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.

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