a few minutes had elapsed, making way for Adrián.

  • Few surprises

The pattern of the match pretty much followed the expected pattern. Unlike last week at Barcelona, Diego Simeone instructed his men to stand down and exert no pressure as Real Madrid centre-backs tried to bring the ball out from the back. Rather, the new Spanish champions were virtually defending in some sort of 4x6x0, with both David Villa and Diego Costa placing themselves close to their midfield so as to force their opponents to play outside their compact block.

The colchoneros were all too happy to cede the initiative to Carlo Ancelotti's men, who have always looked most vulnerable this seasons where they were offered the time to build up play, rather than relying on deadly quick transitions based on Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.

Real Madrid managed to complete almost twice as many passes as Atlético.

With Raúl García deputising for Arda Turan, Atlético's right wing was even tighter defensively, with García offering invaluable help down the left, where Fábio Coentrão and Ángel Di María tried to find a breach in Atlético's hard-knit defensive unit.

  • The Di María role

In fact, Di María's part was the most interesting from a tactical point of view, since he was being asked to act as a shuttler while defending - deployed ahead of Khedira and alongside Luka Modric - and as a winger when the team attacked. The knock-on effect was that Cristiano Ronaldo, clearly playing with severe physical limitations but unwilling to relinquish the chance to win the club's tenth cup and his second, was allowed (and instructed) to get into more central positions, closer to Benzema, probably because the Portuguese was not able to put in his blunt sprints.

Ronaldo was physically unavailable for sprinting and was more of a central presence.

While this approach is far from an absolute novelty this season, it seemed strange that Ancelotti would make such an option here, since Ronaldo seems to struggle whenever he's asked to play as a central forward: On one hand, there is a lot less space for him to move into given the greater number of players in that area and, on the other hand, not only he is forced to play with his back to goal, but he also relinquishes the possibility of running at defenders with his incredible speed.

Di María was asked to perform two roles, but as time went on, he became an out-and-out winger.

Atlético, in turn, did not appear in any way surprised by Reals strategy and were in fact aiming their long ball to the left side of Khedira, who was clearly lacking in match fitness. Not only did Di María was absent due to his attacking forays down the wing, but Atlético also had Raúl García down the right - an option that paid great dividends against Barcelona in the competition's semi-finals, where he made the most of the height mismatch between Jordi Alba and himself.

  • The inability to create

Following Bayern Munich's dismantling in the previous round and Barcelona's falling at the seams under the leadership of Gerardo Martino, it seems possession-based football will be that much harder to come by. In fact, both Real Madrid and Atlético were clearly interested in taking full advantage the moment their opponents lost their balance while attacking. All things considered, that was pretty much what happened, as both sides only looked dangerous on the break or following a mishit pass (Tiago's first-half slip-up immediately comes to mind).

Other than that, neither team were able to create anything of note in possession with their opponents sitting in front of them, further showing both sides' willingness to prey on the other's mistakes. Adrián, Diego Costa's replacement, acted even more as a midfielder, protecting his midfield team-mates from up front, but offering precious little offensively.

Adrián offered a helping hand defensively, but did not contribute much up front.

  • The fifth element

Nowadays there seems to be little arguing about the game's four phases of play: attacking organisation, defensive transition, defensive organisation and attacking transition. There were some who started mentioning a fifth phase of play: Set pieces. With football tending to evolve towards greater and greater athleticism and a diluting of major tactical differences (the Premier League notwithstanding), there seems to be a lot of sense in the "fifth phase of play" approach.

In fact, given that neither team were exactly impressing with their ability to penetrate enemy lines, this was probably the phase that paid the highest dividends and one that will probably attract more and more attention down the line. Not only did Atlético tilted the match their way after a 38th minute set piece dismally dealt with by Iker Casillas (who revealed one of the biggest faults in his game: aerial balls), but Real Madrid would finally find the goal they fought so long for during the second half on the 94th minute via Sérgio Ramos, ever crucial in these passages of play as error-prone in open play.

  • To live and die by one's own sword

Diego Simeone and his men have been praised - and rightly so - for their high intensity, take-no-prisoners approach. Adept at defending compactly and breaking quickly, the colchoneros often work miracles during first halves, only to struggle (not just) physically as time goes by, since that approach is clearly unsustainable. Indeed, they progressively retreated into their own half, not as a strategic move trying to lure Real Madrid into a false sense of security, but rather due to the inability to compete physically.

Even though Real Madrid themselves were not exactly able to create numerous clear-cut chances, it was becoming progressively clear by the minute that Atlético were running on empty and that a Real Madrid goal would not be followed by an offensive stampede from Simeone's charges.

Atlético Madrid were clearly not interested in pressing Real Madrid high up.

The number of clearances made by Atlético inside their own box is staggering.

The last-minute ditch fest that took place for most of the second half was an invitation for Real Madrid to exert even more pressure unto Atlético's already tired defence. Had Xabi Alonso been present, for instance, Modric would have been able to play higher up and assume even greater importance while running the show (his impressive display will likely be forgotten under the due compliments to Di María or Gareth Bale). Wearing the champions crown will surely force Atlético Madrid to be more proactive in more matches, which will be a testing challenge in itself.

  • Conclusion

Carlo Ancelotti won his fifth Champions Leage/European cup both as player and manager, but he was probably a minute away from being shown the door, had Sérgio Ramos failed to blast the ball into the net. The European success will certainly paper over many cracks that were plain for all to see - the inability to create danger when opponents do not offer space behind them and a certain difficulty in winning against strong (mostly) domestic opponents, the impressive destruction of Bayern Munich notwithstanding. A third-place finish is clearly not enough for Real Madrid, even though the European success will help all of that pass by.

