Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Stick or twist?
As Bruno Cesar's precise strike curled into the far corner of Quim's net in the second minute of stoppage-time to secure a victory over title rivals Braga on Saturday night, it was met with an almost white noise from the stands of the Estadio da Luz. It was relief and renewal, the goal that promises to breathe new life into Benfica's season. If they don't believe now, ahead of a titanic task in the Champions League quarter-final second leg at Chelsea, they never will.
It's no great revelation that a last-gasp winner is extremely valuable for confidence, but this one had a little more significance. With Benfica and Porto absorbed by their perpetual hand-to-hand combat at the head of the table, Braga's astonishing 13-game winning streak had seen the modest northerners leapfrog the pair. Benfica, who were unbeaten in the league until February 20, would have fallen five points behind Braga at the top had they lost. Instead, coach Jorge Jesus and his side are a point in front of Saturday's opponents in second, and just one behind leaders - and reigning champions - Porto.
The achievement was notable, not just for carving out a result in extremis but for its place in the context of the 90 minutes that had just gone before. Seemingly drained by the intensity of the battle against Chelsea at the Luz four days previously, Benfica were flat by their own standards for much of the game. Much of the credit must go to Leonardo Jardim's organised, accomplished Braga side, but it was hard to escape the feeling that Benfica are normally a more irresistible proposition in front of a noisy home crowd.
If anything suggested Roberto Di Matteo has some genuine thinking to do to prevent a shock, it was the manner of that stellar climax. Nicolas Gaitan's run and pass to set up Cesar's goal was a decisive riposte to a few weeks of form that suggested the coveted Argentinian was running on empty. The Luz fans will hope this burst is Benfica in microcosm: bruised and battered, but with the mental strength to summon the reserves of power to shape their season into a successful one.
The question is whether this boost will spur Benfica on to glory or encourage Jesus' team to overstretch itself as glorious achievement tantalisingly beckons. On a personnel level, it is not hard to argue that something just has to give. Lately it has been the squad's central defence. A frustrated-looking Ezequiel Garay watched Saturday night's game from the stands and will do likewise on Wednesday. His fellow centre-back Jardel is in the same boat, and Miguel Vitor was stretchered off with a muscle injury during the second half.
Midfielder Javi Garcia is likely to pressed into service in defence alongside skipper Luisao, something that will concern Jesus - not because Garcia is incapable, but because Benfica will miss the Spaniard's power in the centre. It mirrors Michael Essien covering for the injured John Terry back in 2006-07, a loss to Jose Mourinho's midfield that arguably cost Chelsea the title that year. Against a midfield including workaholic former Benfica favourite Ramires, it could be a key absence.
Certainly from a defensive point of view, Jesus is unlikely to worry too much about it. The coach may take his lead from the belief with which Napoli began their trip to Stamford Bridge. Benfica are similarly built to attack, and cannot just sit tight and aim to counter. The way they performed at Old Trafford in the group stages showed that this side is cowed by nobody, and will again seek to impose their own strengths rather than concentrate on negating Chelsea's.
Jesus' forthright, gung-ho philosophy is perfect for Benfica's self-image and history. The latter is something that comes sharply into focus whenever the Champions League is in play. It is Benfica's status as trailblazers for Portugal in the European Cup in the 1960s that has shaped the club's national and international identity. The oft-quoted statistic that seven out of ten Portuguese identify themselves as encarnados is down to the heroics of Eusebio, Mario Coluna and Jose Aguas in that golden era.
Ronald Koeman's side that reached the 2006 quarter-finals - disposing of holders Liverpool along the way - were no great side, their European success relying on moments of individual brilliance from the likes of Simao and Fabrizio Miccoli. Today's team is a different proposition, syncing beautifully with the best traditions of the club's daring. It is the second great side that Jesus has shaped since arriving in 2009.
Moving away from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1 this season, the coach has created a fluid system with the midfield riches at his disposal and also created genuine competition for the prolific striker Oscar Cardozo. It has brought the best out of the Paraguayan, whose excellent form in recent months saw him linked with a move to Chelsea as a possible Didier Drogba replacement in this weekend's British newspapers.
At least the central creative hub should be fresh. Pablo Aimar, so outstanding against United back in November, sat out the Braga match having been sent off against Olhanense, and his guile will be key in the attempts to break down the Blues. Jesus' efforts in managing the habitually fragile playmaker have been key in this Indian summer of Aimar's career.
Domestically and continentally, this Benfica have consistently produced more when it's looked like there was nothing left. Besides Saturday's match, they recently clawed back a 2-1 deficit to beat Porto and reach the Taca da Liga final for a fourth successive year. The mental block of last year's psychological torture at the hands of Andre Villas-Boas' Porto appears behind them, though attempting to overturn a deficit at the coach's former club represents an even greater testing that mettle.
So which will Benfica choose - focusing energies on domestic matters or going for broke on all fronts? For better or worse, the club's pride will only allow one approach. Whether success or failure awaits in West London, it promises to be quite a spectacle.