Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Brittle Benfica aiming for redemption
A cup final win is a cup final win, they say. Yet, while red confetti sprayed into the Saturday night air in front of busy stands, and cameras flashed as captain Luisao lifted the League Cup trophy, Benfica's first trophy of the season was celebrated in muted fashion.
Fatigue at least partly informed the reaction, with the games coming thick and fast towards the end of the season. "The team was tired, yes," coach Jorge Jesus said after the match. "We had two days to prepare for this game, and Pacos (de Ferreira, their opponents) had a week." Yet Benfica also feel they have bigger fish to fry. The one they really want, the Europa League, is on the horizon, with Thursday's semi-final against Braga coming sharply into view.
Benfica were indisputably the superior side when they burst into life at the Estadio Cidade de Coimbra, but the win had more anxiety than it needed. Moreira, a surprise choice in goal, made a crucial penalty save from Pacos' Manuel Jose with the score at 1-0, though he could be said to have had a degree of culpability in Luisao's bizarre own goal, which put the underdogs back in the game at 2-1.
It was all just a little underwhelming, though it may well have been so even had the Lisbon side buried Pacos under a flurry of goals given recent events of the Estadio da Luz. With the Europa League semi-final draw having swerved Benfica clear of domestic champions Porto and the dangerous Villarreal, optimism should be the flavour ahead of this historic all-Portuguese tie. Yet there is tangible disquiet in the air.
During the post-final celebrations, tempers frayed. A small group of fans turned their backs on the team and when Luisao threw his shirt to the fans, they promptly threw it back. "I thought it showed a lack of respect," the skipper said, before going on to admit that the dissent of "a minority" amounted to an "extra opponent." Later, police were forced to step in as a fan shouted in Moreira's face as he got back on the team bus.
Two home defeats to Porto in less than three weeks, ceding the league title and the Portuguese Cup in the process, have taken their emotional toll on supporters as well as players. Fabio Coentrao had been one member of the squad to admit that losing the title to Porto at the Luz had "marked" them, but nobody realised quite how much it had done so until it came to last week's Portuguese Cup semi-final second leg - when Benfica failed to defend the 2-0 lead they had gleaned in February's first game at the Dragao.
In the second half at the Luz on Wednesday, they had become a shambles. As Hulk poked in the second goal (admittedly from what was later revealed to be an offside position), Benfica shoulders slumped and heads shook in disbelief. Even after a highly contentious penalty from Oscar Cardozo gave them late hope, they were disjointed. Nobody epitomised the disarray more than midfielder Carlos Martins, who was bizarrely waging an argument with Porto coach Andre Villas-Boas while still playing. Martins even had to come over to the touchline to have his own coach clarify the away goal rule for him. "Are we drawing or do we need to score again?" he was caught asking Jesus in television pictures.
Braga may not be Porto in terms of man-for-man quality or sheer rivalry, but they do possess the ability to get under Benfica's skin almost as well. The Arsenalistas may not have been a genuine domestic rival again this year after pushing the Lisbon giants to the wire for the title in 2009-10, but they have been a real irritant to Jesus and company.
The needle between the two teams was again evident in their last meeting, at Braga's Estadio Municipal in March - which resulted in the defeat that definitively pushed the title north, ending Benfica's stellar run of 18 successive wins. Javier Saviola had given Jesus' side the lead before Javi Garcia's red card turned the game. Garcia did catch Alan with his arm, though the Braga man reacted in vaudevillian fashion. When Hugo Viana swung in the resulting free-kick, goalkeeper Roberto hopelessly misjudged it and the ball found the top corner of the net.
In an ironic little twist, Mossoro cracked home Braga's winner in the second half. "It had a special taste, for everything that I went through against Benfica," the playmaker admitted. The Brazilian has an especially sticky history with Jesus' side: he broke his leg in Braga's game at the Luz in March 2010, later denouncing Benfica for being "so hard on me" having been suspended along with team-mates Vandinho and Ney for his part in a tunnel punch-up in the previous October's match at the Estadio Municipal.
Braga also beat Benfica in that game, so the latter will be keen to make home advantage count at the Luz. Benfica's need to attack could expose them to the counters that have served Braga so well over their astonishing European season, though it is safe to assume that Jesus learned a lesson about a team playing to their strengths from the failed attempt to stifle Porto in the cup match.
All Benfica's success last season was proof of fortune favouring the brave, and if this mentality can be recovered, it should bring the best out of a gifted attacking side. In the light of the injuries that will sideline his compatriots Nico Gaitan and Salvio, Pablo Aimar will be even more important than usual. He was restored to the XI against Pacos after being benched against Porto, a decision that saw Jesus heavily criticised. "It's easy to predict the winning numbers after the lottery's been drawn," he snorted afterwards.
What is clear is that semi-final victory is imperative for Benfica, as the feeling now is that only beating Porto in Dublin on May 18 will make a success of the Lisbon side's season. Another defeat to their rivals doesn't bear thinking about.