Labeled, amongst other things, as the Match of the Century in Portugal this match certainly lived up to the hype. While title races in the “Big 4” (Spain, England, Italy, Germany) had come to a close, the race for the title in Liga Sagres was a race between these two bitter rivals. The match started out tense, as most big games do, with either side feeling out the other. Benfica opted to go with a 5-man midfield, and thus attempt to eliminate the effectiveness of Porto’s expert passer Joao Moutinho as well as Lucho Gonzalez. Benfica’s clogging of the middle was, in fairness, effective. They played very tight, and Porto was forced to go around or attempt to feed long through balls, which seemed more often than not to be cut off. Benfica seemed content to sit back and absorb which gave Porto plenty of time on the ball and lots of possession, but they were hardly effective with it – especially in the second half.
Lineups: (Porto) Helton; Alex Sandro, Mangala, Otamendi, Danilo; Fernando, Lucho Gonzalez, Moutinho; Varela, Jackson, James R.
(Benfica) Artur; Almeida, Garay, Luisao, Maxi Pereira; John, Salvio, Gaitan, Matic, Perez; Lima
Benfica struck first in the 19th minute through two gaffes of Porto’s. First, Helton should have stayed home, why he went out for that ball is unclear. It was too high for him to reach and he didn’t make a great clear. Second, Danilo fell asleep and left Lima unmarked at the back post for the easy slot home. There were some shouts for offsides, but Lima was safe. Danilo didn’t have his best game, and to be fair right back is not his natural position. He patched together a game, and from that point forward seemed to handle whatever came his way with relative decency.
Then Porto struck back seven minutes later with a deflected cross placed by Varela. It was a powerful cross, which deflected off the inside of Maxi Pereira’s thigh and right past Artur. Up to this point Varela had been Porto’s most valuable player, providing great width and speed and giving Benfica’s defense real trouble. With the goal, it paid off. Several long balls over the top fell right at the tip of Jackson’s feet, but he couldn’t bring them down and his runs were tracked very well by the Benfica defense. With space out wide and relative time on the ball, Varela did what Jackson and James had struggled to do up to that point (and would continue to struggle with throughout the match) – but there’s no doubt there was a lot of luck involved. Earned perhaps, it must be said. Varela was excellent down the left. Barring late events, he would have been my pick for man of the match easy. Benfica on the other hand had only a flurry of chances which came mostly from set pieces. They came close several times but could not add to their tally.
After the half, and some choice words between Porto’s manager and a member of the Benfica staff, things started to heat up. There were no yellows the entire first half, but 45 seconds into the second the little yellow monster reared its ugly head toward Benfica’s Enzo Perez. Benfica and Porto continued to crash in the midfield to thunderous applause. The fans were fantastic, with both sides hissing and booing when calls were given (or not). Benfica made the first change – Roderick Miranda entered for Nicolas Gaitan in an attempt to strengthen the midfield and create a wall. It worked fairly well. Porto was pushed off the ball, but because of the lack of pressure up top the Dragons easily gained possession right back. However, in order to regain possession one of the middle three for Porto had to continually come back to get the ball. This was often Moutinho, and due to his depth it added to Porto’s offensive woes, of which he is a crucial part. The Belgian Steven Defour (Porto) was likely to come on anyway, but was forced into it because Fernando was injured. It’s still unclear what it was, but it seemed to be a muscle injury of some sort. Defour slotted easily into his place, and perhaps gave Porto a tiny bit more going forward but lacked the impact hoped for. The battle in the midfield dominated his game and gave him no room to get forward. Benfica made a change up front, taking off Lima (for Oscar Cardozo), who’s performance under the circumstances was admirable. Cardozo found little more success than Lima though.
With weary midfield legs Lucho Gonzalez was off next. Kelvin came on in his place and the impact was steadily up for Porto. With Defour as anchor Kelvin was free to get forward. Chances started coming for Porto. Jorge Jesus made his last change in the midfield, with Ola John coming out and Pablo Aimar going in for some fresh legs on the Eagles side to join the fray. At the same time Danilo came off for Porto, who just couldn’t seem to get in the game and was caught napping in several cases. Liedson came in his place and Porto pushed more men forward. This had the desired effect for Porto, and led to the winning goal.
Shortly after Liedson went in, things down the left side started to pick up. Kelvin was able to find room to receive the ball, and with his fresh legs provide some width combining with Liedson. The winning goal came from a combination much like that. Kelvin received the ball deep and passed it off to Liedson, who then ran to his left into space. Kelvin made the follow up run while Liedson took the ball quickly into Benfica’s half and slotted it through beautifully back to Kelvin. He took one touch, popped it up, and volleyed it home from an incredible angle to seal the match for Porto. Jesus sank to his knees in utter disbelief.
Benfica’s tactical approach was not far off the mark, and it almost worked. Porto enjoyed 60-40 possession, but Benfica disrupted much of their play. If not for Porto’s bench, this match would have fallen more to the favor of Benfica. Benfica should not be ashamed. They fought hard, and there is still hope. If Porto lose next week in the last game of the season, and if the Eagles win, the title is theirs. Of the two, Porto face the harder opponent in Pacos de Ferreira, who will play in Champions League next season. For now, victory is Porto’s, and they will relish in it for days on end I’m sure.