Prior to Tuesday’s meeting with Benfica in the round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League, we asked Portuguese football expert Tom Kundert of Portugoal to introduce Borussia Dortmund’s opponent to us.
Benfica are top of the league and have won 26 of 36 matches this season. How good are this side compared to the team that ran Bayern Munich close last season and what is their current form?
Benfica are a strong team this season, but not at the same level as last year. Nico Gaitán and Renato Sanches were sold in the summer and both were key players in last year’s success, and Gonçalo Guedes was surprisingly sold last month after being a virtual ever-present this season. Benfica were very solid up until the turn of the year and looked like they would clean up all the domestic trophies, but they hit a poor run of form in January, with the defence – which had been their strong point – suddenly looking vulnerable.
Two convincing home wins in the last week will have picked up spirits but it’s fair to say the Portuguese champions are not on top form.
Ones to watch – Who are Benfica’s star players?
Brazilian striker Jonas has been an incredible signing for Benfica, scoring close to a goal a game since arriving in Lisbon two years ago, and voted the best player in Portugal last season. That said, question marks hang over him in the big games. He has never scored against Porto or Sporting in seven matches, and has only two goals in the Champions League. Nevertheless, Jonas offers more than goals, his ability to drift between the lines and provide assists gives Benfica an added dimension (author’s note: Jonas is questionable for the first leg with a neck injury).
Young Serbian winger Anrija Zivkovic has recently broken into the team and has been extremely impressive. He’s an excellent dribbler but what makes him stand out is his superb passing and crossing (author’s note: Zivkovic is suspended for the first leg).
Benfica’s player of the season has been right-back Nelson Semedo, who has been outstanding both in his defensive and attacking duties all season. He has inexhaustible
energy levels and is a real threat making marauding runs and linking up intelligently with the midfielders and forwards.
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Strong points/weak points – what must Dortmund beware of and what can they exploit?
Benfica have multiple goal threats. To illustrate this, seven players in their squad have scored six goals or more this season. Jonas and Mitroglou both have formidable goal-per-game ratios, back-up striker Raúl Jiménez has greatly improved his finishing and has notched 8 goals despite not playing much, central midfielder Pizzi has scored 11 times in all competitions, and Argentine wingers Toto Salvio and Cervi both have an eye for goal. Even centre-backs Luisão and Lindelöf are dangerous from set pieces.
Benfica’s weak point is an inability to control games, especially when defending a lead. This is not a problem against most teams in Portugal, but when coming up against a higher calibre of opposition it can be costly – throwing away a 3-0 lead to draw at Besiktas comes to mind.
This problem stems from an extremely vertical team and an often undermanned central midfield area as coach Rui Vitória usually plays with two attack-minded wingers leaving a lot of work on the shoulders of Pizzi and Ljubomir Fejsa. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Vitória select a more conservative team on Tuesday, adopting a 4-5-1 instead of the usual 4-4-2.
Formation and playing style – what system do Benfica usually play? Would you describe them generically as an attacking or a defensive team?
Benfica usually play in a 4-4-2 and are definitely an attack-minded team. They have scored 47 goals in 21 Liga matches this season – considerably more than anyone else in Portugal. In the big matches, however, Vitória obviously takes more precautions and it would be no surprise to see Benfica adopt a cautious approach against Dortmund, especially given Dortmund’s potent array of attacking weapons.
What are the press saying about the game? What was the reaction to landing Dortmund in the draw?
When the draw was made the Portuguese press agreed that Dortmund were favourites for the tie, especially as they had impressed against Sporting in the group stage. That hasn’t changed, despite Dortmund’s “wobble” raising hopes that Benfica can make progress.
How do people remember Dortmund’s 5-0 over Eusebio’s team in 1963/64 (even though he didn’t play)? Is it at all a topic people think/talk/write about in Portugal?
I didn’t even know about that result so it shows you how little it is talked about in Portugal. Perhaps it’s been written out of Benfica’s football history! Seriously, that is obviously an incredible result, especially considering Benfica reached the European Cup final five times in the 1960s. But I don’t suppose a result from over 50 years ago will worry Benfica on Tuesday.
Do you believe in the Guttmann curse and is there any way Benfica can overcome it this season?
Well, every time Benfica fail to win a European trophy the “legend” of the curse gets stronger … It’s very difficult for a Portuguese team to win the Champions League in modern football because of the disparity in wealth compared to teams from the bigger leagues. I believe Benfica could win a Europa League before the 100-year curse ends (Author’s note: Former coach Bela Guttmann reportedly said upon leaving in 1962: ‘Not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever be European champions’). But unless things change radically winning the Champions League will be almost impossible, and there’s certainly no chance of that happening this season.
What’s your prediction for Tuesday?
Although this tie looks like an attractive attacking match-up on paper, I think the fireworks will be reserved for the second leg in Dortmund. Benfica will be heavily focused on not conceding, and Dortmund would be happy with a draw, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a cautious and uneventful 0-0.