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.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Benfica 3-1 FC Porto: Numbers are an illusion

Not unlike Atlético Madrid and Barcelona over in neighbouring Spain, Benfica and FC Porto met once again this season for the first of three upcoming Clássicos over the upcoming weeks, with the soon-to-be Portuguese champions resiliently (and enthusiastically) overcoming the incumbents for the Portuguese Cup.

Without Luisão, Fejsa, Lima and Markovic from the starting XI, Benfica coach Jorge Jesus proceeded with the squad rotation he's implemented throughout the second half of the season, with Salvio and Cardozo allowed to maintain their recent run on the team.

Even though this match was expected to be another installment in the hard-fought (and rather interesting) Clássico series since Jorge Jesus arrived at the Luz, it stubbornly progressed into a scrappy affair following Siqueira's dismissal on 28 minutes, at a time when Salvio had already put Benfica 1-0 up after Gaitán's beautifully delivered cross.

Jesus' men came out from the blocks with guns blazing, with Gaitán showing the team's intents on 20 seconds with a hard tackle on Danilo and signalling the intense pressure that would befall FC Porto. Benfica pressured Fernando, the Dragons' key man (namely through Rodrigo's tireless work), and kept their opponents from getting into their passing rhythm - a pattern that repeated until the home team found themselves in front.

FC Porto improved after the goal but mostly due to Benfica's purposeful dropping back, waiting for FC Porto to become unbalanced as so often has been the case this season. It is now impossible to assess if Luís Castro's charges would be able to turn things around under normal circumstances, but Siqueira's sending-off turned it into a moot question.

Despite being a man down, Benfica did not despair and were able to understand the predicament they were in and wait for the right moment, and the second half proved them right. A heroic display that will surely be remembered by most supporters might indeed be the springboard for what the team supporters hope will be a great ending to the season.

Rather than dwell on the game's minutiae (riddled with coach and player dismissals), we will now be turning our attention to specific tactical issues, as this column often does.

  • Rodrigo
The Brazilian-born Spanish forward has been on top of his game for most of the season, finally realising all his vast potential by all accounts. With Cardozo (a striker made in the more traditional mould) playing instead of Lima, Rodrigo was asked to drop off a few yards, where he combined excellently with team-mates on the wings.

By acting in front of Fernando, the forward kept forcing FC Porto's holding midfielder to track him, opening up space for Gaitán to exploit. In fact, Benfica's superiority up until Salvio's goal was intrinsically linked to Rodrigo's forays into the flanks and the area in front of Fernando, allowing the Eagles' full-backs or wingers to appear unmarked.

  • All about the pressing

It is usually said that football is a numbers game, in the sense that the team that takes correct decisions the most often will be more likely to win over time. However Benfica showed last night that there can be more than just the one interpretation. Even though FC Porto were a man up for more than a hour, the Eagles revealed how a well-drilled, disciplined tactical unit (not be mistaken for defence) is much more important than numbers in themselves.

While FC Porto pressed in rather disjointed fashion (Fernando would often be the first man to come out and try to get something out of the game), Benfica understood they couldn't press all over the pitch, but rather would have to pick their moments. The numbers-up situation did mean FC Porto enjoyed a greater share of the ball possession than would probably have been the case had Benfica remained with eleven players, but it did not mean FC Porto were able to trouble Benfica 'keeper Artur that much, which serves as a simulteanous testament of Benfica's persistence and awareness and of FC Porto's cluelessness while attacking, with the team seldom choosing the right option when presented the opportunity to finish play. Combined with FC Porto's absolute inability to take control in midfield, this was definitely the key factor to the match.

  • Gaitán

It is by now undeniable that Nico Gaitán has been having his best season in a Benfica shirt so far and that he will probably not be calling Lisbon his home for much longer. The Argentinean seemed to be all over the place (and he indeed deputised as left-back while André Almeida did not come on) and he now blends his technical wizardry with much improved tactical awareness and a willingness to better understand what the match asks of him in each moment.

