Benfica 1-0 Sporting: 10-man Benfica hang on

November 29, 2011

The starting line-ups

A Javi Garcia header from a Pablo Aimar corner gave Benfica the victory.

Jorge Jesus went for his ‘big game’ 4-2-3-1 shape, which meant no Javier Saviola. Luisao was out injured so Jardel played at the back, but otherwise it was Benfica’s first choice XI.

Domingos Pacienca went for a 4-3-3, or a 4-1-2-3 to be more specific, with Daniel Carrico sitting deep, in place of the injured Fabian Rinaudo. Anderson Polga and Oguchi Onyewu were at the back.

Benfica played the better football in the first half but struggled to make the breakthrough, relying on a set-piece. Sporting had plenty of chances and were clearly on top for the final half hour, after Oscar Cardozo’s red card.

Midfield positioning

The interesting feature of this game was the battle to get midfielders into space to receive the ball. There was an obvious 3 v 3 battle in the centre of midfield – Carriço and Aimar were together, Javi Garcia and Elias watched each other, whilst Axel Witsel and Stijn Schaars had a Low Countries battle in between. The sides played different formations, but were well-matched in this zone.

The key was who could get their other creative players into the game, and Benfica’s had much more joy. Nico Gaitan and Bruno Cesar (who switched sides throughout the first half) don’t play as wingers even when Benfica play 4-2-3-1 – they play much deeper, more centrally and not too different to when Benfica play their diamond system. This meant that they frequently picked up the ball in space – Joao Pereira and Emiliano Insua didn’t want to come all the way out from the defence to meet them, and so they could get the ball and run at speed – Gaitan had a particularly good game, and combined well with Aimar when Carriço was forced out of position.

Sporting approach

In contrast, Sporting’s wingers played higher up the pitch and formed a front three, and struggled to get into the game. Diego Capel was very wide and often couldn’t shake off Maxi Pereira, whilst Mati Fernandez was forced back by the storming runs from left-back of Emerson, who was a real attacking threat. Fernandez picked up an injury midway through the first half and was replaced with tricky winger Andre Carillo, who had pace that worried Emerson more and kept him at bay, so the change actually worked out OK for Sporting in that respect.

Whilst Benfica were trying neat interplay through the centre, Sporting’s approach was more direct. They used Ricky van Wolfswinkel as something of a target man – he had a decent headed chance in the opening minutes, then nodded down for a good shot from Schaars.

Second half

The tactical battle remained rather static until midway through the second half, when Cardozo got a second yellow card for dissent. This changed the nature of the game completely, and there were immediate changes. Aimar is clearly not suited to the lone striker role, so was withdrawn with Rodrigo coming on. Benfica were now 4-4-1.

With Aimar removed, Paciencia could take off his marker, Carriço. That’s exactly what he did, but went for a rather cautious replacement in Andre Santos – a slightly more forward-thinking player, but hardly an attacker. He sat deep in midfield, which seemed overly negative. Sporting didn’t really need two centre-backs and Santos, all with Rodrigo as the nearest player to them – Paciencia could have summoned for Valeri Bojinov earlier, but persisted with a 4-3-3 with no obvious link between the midfield and the attack, although Elias did break forward into goalscoring positions.

That lack of a ‘link’ was Sporting’s problem throughout. Their trio contained a defensive-minded stopper and two players ahead that brought energy and combativity, but little guile. Fernandez was supposed to provide that from the wing, of course.

In fairness, Sporting’s strategy was well-suited to playing against ten men. They kept good width on both sides, Santos sprayed the ball out to the flanks a couple of times, and they persisted with the approach of sending crosses in towards van Wolfswinkel. There simply wasn’t enough goal threat, though – the Dutchman hasn’t scored in open play for two months. Bojinov’s introduction (for Insua, with Schaars going to the left) was necessary and the obvious change to make, but he’s not in great form either. Sporting didn’t have the creativity to create clever chances, nor the established marksmen to turn hopeful crosses into goals (rather similar to the problems the national side faces), and Benfica’s deep two banks of four held on.


Like many Lisbon derbies, this was niggly and lacking in technical quality – and the red card had a bigger impact upon the tactical battle than any in-game changes by the coaches. The goal came from a set-piece – had that not gone in, 0-0 wouldn’t have been an unfair reflection of the game.

Benfica remain the better side, however – more passing quality in the centre of the pitch and greater sources of creativity. The wide midfielders getting the ball to feet was a key difference between the sides early on, and later Benfica were well-drilled with two banks of four behind the ball, and the fresh legs of Rodrigo to chase upfront.

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