Porto will be celebrating their 25th Portuguese league title in the dark. So humiliating did the powers that be find their bitter rivals celebrating a deserved title, earned by defeating Benfica on their own patch, that they decided to switch off the floodlights when the final whistle went at the Estadio da Luz (‘The Stadium of Light’. Apt.).
Despite what you will have been able to read in the Portuguese press (whose devotion to Benfica is matched by its need to sell newspapers),the title has been over for months. Benfica’s abysmal start to the campaign, spearheaded by a series of unbelievable howlers by expensive new goalkeeper Roberto, had culminated in a 5-0 thumping in Porto before the Eagles began to find their rhythm.
A series of 19 consecutive victories in all competitions, including an impressive 2-0 victory at Porto in the domestic Cup, gave the press the opportunity to hype this match as a potential title decider until it became utterly beyond doubt that Porto’s relentless charge toward the title could not be halted. The vast array of empty seats confirmed what many had known for months.
Still, those Benfica fans who did turn up were in superb voice. Fixtures between these two sides are even more highly-charged than the Lisbon derby, a fact confirmed by the golf balls flung at Joao Moutinho from the home crowd inside the first minute of the game. That this was to be a battle rather than a football match became evident within the first few minutes, with tackles flying in at a shocking rate even for this fixture.
Porto’s opening goal, therefore, felt strangely anticlimactic: Javi Garcia unharacteristically gave the ball away on the edge of his own box and the in-form Freddy Guarin stole through and fired a cross-shot at the near post.
The stage was set and Roberto rose to the occasion with a monumental mistake, somehow fumbling the ball into his own net. The thunderous roar of the Benfica support evaporated – possibly through sheer disbelief as much as disappointment – as the ball trickled into the back of the net and the Porto players mobbed Guarin.
Though neither side had created much in the way of chances, Porto’s tactical superiority had been obvious from the opening minute. With Maxi Pereira and Ruben Amorim injured, Benfica manager Jorge Jesus was forced to use holding player Airton at right-back. Jesus’ opposite number, Andre Villas Boas, exploited this with glee, letting wide man Varela stick to the touchline to drag the vulnerable young midfielder out of position.
For their part, Benfica lacked the cohesiveness they seem to display so elegantly against the rabble of the Portuguese midtable. Jesus had opted to drop target man Oscar Cardozo in favour of the prodigious young Argentinian Franco Jara, but the gamble appeared not to have paid off until the striker backed into fellow countryman Nicolas Otamendi in the Porto area, turned him, flung himself to the ground and won what looked like a soft penalty. Otamendi was unfairly booked – though he should have seen yellow for an earlier foul on Javier Saviola, who stepped up and dispatched a cool penalty to even the score.
An already hostile crowd erupted and the game’s pace quickened even more, with Benfica finally starting to work the ball through Aimar. Porto’s defence, led by the increasingly impressive Rolando, held firm however, and they still looked the more dangerous side as Benfica’s porous defence seemed to let Radamel Falcao slip in between them at will. The Colombian forced Roberto into a smart save, but the maverick Spanish goalkeeper was soon on hand to offer Porto the lead as Falcao again raced through, took a touch round him and let Roberto’s flailing arms catch him in the six-yard box. Hulk dispatched the resultant penalty.
The remainder of the first half was played at a frantic pace, the best chance falling to Guarin, whose fizzing low drive was parried away by Roberto. How much David Luiz’s move to Chelsea is hurting Benfica became more apparent than ever as the inexperienced Sidnei was caught out of position time and again.
Porto’s battling midfield three of Fernando, Moutinho and Guarin suffocated Benfica’s attacking diamond while Hulk tracked the threat of overlapping left-back Coentrao. With Airton unable to offer support to the quiet Salvio up Benfica’s right, Porto could concentrate on blocking the supply to Benfica’s pacey front two whilst leaving Falcao to probe alone up front with his smart movement.
At half-time, recognising that Porto had the upper hand in midfield, Jesus replaced Aimar – who had also been booked – wih the more conservative all-rounder Cesar Peixoto. Jara was withdrawn and Cardozo sent on to hold the ball up. The trouble was that Benfica couldn’t thread it to him for a good fifteen minutes; whilst Peixoto’s presence helped to stiffen Benfica’s resistance to Porto’s menacing attacks, the Aimar’s absence meant they were unable to drive counterattacks through the centre.
Still, after Garcia missed a free header, Sidnei had a horrific moment at the back for Benfica, giving the ball away to Falcao who was able to drive on unopposed and somehow missed one-on-one with Roberto. As the minutes wore on, Benfica began to creep into the game more, with Nico Gaitan getting more support down the left from Coentrao.
However, Falcao’s missed opportunity really began to seem crucial when Cardozo cleverly turned Otamendi, forcing the Argentinian international into a foul, for which he was given a second yellow card. Porto were down to ten men and Villas Boas immediately conceded the midfield to Benfica, replacing Falcao with centre-back Maicon and Guarin with Belluschi. Hulk was ordered to scamper about alone up front. In the meantime, Benfica lost Airton to injury and Jesus was forced into a final substitution, sending on the rugged centre-back Jardel.
The change turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Jardel was much more comfortable with Hulk than Sidnei had been with Falcao, and Sidnei actually looked more comfortable at right-back than Airton had. This, combined with the numerical superiority, allowed Benfica to control the remaining fifteen minutes of the game, playing it entirely in Porto’s half.
Coentrao began to make real inroads up the left (Hulk was no longer able to track his runs and support right-back Fucile) and Cardozo began to hold the ball up, causing Porto problems before he somehow directed a free header straight at goalkeeper Helton. The crowd was further incensed when Villas Boas sent on Cristian Rodriguez, the hated former Benfica winger who chose Porto over the Lisbon club. Then, to add insult to injury, Cardozo was sent off for a petulant – and dangerous – tackle on Moutinho.
As Benfica pressed for an equaliser which would have prevented Porto from celebrating on their turf, they left vast spaces at the back which could have been exploited in the cruellest way imaginable when Rodriguez gave Luisao the slip and charged towards goal before Roberto came out and made a superb block with his left hand to deny Porto an even sweeter victory. Moments later, an unbelievable passage play following a poor clearance from Maicon resulted in Helton saving at close range from Gaitan before Salvio struck the post with the goal at his mercy and Porto somehow scrambled the ball away.
A titanic struggle ended with Benfica looking as though they had matchedPorto all the way, when the reality was that Porto had strangled Jesus’ attacking diamond like so many strong teams have in the past, and Benfica’s threadbare defence allowed Porto’s golden attacking trio to Falcao, Hulk and Varela more than enough space, not to mention a succession of shocking individual errors.
Benfica benefited from a soft penalty and the harsh sending off of Otamendi but and re-shuffled their pack in the second-half, but were simply incapable of breaking down a Porto defence without recognised stars which has impressed all season long.
Andre Villas Boas’ side have won the title with less style but just as much substance as the all-conquering Benfica side of last season. In spite of a record-breaking run of victories this season, last year must seem like a long time ago to Jorge Jesus.