Despite starting on the left wing, Gaitán refuses (and is allowed) to limit his actions to the flank and has now become a maestro-like winger, realising where spaces have been cleared and roaming around the pitch almost at will. Juventus coach Antonio Conte should pay special attention to Benfica's no. 20, since he might be instructed to buzz around Pirlo and dictate play from the middle, rather than from the left.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

FC Porto 1-0 Sevilla: Both sides fail to impress

After their 1-0 win against Benfica last week and the 2-1 defeat to Nacional da Madeira last Sunday, FC Porto were faced with mixed feeling towards the first leg of their Europa League quarter-final tie, but managed to grab a crucial (perhaps narrow) win against a disappointing Sevilla.

Unai Emery's team had previously gone on a good run (including the famous win against Real Madrid) but were stopped in their tracks over the weekend by Celta Vigo. Still, their European record were virtually spotless, with the Andalusians going undefeated in 14 of their last 15 Europa League matches. Conversely, FC Porto, despite the successive progressing, mirrored in Europe the porous defence they have been presenting domestically (conceding at least 2 goals in 5 of their last 6 Europa League outings).

The analysis of a few Sevilla's matches offered some expectations for this particular match: Individual marking from midfielders and a seemingly excessive reliance on Ivan Rakitic's brilliance. At the Dragão, the suspicions were confirmed, as the Croatian picked up Fernando, the Portuguese centre-back-cum-midfielder Daniel Carriço turned his attentions to Defour and Iborra kept an eye on Carlos Eduardo.

The home team piled on the pressure for the first 25 minutes, even though not as intensely as they did against Benfica (Herrera's presence on the bench certainly did not help), resulting in a succession of corners and half-chances - namely deflected shots or mishit clearances. Sevilla, in turn, seemed more than happy to concede the initiative and soak up pressure, waiting for the right time to pounce on the break (taking advantage of FC Porto's unbalance at times while attacking). However, the Spanish team didn't amount to much offensively throughout most of the match, bar the chance that came about through Fabiano's incomplete save cannoning off Jackson Martínez and Kevin Gameiro's mishit rebound.

  • Sevilla go retro

If Sevilla's attacking intents didn't impress, the defensive approach was the most baffling. with individual marking that seemed to stretch throughout the match. This meant that the Spaniards often provided no or mistimed coverage when a team-mate was beaten in their individual duel, which in turn opened up a gaping hole in the middle for FC Porto midfielders to sprint into - when they got past Carriço and Iborra, their runs were not picked up by the centre-backs, exposing what could have been a gold mine for the Portuguese champions (which it wasn't).

FC Porto scored on the 31st minute through Mangala, moments after Sevilla's aforementioned half-chance that resulted from Fabiano and Jackson Martínez's scrambling. A corner kick in favour of FC Porto was shortly followed by a foul committed by a Sevilla player. Rather than taking his time, Fernando immediately dispatched it to the unmarked Quaresma, who made use of his trademark trivela to aim a perfect cross at Mangala's head, the French centre-back thus becoming FC Porto's top scorer in this season's edition of the Europa League, on 3 goals. His knack for aerial duels and important moments were once again most welcome (the Dragons, by the way, have scored 5 of their 9 goals in the competition via set pieces). Defour would put the first half to an end (similarly to what Quaresma would do to end put a stop to the contest) with a thunderous shot that forced former Dragon Beto to make a splendorous save.

  • Second half: much ado about not... too much

In the second period the match opened up a bit more, with Sevilla looking more interested to taking some leverage with them for the second leg. Nevertheless, despite knitting a few more passes together, there was no real end product from La Liga's fifth-placed team, with the exception of Kevin Gameiro's glaring miss on 75 minutes.

The home coach brought Quintero on for Carlos Eduardo, supposedly to make the most of the game's traits - individual marking, poor defensive coverage, space down the middle - but the Colombian flattered to deceive once more. Herrera' also replaced Defour in an attempt to freshen things up, but the situation did not change that much (Ghilas' initiatives notwithstanding).

The second-leg match, to be held in a week's time, should provide a more open contest between two teams whose soft spots seem all too clear for the other side to see (and exploit). FC Porto will certainly find joy if they approach the match a bit more intensely (both in terms of pressing and dragging Carriço and Iborra out of position), while Sevilla may end up finding what they've looked for at the Dragão: the moments when FC Porto give the ball away and Rakitic has more freedom to roam.

As a side note, Jackson Martínez's absence might not be that hard to compensate, with the energetic Ghilas waiting in the wings, but Fernando's might be a bit trickier.