With the French Ligue 1 title recently being sewn up by Paris Saint-Germain, attention now largely turns to two aspects of the league. Firstly, the relegation battle is always of interest, with three of any five teams still looking threatened with the drop, while secondly the battle for European qualification remains wide open.
As Portugal’s most highly decorated club, Benfica are well accustomed to honorably representing their country in European competition.
Benfica’s strong European pedigree
The 1961 & 1962 European champions, who have won the Portuguese Primeira Liga for three successive years, will aspire to do just that once again in this season’s Champions League, after performing impressively to reach the quarter finals of last year’s competition.
Under the managerial guidance of Rui Vitoria, who succeeded Jorge Jesus following the 62-year-old’s departure to join Sporting Lisbon in June 2015, Benfica qualified for the knock-out stages by finishing second in their group, which was won by eventual runners-up Atletico Madrid and also contained Galastasary along with Astana.
Thereafter in the round of 16, Benfica beat Zenit St. Petersburg home and away to record a 3-1 aggregate victory, before narrowly losing their two legged quarter final tie against Bayern Munich 3-2.
That was the first time since the 2011-2012 season that Àguias had made the last eight of the Champions League, whilst Vitoria’s team are preparing to launch a similarly impressive campaign this year.
Change in playing personnel
Despite selling Nicolas Gaitan and Renato Sanches to Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich respectively, whilst also allowing the Brazilian midfielder Talisca to join Besiktas on loan, Benfica’s squad remains strong both in terms of depth and quality, since during the past summer their management team and network of scouts identified and attracted new talented players to the club.
Influx of quality new players to Benfica’s squad
Specifically as well as signing Portugal’s Euro 2016 winner Rafa Silva for €16.4m from Braga, Benfica also recruited several other excellent young midfielders including the highly rated duo of Andre Horta and Andrija Zivkovic, along with Oscar Benitez and Franco Cervi of Argentina and the Brazilian Guillermo Celis.
Furthermore Benfica’s chief decision makers completed another piece of astute business in this summer’s transfer market by signing the Greek internationalist striker Konstantinos Mitroglu on a permanent contract for €7m from Fulham, after the 28-year-old scored 25 goals in 45 appearances during a successful loan spell with the Portuguese champions last season.
Whilst Mitroglu performed consistently well throughout that, so too did his strike partner Jonas, as the former Valencia forward scored 36 goals in 48 appearances and was named the Primeira Player of the Season for a second successive year.
In addition to Jonas and Mitroglu, another excellent striking option available to manager Vitoria is the Mexican Raul Jimenez. The 25-year-old former Atletico Madrid player is currently in fine form, scoring in both his Primeira Liga appearances to help Benfica enjoy an unbeaten start to the domestic season, whereby of their four league game to date, they have won three and drawn one.
Benfica’s fine start to the season
Whilst winning a trio of away fixtures against Tondela (2-0), Nacional (3-1) and Arouca (2-1), Benfica’s drew their solitary home match so far this season at the Estadio da Luz – which is the largest football ground in Portugal with a capacity of 65,600 people - 1-1 against Vitória de Setúbal. It was from Setúbal that Benfica signed Andre Horta for an undisclosed fee. Subsequently the diminutive and technically gifted 19-year-old has seamlessly settled into the centre of Benfica’s midfield alongside the combative Serbian Ljubomir Fejsa.
They are rapidly developing a superb partnership after playing together for the first time in a competitive match to help Benfica beat Braga 3-0 in the Supertaca Candido de Oliveira – Portuguese Super Cup.
Another player who produced a wonderfully impressive display during that game was Horta’s fellow debutant Franco Cervi. As well as scoring the 22-year-old Argentinian was named man-of-the-match, whilst also influential in Benfica’s triumph was Pizzi, who scored and provided an assist for Benfica’s other goal, a composed finish by Jonas.
Vitoria constructing a talented team
As such whilst many of Benfica’s players have started this season extremely positively, they are performing well as a collective unit, which has a particularly strong spine.
The base of that is constructed by the Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar and the central defensive duo of Jardel and Victor Lindelof, whilst ahead of them is the Fejsa – Horta partnership behind a front pair of Jonas and Mitroglu, although Jimenez possesses the potential to compete intensely with them for a starting place in Vitoria’s side.
Upon that the youthful full-back duo of Alex Grimaldo and Nelsinho have made a very positive impact so far this season, whilst in the wide midfield roles so to have Pizzi and Eduardo Salvio, who Vitoria currently prefers to play on the right wing ahead of Cervi.
Therefore the 46-year-old Vitoria is making great progress towards developing an extremely talented and well-balanced Benfica side, which is well-equipped to launch another impressive Champions League campaign, following their run to the quarter – finals of the competition last season.
Àguias to embrace Champions League challenge
The prospect of trying to emulate and eclipse that performance constitutes a difficult challenge to Benfica.
