As Rui Vitória prowled the Estádio da Luz touchline he must’ve thought he was on the verge of something few believed possible. His Benfica side had just gone into the lead against German giants and strong favourites Bayern Munich, Raúl Jiménez’s 27th minute goal taking their Champions League quarter-final tie with the Bavarians to one-a-piece on aggregate – and deservingly so. Bayern had been largely underwhelming in the reverse fixture, their narrow 1-0 victory considered a flattering scoreline by many who watched it.
Just as Jiménez’s goal suggests, the game on Lisbon soil proved to be much the same for Pep Guardiola and co. as Benfica set about implementing a similar game plan to stifle Bayern’s creativity. Vitória’s men ultimately played out a 2-2 draw which saw them eliminated 2-3 on aggregate, however even so they could exit the 2015/16 edition of the competition with their heads held high. The key thing to take away from it all was how well the Portuguese champions equipped themselves against arguably the best club side in world football at the time.
Carrying on from the strong foundation that long-term manager Jorge Jesus put in place between 2009 and 2015, 46-year-old Vitória has adopted a youth-centric approach at the club. Young players, both those bought in from elsewhere and those developed from within their famed academy ranks, have been afforded game time aplenty. And they’ve certainly not disappointed.
Typically deploying a fluid 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 shape, Benfica have mustered their very own style of possession-based football. The defenders are comfortable on the ball and push up, holding a high-line that in turn helps them to dominate play in their opponent’s half. In terms of attacking output, their strength lies predominantly through the middle of the field. Indigenous talent Pizzi operates as the more creative of the two central midfielders and, when in possession, is given licence to dictate play between the lines as he looks to create chances for teammates.
Width is offered to balance that in the form of Argentine duo Franco Cervi and Eduardo Salvio, alongside arguably the teams’ greatest assets: young full-backs Álex Grimaldo (a former La Masia graduate who Barcelona somewhat inexplicably allowed to leave) and Nélson Semedo. The overlaps that those wide defenders make opens up space in the middle for Pizzi to play, and the chances that do come to fruition are regularly taken by poachers Jonas and Kostas Mitroglou.
The Eagles have had their wings somewhat clipped as of late, though. Injuries to Grimaldo and Salvio have hampered Benfica’s preparations for the tie and given Vitória a headache in terms of how to maintain their quite expansive playing style. The January sale of Gonçalo Guedes to PSG also hasn’t helped matters, with the young talent having often been utilised alongside Jonas or Mitroglou, given his tendency to drop deeper and help Pizzi out on the creative front.
Opponents Dortmund are one of the sides who can empathise the most with that feeling – having continued their trend of selling important personnel and being forced to adjust their game model in the summer. Thomas Tuchel is only three years younger than his counterpart Vitória, and both coaches love to play a possession-orientated game along with moulding the young talent at their disposal. There are quite a few similarities between the clubs and their respective coaches in those respects.
As a result, even though Dortmund are largely considered favourites to progress, we should be in for a more interesting tie than many will expect. One thing to look out for in particular is the space left behind Benfica’s defence and whether the Germans manage to do anything with it. With weapons like Ousmane Dembélé’s tricky dribbling and the sheer electric pace of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, that’s something which Tuchel will surely look to capitalise on and exploit.
The Portuguese side may look to utilise that advanced shape and upset Dortmund by putting pressure on the deep-lying playmaker Julian Weigl. Often left on his own at the base of the midfield in a 4-1-4-1 formation, being able to cut off the German’s attack at its supply line would prove highly beneficial. It’s a far from easy task (just ask Real Madrid), with the 21-year-old already considered one of the best in the world in his position, but if executed correctly then being able to turn over possession high up the field and attack them while they’re out of balance would open up numerous frailties. Tuchel’s men have often shown a vulnerability to pressing in their Bundesliga campaign.
So despite Dortmund’s status as favourites it’s worth noting just how well Benfica can play when on top form. And given that the first fixture is being played at Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz, it will be imperative that the home side can continue to demonstrate their usual defensive resoluteness in particular to avoid an away goal. If Dortmund do manage to get ahead, that backline may get exposed on the counter-attack a lot more than Vitória would like.
If not, though, then Benfica will of course have every chance of progressing to the quarter-finals. They might not possess the phenomenal level of talent that Dortmund do, nor the recent European pedigree, but they will rightly hold hope of causing an upset.