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Portugese Column: Why do Benfica underperform in Europe?

A brand new feature on this website is the introduction of weekly & fortnightly columns focusing on various leagues, countries and regions across the World. Filipe Ribeiro here documents the talking points in Portuguese football.

Jesus Column

Benfica just not the same in the Champions League

The midweek European matches saw current Portuguese champions Benfica get knocked out of international competitions for the season. Since Jorge Jesus took over in 2009, Benfica have won the title twice and played in the Champions League group phase five times, yet only once have they qualified for the latter stages. And whilst on all other occasions they managed to hold on to the third spot and subsequent qualification for the Europa League, this time not even the last group game against Bayer Leverkusen will help them go above fourth place.

So what is it that makes Benfica, so successful domestically, fail to join the big boys’ club with the other European giants? Fans will argue that they aren’t the luckiest bunch when it comes to the draw, as the club have landed on some seriously tough groups as proven last year, when they finished third with an incredible 10-point tie with second placed Olympiakos. Yet in 2011 they topped a group where Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United were third. Of course luck plays a part in football, but a 1-4 record of qualification can’t be all down to the draws, particularly when although being grouped with some tough teams, Benfica also aren’t exactly small fish.

Since his arrival, Jorge Jesus has won everything there is to win on a domestic level, and if not for André Villas-Boas and Vítor Pereira, it’s quite probable he would have won the league more than twice. As a matter of fact, Porto might help shed some light on Benfica’s European failures.
The Águias’ offensive approach, often called a “steamroller” against almost all Portuguese sides due to their overwhelming industrious demeanor on the pitch, has come up short when confronted with the only team capable of posing a threat against them on a national level for the past few years. Of the 18 matches Jorge Jesus has played against Porto as Benfica manager, he has lost half and only won six, four of those
in cup competitions. This last figure could actually be a positive, seeing as we’re discussing another “cup competition”, but the truth is the main priority of both clubs is the league, and when it comes down to it Porto have been getting the upper hand since Jesus took charge at da Luz.

So transposing this to the topic at hand, it’s fair to say that Benfica’s style under Jorge Jesus is best fitted to play against weaker sides, but when it comes to the Champions League those gaps are shortened and the team find it more difficult to put the pedal to the metal. Even getting to the Europa League final twice in a row saw them fall at the last –and hardest– hurdle. Jorge Jesus will argue that it’s important to be in the
final, to be in the discussion, that winning isn’t always everything, but the truth is Benfica should have done better internationally, because at the end of the day no one remembers who was second.

In all fairness, the vertiginous approach works wonders against 99% of Portuguese opponents, and Benfica aren’t exactly getting trampled against more similar outfits. But it does help to explain the European woes of a team who should be at the very least going to the round of 16 on a regular basis.

What will December bring?

As the last month of the civil year begins, the fixture everyone is drooling for approaches. On the 14th, champions Benfica travel north to face their bitter rivals in what will surely be a crucial match in the Portuguese league. There’s still a round in between, but both Académica and Belenenses shouldn’t prove too hard to beat based on Porto and Benfica’s current form.

And all bets are off as to who will take it, as Benfica should benefit most from a draw, but the Dragão is typically a nightmare fixture for the champions. Rui Vitória and his boys will be perhaps hoping for that tie, though, which could help them secure an unprecedented first place. Watch this space!

Will Europe take its toll?

If all goes their way this week, Sporting will join Porto in the next phase of the Champions League, and this could prove both a gift and a curse. Obviously getting as far as possible in Europe is a plus, but with Benfica and Vitória SC in full swing on the domestic side of things, both Marco Silva and Julen Lopetegui will be hoping their teams can cope with the schedule overload compared to their direct competition for the
title, particularly since neither of the managers have had the experience before.

Talent Radar Player of the Week

This week’s highlight goes to Óliver Torres. The Atlético loanee had a hard time regaining his footing after his injury, but this last week saw him return to full form after a couple of great performances against BATE and particularly against Rio Ave, the latter capped with a goal. Porto fans will undoubtedly be hoping that the loan turns permanent, but it’s hard to see Diego Simeone letting such a hot prospect go from his grasp.

Written by Filipe Ribeiro

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