As Rui Vitória prowled the Estádio da Luz touchline he must’ve thought he was on the verge of something few believed possible. His Benfica side had just gone into the lead against German giants and strong favourites Bayern Munich, Raúl Jiménez’s 27th minute goal taking their Champions League quarter-final tie with the Bavarians to one-a-piece on aggregate – and deservingly so. Bayern had been largely underwhelming in the reverse fixture, their narrow 1-0 victory considered a flattering scoreline by many who watched it.
Just as Jiménez’s goal suggests, the game on Lisbon soil proved to be much the same for Pep Guardiola and co. as Benfica set about implementing a similar game plan to stifle Bayern’s creativity. Vitória’s men ultimately played out a 2-2 draw which saw them eliminated 2-3 on aggregate, however even so they could exit the 2015/16 edition of the competition with their heads held high. The key thing to take away from it all was how well the Portuguese champions equipped themselves against arguably the best club side in world football at the time.
With Porto and city rivals Sporting Lisbon seen as the only real threats to Benfica’s league crown, the fact they’ve won the last three titles is often dismissed when discussing Benfica’s place amongst Europe’s elite. Playing against clubs of modest stature in the Primeira Liga most weeks leads one to somewhat naturally believe that a side can only be so good. What the untrained eye fails to see, though, is just how much progress the Lisbon outfit have made over the previous three years.
Carrying on from the strong foundation that long-term manager Jorge Jesus put in place between 2009 and 2015, 46-year-old Vitória has adopted a youth-centric approach at the club. Young players, both those bought in from elsewhere and those developed from within their famed academy ranks, have been afforded game time aplenty. And they’ve certainly not disappointed.
Typically deploying a fluid 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 shape, Benfica have mustered their very own style of possession-based football. The defenders are comfortable on the ball and push up, holding a high-line that in turn helps them to dominate play in their opponent’s half. In terms of attacking output, their strength lies predominantly through the middle of the field. Indigenous talent Pizzi operates as the more creative of the two central midfielders and, when in possession, is given licence to dictate play between the lines as he looks to create chances for teammates.
Width is offered to balance that in the form of Argentine duo Franco Cervi and Eduardo Salvio, alongside arguably the teams’ greatest assets: young full-backs Álex Grimaldo (a former La Masia graduate who Barcelona somewhat inexplicably allowed to leave) and Nélson Semedo. The overlaps that those wide defenders make opens up space in the middle for Pizzi to play, and the chances that do come to fruition are regularly taken by poachers Jonas and Kostas Mitroglou.
Fast-forward 10 months from that Champions League elimination against Bayern and As Águias find themselves facing a second German adversary in the form of Borussia Dortmund. For the most part they’ve been enjoying another good season thus far too, presumably much to the delight of their fans, finishing second behind Napoli in the group stage while looking to be on the cusp of yet more domestic glory; reaching two cup semi-finals (one which has yet to be played) and sitting at the top of the Primeira Liga once again.
The Eagles have had their wings somewhat clipped as of late, though. Injuries to Grimaldo and Salvio have hampered Benfica’s preparations for the tie and given Vitória a headache in terms of how to maintain their quite expansive playing style. The January sale of Gonçalo Guedes to PSG also hasn’t helped matters, with the young talent having often been utilised alongside Jonas or Mitroglou, given his tendency to drop deeper and help Pizzi out on the creative front.
Opponents Dortmund are one of the sides who can empathise the most with that feeling – having continued their trend of selling important personnel and being forced to adjust their game model in the summer. Thomas Tuchel is only three years younger than his counterpart Vitória, and both coaches love to play a possession-orientated game along with moulding the young talent at their disposal. There are quite a few similarities between the clubs and their respective coaches in those respects.
As a result, even though Dortmund are largely considered favourites to progress, we should be in for a more interesting tie than many will expect. One thing to look out for in particular is the space left behind Benfica’s defence and whether the Germans manage to do anything with it. With weapons like Ousmane Dembélé’s tricky dribbling and the sheer electric pace of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, that’s something which Tuchel will surely look to capitalise on and exploit.
That said, Benfica are far warier to counter-attacking threats than, say, Guardiola’s Manchester City have been this season. The Spaniard actually stated “they possibly have the best back four in Europe” prior to the tie between the Portuguese unit and his Bayern side last April, even going as far as to describe their style as being “the image of one of [Arrigo] Sacchi’s teams.” So they’re more than competent when it comes to football’s defensive disciplines.
The Portuguese side may look to utilise that advanced shape and upset Dortmund by putting pressure on the deep-lying playmaker Julian Weigl. Often left on his own at the base of the midfield in a 4-1-4-1 formation, being able to cut off the German’s attack at its supply line would prove highly beneficial. It’s a far from easy task (just ask Real Madrid), with the 21-year-old already considered one of the best in the world in his position, but if executed correctly then being able to turn over possession high up the field and attack them while they’re out of balance would open up numerous frailties. Tuchel’s men have often shown a vulnerability to pressing in their Bundesliga campaign.
So despite Dortmund’s status as favourites it’s worth noting just how well Benfica can play when on top form. And given that the first fixture is being played at Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz, it will be imperative that the home side can continue to demonstrate their usual defensive resoluteness in particular to avoid an away goal. If Dortmund do manage to get ahead, that backline may get exposed on the counter-attack a lot more than Vitória would like.
If not, though, then Benfica will of course have every chance of progressing to the quarter-finals. They might not possess the phenomenal level of talent that Dortmund do, nor the recent European pedigree, but they will rightly hold hope of causing an upset.
This piece was written by Charlie Carmichael. A freelance football writer who has also been featured on various other sites, you can follow him on Twitter here.