As for Atlético, it would be hard to ask a whole lot more of them. With so many injuries, suspensions and without a deep squad, the physical side of things was bound to catch up on them. Simeone's high intensity style, while effective, leaves a mark on players. It remains to be seen if, not unlike Jürgen Klopp's, his approach will not be unsustainable in the long run.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Benfica vs Juventus: Tactical preview

Next Thursday Benfica and Juventus will be fighting for one of the two places in the Europa League final. In fact, it will probably be one of the best dress rehearsals UEFA could have possibly wanted, since the stadiums of these two teams are the venues for the Champions League and Europa League finals in a few weeks' time.

While the Portuguese team have just clinched the title last Sunday with a 2-0 win against Olhanense at the Estádio da Luz, the Italians have not been too shabby either, with an eight-point cushion over second-placed Roma, with four games to go. In fact, the only doubt in the Serie A seems to be whether the Biaconeri will get past the 100-point mark.

Any duel between these two teams is always interesting, but the current one becomes even more so as both seem to be going through one of the best periods in their history - Benfica winning the Portuguese league for the second time in 5 years and consistently progressing to the later stages of European competition and Juventus virtually steamrolling domestic opposition while they find their way back to the top of European club competitions. Let us try to break down what will probably be the crucial tactical aspects of the upcoming contest.

  • The importance of being Pirlo

Ever since Massimilliano Allegri deemed him surplus to the team's requirements back in 2011 (and allowed the player to move to Turin on a free transfer), Andrea Pirlo has become the beacon that has guided the reigning champions to their rebirth after the dark years that followed the Caliopoli, with captain Gianluigi Buffon going as far as to call it the business of the century.

In fact, it is impossible to dissect this Juventus side without talking about the seemingly perennial Italian regista - or "l'architteto", as his team-mates in Italian colours dub him. His pin-point passing and extraordinary (both direct and indirect) free kicks often constitute the secret to pick harder locks (as was the case against Genoa, Lyon and Fiorentina).

However, he is not exactly one the hardest working players while defending (nor could he possibly be as he closes in on his 35th birthday), which sometimes leaves his back three (or five, depending on the situation) too exposed. Even though Pogba and Vidal - who will probably be replaced by Marchisio - do their best to help out while defending, the two midfielders who sit in front of the Italian wizard (and winegrower) are often found further up the pitch and often unable to provide the necessary coverage when transitioning into defence.

With Benfica's Nico Gaitán enjoying his best season ever and dictating play from the left but drifting into the pockets of space vacated by Rodrigo or Lima, and Markovic at his best whenever he has the ability to dribble at speed, the area around Pirlo might just be the place to buzz around in order to take full advantage of the 34-year-old physical vulnerabilities.

Pogba and Vidal have been critical to Juventus' recent domestic success and partly to the difficulties they have found in the Champions League over the past couple of seasons. Their late runs into the penalty box, while extremely dangerous for their opponents, sometimes backfire spectacularly by exposing Pirlo, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli's lack of speed, particularly on the turn - something that this more composed Benfica side will certainly be all too happy to exploit.

  • Three at the back: blessing or curse

At the 2012 World Cup, there were those who wondered if the 3x5x2 formation was the ideal remedy for tiki-taka. It seemed to be able to contain the world's most dominant force - Spain - and their possession-based brand of football. In this particular contest, however, it seems tailor-made for Benfica's style, usually founded upon quick transitioning principles at breakneck speed. If the Eagles manage to stave off Llorente, Tévez & co. they are bound to find happiness on the counter.

Another feature of the three-man defence is the ability to adapt whenever opposing teams manage to stifle Pirlo in midfield (usually easier said than done). Whenever Pirlo is not available, Bonucci calls the shots from his central position at the back, usually looking for the wingers Lichtsteiner and Asamoah so they can build-up play via individual duels and purposeful runs behind the other team's last line of defenders, and usually the time when either Pogba or Vidal drift towards the wings to create overloads.

The fact that none of Chiellini, Barzagli, Bonucci or Pirlo are particularly quick will probably render them vulnerable to Benfica's breaks and force them to stretch out to contain the Portuguese champions' several threats. The three-man arrangement may suffer quite a bit with the prospect of Lima and Rodrigo constantly switching positions and dragging their markers away from the penalty box - something with which the Juventus defence clearly struggle - so that Gaitán or Markovic, for instance, may find several opportunities for one of their specialties: the 1v1.

  • Under heavy attack

The sheer physicality of Juventus players (but especially their midfielders and forwards) might just be one of the things that puts Benfica on their back foot, a style with which the Portuguese are not all that familiar. Carlos Tévez and Fernando Llorente have indeed struck a great partnership, with the Spaniard acting as a lynchpin for the team's attacks thanks to his ability to hold the ball up and link up play. The Argentinean forward, on the other hand, is best known for his scurrying around, looking for the right time and place to provide a killer pass or a purposeful nutmeg. The physical and mental efforts that the pair will demand from Benfica players is not similar to the challenges the Eagles have faced so far and will most certainly prove a stern test for Luisão & co.

Neat, central combination play is unlikely to surface as far as Juventus are concerned, the wings being their natural habitat to build up play. Still, it is their ability to pry their way open down the centre via Llorente and Tévez that often manages to tear down difficult walls, combined with their knack for taking full advantage of attacking set pieces, whether it be expertly delivered by Pirlo towards Chiellini and Pogba or Pirlo's diversified direct free kicks. Luisão, Garay and Fejsa will surely have their hands full and will be critical countenance Juventus' physical assaults.