Benfica 2-2 Porto: four goals in the first twenty minutes, then Matic and Fernando dominate

January 14, 2013

The starting line-ups

An absolutely crazy start was followed by a much cagier, quieter period – both sides retained their unbeaten record.

Jorge Jesus selected Lima as his second striker, and Nico Gaitan rather than Ola John on the left of midfield.

Vitor Pereira was without his outside-right James Rodriguez, a significant loss. In his place, midfielder Steven Defour played out of position.

There were three distinct phases in this game – (1) a goal-crazy opening 20 minutes, (2) Porto dominance for the rest of the first half, (3) a stronger showing from Benfica after half-time.

Opening twenty minutes

The major feature of the first half was pressing from both teams, and as a consequence, extremely high defensive lines. In fact, the pressing was chaotic and disorganised in the opening stages – players frantically chasing each other rather than moving up the pitch as a unit – and both sides were left with very exposed back fours, in combination with acres of space in behind.

The quick start created a number of goalscoring chances, although only one, Benfica’s second equaliser scored by Gaitan, came after a good team move. Porto’s goals came from a set-piece and a goalkeeping howler, while Benfica’s opener was a tremendous Nemanja Matic volley following a set-piece:

Still, the hurried nature of both sides’ play unquestionably contributed to the goalscoring chances, and forced mistakes at either end. Although Artur was made to look foolish with his error for Jackson Martinez’s goal, just moments earlier Helton also had problems with the ball at his feet. This may have been sheer coincidence, but in a match where both sides are playing high up the pitch, and both are trying to pass the ball out of the back, a goalkeeper’s ‘footballing’ ability will be more crucial than usual.

Porto dominate

The game settled down after the fourth goal, and Porto were the more authoritative side. Both continued to press and play a high line, but Porto were more adept at working the ball forward, cutting through Benfica’s lines smoothly. The key player here was Fernando, a player who perfectly understands how to take advantage of his freedom in front of the back four, contributing both to overloads at the back, and in midfield.

When Porto passed out from the back, Oscar Cardozo and Lima pressed their centre-backs, so Fernando dropped between them to create a 3 v 2 situation, and Porto worked the ball forward. Simple stuff, but something Matic failed to do (granted, he was playing in more of a flat four). Then, when Porto had the ball in midfield, Fernando became a midfielder again, and Porto’s triangle could play around Benfica in midfield – Enzo Perez, who tried to stop Joao Moutinho playing, was overrun. With Fernando always covering, both Alex Sandro and Danilo pushed forward dangerously.

The unorthodox nature of Defour also helped Porto – he drifted inside and provided another passing option, although contributed little high up the pitch. Still, Porto’s ability to dominate the centre of the pitch and shift the ball forwards meant there was ample opportunity to get Jackson Martinez in behind the defence, and also to get Silvestre Varela running in behind Maxi Pereira, a zone Benfica have been particularly vulnerable in this season. Porto were consistently unfortunate to be flagged offside, and will be disappointed not to have scored a goal by breaking in behind.

Benfica, playing more of a 4-4-2 system, failed to take advantage of their areas of strength. Down the flanks, Pereira and Salvio combined well in the build-up for Gaitan’s goal, but this wasn’t a consistent threat. Upfront, Lima was probably the game’s quietest player, unable to combine with Cardozo and unsuccessful when trying to stop Fernando. In fact, at the other end Martinez was playing a dual role, dropping deep to link play, then spinning in behind – and was effectively doing the job of Cardozo and Lima combined.

Benfica come into the game

After half-time, things were more cautious – a classic example of managers encouraging caution from their players after a half that was far too open. Matic played deeper, protecting his defence, while Porto kept their full-backs in more defensive positions.

Maybe the slow tempo contributed to Benfica’s dominance, because Salvio and Gaitan became more involved, playing narrow and enjoying the increased space as both sides defended closer to their own goal. Jesus’ decision to introduce Martins for Perez was also effective – he played a couple of decent forward passes, and was also better at closing down in the centre of the pitch.

In fact, Benfica’s squad – and bench – is clearly significantly stronger than Porto’s, and therefore it was probably unsurprising they came into the game more after half-time. While the arrival of Martins strengthened their midfield and Pablo Aimar’s introduction (for Lima) offered another creative possibility, Pereira’s changes were either minor (switching Varela and Defour) or negative (centre-back Abdoulaye Ba replaced Varela late on, as Porto played a back five for the final few minutes).

And yet the game was nearly decided by the first key feature of the game – balls in behind. Martinez very nearly got clear of the Benfica centre-backs, but a few minutes later, Cardozo did manage it at the other end – in a one-on-one situation, all alone, Helton pulled off a fine save to turn the ball onto the post. A draw was fair.


Porto were more suited to a high-tempo contest based around pressing – not necessarily because they pressed better, but because they used Fernando and Defour to work the ball around the Benfica pressing, and they should have scored in the first half by exploiting space in behind the defence.

Benfica dominated once the tempo dropped and substitutes came into play, and Cardozo had the second half’s best chance. At the Luz, and with Porto missing James, Pereira will be happier with the point.

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