United’s third opponent in Group A of the Champions’ League are Portuguese title winners Benfica. Perhaps surprisingly Benfica sit at the bottom of the group having lost both of their games to date, at home to CSKA in their opening game and in Switzerland against Basle. We say surprisingly because the club has won the last four Portuguese titles and last year did the domestic double. Have they come to the end of a cycle or have they just sold too many of their better players?
Benfica of course are one of the big three in Portugal alongside Porto and Sporting. Of the three they have traditionally been the most successful having won the League title 36 times, the Cup 29 times and the League Cup 7 times, all of which are record totals. Benfica also won two European Cups way back in the early 1960’S and of course were United’s opponents later in that decade when United won their first European title. Benfica’s European Cup win in 1962 was their last international title after which their then manager Bela Guttmann allegedly placed a curse on the club when they sacked him. Is this just superstitious nonsense?
In recent decades Porto have tended to be more successful having won two European Cups/Champions Leagues and two UEFA Cups/Europa Leagues as well as a raft of domestic titles. Benfica’s recent successes have been part of a concerted fightback with the avoid aim of domestic domination leading to a greater and improved impact in European competition. They have achieved the former, but not the later and seem to have taken a dip in achievement if not form this season.
Benfica’s current manager is Rui Vitoria. Vitoria had a modest playing career moving into management after spending the whole of his time as a player with clubs in the third and fourth division. His first managerial job was at Vilafranquense, one of his former clubs before moving to Benfica to manage their junior side for one season in 2004. He then moved back to third division Fatima whom he helped gain promotion. Unfortunately they were then relegated the next season before gaining promotion again in 2008-09. This success caught the attention of bigger clubs and in 2010 Vitoria moved to Pacos de Ferreira in the Portuguese Premeira Liga leading them to a seventh place finish He then moved on to Vitoria de Guimaraes where he led them to their first ever Portuguese Cup win defeating Benfica in the final.
That success earning him the manager’s job at Benfica where he has been manager since 2015, winning the national league title in each of his two full seasons to date, winning the cup and super cup last season as well.
Vitoria usually favours a 4-4-2 or more accurately a 4-4-1-1 with Jonas dropping deep to link midfield and forward line.
Current Season Form
Domestically Benfica are doing okay so far without really setting the world on fire. To date they have played 8 games having won 5, drawn 2 and lost 1. They currently sit third in the table behind Porto and Sporting but they haven’t yet faced any of those sides. It is their travails in Europe however that have raised concerns. Currently they sit bottom of the group having lost 0-5 to Basle leaving them with a minus 6 goal difference. Why have they struggled against their two opponents to date, opponent United have easily overcome; Benfica were most people choice to contest for the groups top spot with United?
There are two plausible reasons and actually it’s probably a combination of both these potential factors. Firstly Benfica have sold three of their key defensive players; two have come to Manchester, Ederson to City whilst Victor Lindelof of course has joined us at Old Trafford whilst the other departure was Nelson Semedo who has moved on to Barcelona. The Portuguese league is not financially strong enough to enable even the top clubs to avoid having to sell players and Benfica have always been selective sellers but to lose three key players in one transfer window is unprecedented in recent years and perhaps foolhardy.
The other reason to consider is the age of those players who have remained. The core group at Benfica is now quite old; Julio Cesar is 36,top scorer Jonas is 33 whilst remaining defenders Jardel and Eliseu are both now in their 30’s.
Central midfield is their strength with Ljubomir Fejsa the more defensive player and Pizzi, a current Portuguese international and national player of the year last season as the creative focus. In the wide midfield areas Eduardo Salvio on the right and Franco Cervi on the left provide good balance and will push on in wide areas to provide attacking thrust. A youngster to watch is forward Diogo Goncalves who starred at the recent Under-20’S World Cup.
Benfica are a good side but age and departures suggests that they are coming to the end of a cycle and are perhaps ready for a period or rebuilding and renewal. United should prove too good for them and we would expect Jose Mourinho to overwhelm their two man central midfield. They could be dangerous at home whoever where they did take the lead in the opening game. It all feels a bit brittle however and if United get it right in terms of strategy and approach they should win however.