The Dossier That Reveals How Benfica Plan To Blitzkrieg Celtic

After knocking off Barca, Neil Lennon's boys travel to Lisbon to try and pull of another huge European upset. Here's the lowdown on Benfica...
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After knocking off Barca, Neil Lennon's boys travel to Lisbon to try and pull of another huge European upset. Here's the lowdown on Benfica...

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Celtic's memorable win against Barcelona a fortnight ago brought the Scots to the fore - simultaneously triggering a lively debate about what possession is all about. With Benfica's stuttering form in the Champions League (a draw against Celtic at Celtic Park and a defeat in Russia at the hands of Spartak Moscow), the Bhoys have a pretty good chance of making it through to the competition's next stage. But what will they be up against exactly?

Benfica are still, to this day, Portugal's largest club, Porto's slow but steady rise notwithstanding. Despite their glorious past (which includes two European Cups in 1961 and 1962, as well as three lost finals in 1963, 1988 and 1990) and the fans' vivid memories of Eusébio and co. and of their dominance in the Portuguese league, the last 20 years haven't been so kind. In fact, the Eagles - as they are known in Portugal - have been Portuguese champions just three times since 1994.

During that period, there have been more ups than downs, the club a revolving door for coaches and players, including Graeme Souness, Jupp Heynckes, Giovanni Trapattoni, Quique Flores and one José Mourinho in the managerial role - among many, many others. The promise that a new era lay ahead was shared by Benfica's presidents as a way to get fans on their side. Despite Trapattoni's no small miracle in 2005, that promise only came true in 2009/10 with the arrival of Jorge Jesus.

Based on decades of domination, Benfica (along with Sporting Lisbon) are stalwarts of a certain kind of play - expansive and attractive, along of the lines of the "Joga Bonito" mantra. Their fans are not impressed by mere victories - there has to be an element of annihilation of the opposition, without which something feels amiss. In fact, that has often been the downfall of some coaches, either by not considering it at all or by allowing themselves to be blinded by the chants in the stands.

The coach Jorge Jesus was hired in the 2009 offseason and his first season in charge was everything a true Benfica fan could have dreamt of. Not only did the team recapture the title, they also trounced opponents almost everywhere they played, especially at Estádio da Luz, once again transformed into a 65,000-seat inferno for away teams. That particular squad included David Luiz, Ramires, Di María, Javi Garcia, Luisão and Aimar, most of whom have moved onto greener pastures since then.

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The domestic success was so great that the corresponding European achievements seemed there for the taking. Benfica would reach that season's quarter-finals of the Europa League, crashing out against Liverpool after a 4-1 drubbing at Anfield Road. It didn't matter one bit. They were champions and everything looked possible once again.

The following season Jorge Jesus lost some of his key players, but didn't want his team to slow down. In fact, he would eventually say that there was no reason why Benfica couldn't be in the Champions League final somewhere soon - the sort of bravado fans love, but that can tighten the noose around one's neck when things suddenly stop clicking.

That was the season André Villas-Boas made his name with FC Porto - both in Portugal and abroad -, thrashing the eagles with a resounding 5-0 at the Dragão for the league and overturning a two-goal deficit from the first leg of the semi-finals of the Portuguese cup, running 3-1 winners.

Suddenly there were many angry voices in the stands of Estádio da Luz, calling for Jesus to be fired. Benfica made their way into the Europa League after crashing out of the Champions League group stage against the likes of Schalke 04, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Lyon. Not only did Benfica lose against Braga in the Europa League's semi-finals, but that competition would eventually be won by FC Porto - a significant detail in a fierce rivalry.

Without AVB at the FC Porto's helm, it looked like Jesus' fragile leadership would have the necessary wiggle room to yield positive results once again. Unfortunately, the club blew away a sizable lead and the Dragons went on to win both the Portuguese league and cup, which only turned the pressure up on Jesus.

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Team tactics

Despite some tweaks here and there, Jorge Jesus usually wants his teams to dominate and crush opponents. One of the major criticisms about his approach has to do with the unwillingness to compromise or slow down, even when circumstances would so require.

Benfica tend to play in a 4x2x3x1/diamond 4x4x2, depending on the team they are playing against and whether they're playing home or away, but they are a much more aggressive team when they play in front of their fans. In those cases, Jesus likes to deploy a 4x4x2-come-4x2x4, with both full-backs pushing high - sometimes too high.

Luisão's return after a lengthy suspension cannot be overstated - not only is he the leader of the pack, but he also has a knack for stepping up when things get tough, as it might well be the case tomorrow. The right-back Máxi Pereira, if fit, will be a constant threat down his side, but Melgarejo on the other side is not to be overlooked either.

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That hunger to go for the jugular has its drawbacks, however. The team are often found on their back foot and they don't defend with too many men. Furthermore, the insistence on playing down the wings means that both centre-midfielders are often exposed.

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The former Chelsea man Nemanja Matic will be the team's holding midfielder, after Javi Garcia's departure to Manchester City. Alongside him will probably be Enzo Pérez, a winger that Jesus has been polishing into a decent midfielder. Salvio will likely be the right winger and his darts down the flank could be potentially dangerous and open up space for Máxi Rodríguez.

Cardozo should be the attack's spearhead, but the man that may wreak havoc the most will most likely be Lima - an extremely dynamic forward who tends to get the ball in the channels between the centre-back and the full-back, and who is more than able to either provide an assist or score himself.

All in all, Celtic will probably have their work cut out, since Benfica will try to hammer them right from the get-go. Their initial pressure usually brings them results, but they do not excel at shutting up shop. On the other hand, Celtic proved they can defend in tight lines and break forward dangerously, something Benfica do not usually enjoy.

(all stats from whoscored.com)