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

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