That begins with their first group stage game which is a home fixture against Besiktas, whilst Benfica will also face Dynamo Kiev and Napoli, with each of those teams representing difficult opponents.
Nevertheless Àguias undoubtedly possess the potential to overcome each of those and once again qualify for the knock-out stages.
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German league leaders Bayern Munich will play host to Portuguese league leaders Benfica on Tuesday in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals.
On paper, the Bundesliga champions will be favorites but assuming Bayern will go through from this tie should not be taken for granted. Italian champions Juventus exposed Bayern’s clumsy and susceptible defensive line and Juve striker Alvaro Morata was able to run circle around the Bavarian defenders in Munich.
Another concern for Bayern is the fact Arjen Robben will most likely miss the first game in Munich. While Bayern can compensate for his absence, particularly with the return of Frenchman Franck Ribéry and the presence of young compatriot Kingsley Coman, the team’s manager Pep Guardiola would most likely prefer to have Robben with his added experience and his uncanny ability to get foul calls.
In addition, it would be wrong to focus on Bayern without mentioning a few pillars of the squad, including the club’s top scorer Robert Lewandowski, midfield terrier Arturo Vidal and German star Thomas Müller. Austrian defender David Alaba, who can also operate in midfield, is another name to keep an eye on.
The big names and the great exposure given to Bayern Munich should not take away any credit from current Primeira Liga leaders Benfica and their pool of talented players. In attack, Portuguese top league scorer Jonas Gonçalves Oliveira is having the best season of his career and the veteran is supported by Greek striker Kostas Mitroglou. Between them, the attacking tandem has managed to score an impressive 47 league goals this season!
Another player to keep an eye on is midfielder Nicolás Gaitán who has scored 4 goals and provided 3 assists in 7 Champions League starts this season.
This should be an interesting battle between two teams on top of their respective league, yet the history, the players at Guardiola’s disposal and Bayern’s experience tip the balance in the Bavarian team’s favor. However, nothing can be taken for granted! Tune in on Tuesday, April 5th, 2015 to find out what the final score will be and remember you can follow the result of the game live by clicking here.
Benfica put on an attacking display to the home fans with Kostas Mitroglou scoring twice in a 5-1 demolition of Braga and its defensive line.
Benfica’s and the Portuguese Primeira Liga’s top scorer Jonas Gonçalves Oliveira scored once from the penalty spot and provided his teammates with two assists. The veteran striker Jonas is enjoying a remarkable season having scored 30 goals in 28 league games. He also handed out 11 assists to his teammates in the Portuguese league.
The fact the victory came against a tough Braga side, positioned 4th in the Portuguese league and with a decent defensive record prior to this colossal defeat, will provide a massive boost to Benfica’s players.
There remains just 6 league games for Benfica and they are currently 5 points ahead of Sporting Lisbon; however, Sporting do have a game in hand to be played on Monday. Though it is too early to crown Benfica as champions, the players must be confident knowing they have done well in recent weeks, not just in the domestic competition but also in the Champions League.
One thing to keep in mind is the fact Sporting must still face Porto away which is a very demanding and tough match as the league nears its conclusion. Thus, even if Sporting win on Monday to narrow the gap to 2 points, they must still travel to face Porto before the end of the season. On the other hand, Benfica’s remaining fixtures are all winnable provided the players remain focused.
Have Jonas and Mitroglou edged Benfica closer to the Primeira Liga title?
League leaders Benfica will host Braga on Friday, April 1st in the Primeira Liga’s top game of the weekend. Benfica will be desperate for a win in order to maintain the advantage over second place Sporting Lisbon and third place Porto.
Porto have the easiest fixture out of the top 3 teams yet they are six points behind leaders Benfica. Porto will play host to bottom of the table Tondela. Porto rely heavily on their multi-dimensional defender Miguel Layún, midfielder Yacine Brahimi, and strikers Vincent Aboubaker & Hyun Jun Suk.
The Mexican international footballer Layún is on loan from English Premier League club Watford and is having a great season with Porto. He already has 4 goals and has provided a remarkable tally of 14 assists.
Going back to league leaders Benfica, they will face a tricky match against Braga who are in fourth and have the third best defensive record in the Primeira Liga. Benfica will try to breakdown Braga’s defensive line with strikers Jonas Gonçalves Oliveira and Kostas Mitroglou.
Between them the attacking duo have found the back of the net 44 times in the Portuguese League! Veteran Brazilian scorer Jonas has found the net an impressive 29 times in just 27 league games while his partner Greek striker Mitroglou has scored 15 goals. Jonas has also added an impressive 9 assists to his contributions to Benfica’s attack.
Will Benfica win against Braga on the back of the Jonas-Kostas partnership? Will Porto keep up with a home win to maintain whatever slim chances they have of winning the league?
You can always follow the results of the Portuguese League live by clicking here.