Porto 2-2 Benfica: Porto generally on top

September 23, 2011

The starting line-ups

A scrappy game that neither side played well in – but Benfica will be more thankful for the point having twice gone behind.

Vitor Pereira played the usual 4-3-3. Fernando returned in place of Fernando Belluschi for some defensive awareness in front of the back four, whilst Cristian Rodriguez made way for Hulk. Cristian Sapunaru started at right-back.

Jorge Jesus went with the 4-2-3-1 that now seems to be his ‘big game’ formation, and once that decision was made, there were no surprises in selection. Javier Saviola was on the bench.

Four goals, ten yellow cards but relatively little tactical interest here. 4-3-3 played 4-2-3-1 with a fairly predictable battle in the middle of the pitch, whilst Porto offered a little more going forward than Benfica.

Early sparring

The home side looked better in the first twenty minutes. They were more positive with their positioning, and as always were very impressive with their movement when their defence had the ball – Joao Moutinho would move high up the pitch, then come deep. Fernando would drop into the back, and the full-backs would move higher up. The wingers would come inside, and create room for the full-backs to push on even further. Although Javi Garcia also dropped into the back for Benfica to allow the side to develop, this was the main difference between the sides early on – Porto were in control of the positioning of players.

In particular, Benfica’s midfield was being dragged too narrow. They often looked like 4-4-2 without the ball (Pablo Aimar as a second striker, high up the pitch) and when he failed to stay on Fernando, the Benfica wide midfielders got sucked into the middle to try and make up the numbers in that zone. Combined with the aforementioned movement, this meant Porto were a danger from full-back – the inexperienced Nolito, in particular, looked uncomfortable when asked to perform his defensive duties, and Alvaro Pereira saw a lot of the ball. Sure enough, Pereira contributed to the first goal – he was fouled by his namesake and compatriot Maxi, and the resulting free-kick was nodded in by Kleber.

Nolito was much brighter going forward, however. He stayed higher up the pitch than Nicolas Gaitan, and Benfica looked good down the right early on – deep crosses to the far post caused trouble a couple of times. Elsewhere, they weren’t keeping the ball as effectively as they usually do – the tempo was surprisingly quick and they perhaps missed the numerical supremacy they often enjoy in this fixture, with their diamond midfield. Javi Garcia’s usually good distribution was panicky, and Gaitan didn’t contribute enough. As a consequence, and arguably through no fault of his own, Aimar was rarely involved – though Fernando stayed tight to him, and Aimar could have been a little more intelligent with his movement to drag his opponent away from his natural position.

Second half

Nolito and Gaitan switched wings, and Nolito came up with an excellent ball at the start of the second period for Cardozo to convert. That was slightly against the run of play, and Porto hit back with a Nicolas Otamendi set-piece goal. From then, Porto tried to kill the game – which became increasingly scrappy, frustrating stop-start. The home side continued to press well rather than sitting back, however, though they were notably vulnerable to one Benfica counter-attack, where Cardozo wasted a good chance.

This was a test for Jesus, a man not noted for his ability to turn games through clever substitutions. Indeed, his changes showed a slight lack of imagination – Bruno Cesar and Javier Saviola were more or less straight swaps for Nolito and Aimar, and were it not for the goal, Benfica’s only notable move of the closing stages, you’d have said Jesus failed to improvise again. However, Saviola played higher up than Aimar and  played a superb through pass for Gaitain to slam the ball home – and therefore Jesus’ move from the bench can be justified, even if the game as a whole was still going against Benfica.

Pereira is the one who may regret his substitutions in hindsight – he understandably tried to go more defensive by taking off Kleber, Guarin and Silvestre Varela to insert more defensive-minded players, pushing Hulk upfront. However, when the goal was conceded, Porto were on the back foot and couldn’t switch to an attacking strategy to try and get the third, and with Jesus moving to a defensive-minded 4-1-4-1 late on, a point apiece was always likely.

Conclusion

More of a feisty battle than an exhibition of great football or intelligent tactics – maybe that’s what we should expect from O Classico, but then last season’s games were fascinating. We learnt little about the two sides here.

Where do they need to improve? Benfica’s ball retention was poor: they were too frantic in possession, with Garcia and Gaitan too direct on the ball, and Aimar peripheral. They are a side of good technical passers, but they must learn to control the tempo of the game – Garcia has a lot of responsibility in this respect.

Porto were good for large spells, and were only undone by two clever balls. Pereira might learn from his late substitutions that signalled a premature end to Porto’s attacking threat – in future, when trying to be more cautious on the pitch, he might need to be more cautious with his use of the bench.

Porto 2-2 Benfica: Porto generally on top

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