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.

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