Braga 1-2 Benfica: Lima stars on his return
Benfica produced a fine away performance to preserve their unbeaten Liga Sagres record.
Jose Peseiro was forced to use an inexperienced centre-back combination of Vincent Sasso and Max Haas. The rest of his side was roughly as expected.
Jorge Jesus was without Oscar Cardozo and Ezequiel Garay. Lima started alone upfront, while Ola John was selected on the left of midfield.
Braga weren’t outclassed and had some decent moments, but intelligent attacking play and swift counter-attacking meant Benfica deserved their victory.
Much like the recent Benfica v Porto clash, this match started at a very high tempo. Benfica dominated possession in the early stages, but Braga were reluctant to sit back and allow them to play – and instead pushed up, getting very tight in midfield. Equally, when Braga had possession, Benfica pushed Enzo Perez forward to form a ‘four’ alongside the three attacking midfielders, preventing Braga’s goalkeeper or centre-backs playing easy passes to the full-backs or central midfielders.
The individual battles in midfield were clear. Nemanja Matic and Mossoro pressed each other, Perez was up against Hugo Viana, while Nico Gaitan battled with Custodio. The midfield zone was about which players could move away from their marker and find space, and both Matic and Custodio dropped between their centre-backs to find ways to work the ball forward.
In terms of formations, both used an imbalanced 4-2-3-1 – the central attacking midfielder supported the striker, but one winger (Alan and John) pushed forward to form a front three. The other played deeper – Amorim helped battle in the centre, while Eduardo Salvio played a conservative wide role.
But the game was more about pressing than formations, and it was interesting that Jesus spent the first half doing the ‘compact’ gesture to his players, urging them to keep a short distance between the defence and the attack. This was something Braga lacked – there was often too much space between the midfield and the defence, because Custodio (and Viana) were keen to push up and get tight, but the centre-backs failed to follow them out.
This was where Lima thrived. His centre-forward play in this match was superb, particularly as he probably received less support from Gaitan (who tended to drift wider) than Eder got from Mossoro at the other end, although this may have been because of the different levels of pressing. Lima’s quality in this match was based around his ability to move in either direction – he could drop short towards the play, receive the ball into feet, and helped inspire some quick, purposeful Benfica counter-attacks.
Equally, however, he could spin in behind when Braga’s centre-back duo did move too high up the pitch. This constant unpredictability caused Haas and Sasso significant problems, and Braga’s lack of a real commanding centre-back was obvious. The first goal was scored by Salvio breaking in from the right – and although Lima wasn’t directly involved, he’d controlled a long ball nicely to ensure Benfica had possession in the opposition half to start with.
He scored the second goal himself – a terrible piece of goalkeeping was to blame – but Benfica had countered very nicely from their own third to create the chance. Gaitan’s pass with the outside of his foot was nearly perfect, and he played intelligently against Custodio, drifting across to (Benfica’s) right, forcing his opponent to move across to that side.
Meanwhile, Braga’s best moments came down the right. With John located high up the pitch, Alan had space to run at Lorenzo Melgarejo, and he also received good support from Leandro Salino. Meanwhile, Mossoro wasn’t as clever as Gaitan with his movement, staying right-of-centre and in a zone where Matic could deal with him, but that Alan-Mossoro-Salino triangle was Braga’s best bet.
The first change came from Peseiro. It was a logical attacking move – Amorim had played a defensive-minded role on the left, so he introduced Joao Pedro, more of a natural winger, to provide another threat. Alan moved to the left, with Pedro on the right – and he immediately had an impact, exploiting the space down that side, and providing a decent cross for Eder. This prompted Jesus to remove John and put on a more defensive-minded player, Andre Almeida, and from there Benfica went defensive – keeping a solid shape without the ball, and playing short, unambitious passes to kill the game.
But Braga continued to attack, with Pedro providing another option in behind the defence – he fittingly got a goal back, controlling an excellent Eder chip in behind the defence, then rounding Artur to score. Braga were back in the game, and although Benfica were keeping possession well, Braga pressed with renewed intensity.
Still, it was more good work from Lima that effectively finished the game – he sprinted in behind the Braga defence, was brought down by Haas, and the referee reached for a red card with ten minutes remaining. From then, Benfica were in command.
An exciting game of pressing in midfield. Good performances from Gaitain and Lima were the main features – both players were intelligent with their movement away from opponents, giving them space and therefore time on the ball to provide key contributions.
Lima’s performance was a classic away-from-home, lone striker display. Booed on his return to Braga by the home fans, he played so well (and had the dignity not to celebrate his goal), that he was eventually applauded off the pitch when replaced in stoppage time.
Braga got back into the game thanks to Peseiro’s introduction of Joao Pedro – but that was the natural attacking move, rather than being a fine piece of in-game management.
Braga 1-2 Benfica: Lima stars on his return