Porto 3-1 Benfica: Benfica’s champagne on ice

May 4, 2010

A fiery, high-tempo battle: Porto record a surprise win to keep the title race going until the final day, leaving Benfica three points ahead of 2nd-placed Braga ahead of next weekend’s fixtures.

Having played a standard 4-3-3 for the majority of the campaign, Porto have been playing a system with four midfielders in the wake of their embarrassing 0-5 thrashing at the Emirates in March. Today, they set out with a system similar in nature to Brazil’s shape and to the one Sporting recently played against Benfica – with one striker, one wide attacker and broadly, a diamond midfield. Their best player this season, Falcao, was suspended and replaced with Silvestre Varela.

Benfica played a slightly more defensive of their usual shape. As is often the case in big games, playmaker Pablo Aimar was replaced with the more disciplined Carlos Martins. Ramires played a deeper role than usual, with Angel di Maria getting forward on the left, making a cross between a 4-1-3-2 and a 4-3-3, with Saviola dropping off, generally to the right.

Porto’s lopsided line-up made for an interesting gameplan. They attacked relentlessly down their right-hand side, putting Fabio Coentrao under significant pressure. For most of the game there was simply no Porto player on the left of their attack or midfield, which allowed Benfica right-back Maxi Pereira to get forward.

Benfica though, were struggling with the threat on their left-hand side, summed up by the fact that Coentrao, di Maria and Luiz were all cautioned within the first fifteen minutes. Although Porto struggled to create in open play, they won a free-kick on the touchline that was turned around the post by Quim, and they went ahead when a corner from that side was headed in by Bruno Alves.

Porto were stopping Benfica creating because they packed the centre of midfield with four men. Benfica’s system is generally quite narrow, with the wide players playing from in to out, and therefore stopping Benfica centrally is the key. Javi Garcia saw a lot of the ball but struggled to pass it as well as he usually does, whilst Martins, Ramires and di Maria drifted in and out of the game, and Benfica began to play a surprising amount of long balls towards Cardozo.

Of course, Benfica’s width usually comes from full-back. Coentrao was unable to get forward because he was preoccupied with the presence of Hulk, but on the other side, Maxi Pereira had literally no-one to worry him defensively, and so marauded forward at will throughout. With Porto’s four effectively matching Benfica’s four in the midfield, if a Porto midfielder was attracted to Pereira, he would leave a (more creative) player available in the centre, and so the Uruguayan was able to get forward unchallenged, and Benfica’s best opportunities came from Pereira getting into the penalty area. In the first half, the closest Benfica came to scoring was when he was one-on-one with the goalkeeper and denied by a last-ditch block, and in the second half he almost scored when he scampered forward unmarked, and blasted a near post shot at Beto.

And Pereira was to assist Benfica’s opening goal – his right-wing cross found its way to Luisao at the far post, who scuffed the ball into the far corner to make it 1-1.

With a total of ten bookings in the game, there was always going to be a sending-off – the only surprise was that with Benfica leading 7-3 in this respect, it was a Porto player who was dismissed. Right-back Jorge Fucile was cautioned for a dive in the penalty area, and Porto were down to ten. Porto’s players had been diving and overreacting theatrically to Benfica challenges all game (which was partly responsible for Benfica picking up seven cautions) and it was just deserts for the home side, who also had their manager Jesualdo Ferreira sent from the dugout.

This should have benefited Benfica, but Porto went ahead again through a snapshot from Farias. They made two substitutions and switched to a 4-3-1-1 shape, whilst Benfica made three attacking substitutions, taking off Javi Garcia, Martins and Saviola, and bringing on Aimar along with two forwards, Weldon and Alen Kardec. The game was frantic and had little to do with tactics as Benfica battled for the winner, but the introduction of three such attacking players seemed to benefit Porto, as Benfica couldn’t outnumber them in midfield. Jorge Jesus’ removal of Javi Garcia destabilized Benfica, and in the end the risks they took meant Porto scored a third – a cracker from Fernando Belluschi.

The use of Porto’s lopsided system was the most fascinating tactical aspect of the game, and it does seem to be inspired by Dunga’s Brazil side. Packing the midfield meant Benfica’s flair players had little space to create, and their frontmen saw little of the ball.

The title race, then, goes to the final day of the season, where Benfica need just a point to secure their first title in five years.

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