All Roads Lead to the Dragão, Preview of Porto – Benfica Round 20 of LigaNOS

What may very well shape up to be the Match of the Season in LigaNOS this coming Saturday has our Eagles flying into enemy territory. For the entire existence of the Estádio do Dragão Benfica’s arrival has always been met with all the might and hostility of the Porto fan base, club officials, opponents and often times referees. We have seen it all in the many visits to the Cidade Invicta. Offside goals being allowed, ruthless tackles, phantom penalties have all come to be expected. Not to mention you can count on our team bus being attacked with stones and who can forget the fan who ran on the pitch and attack Pizzi? All of this is normal in that stadium and that club has always eluded any kind of real discipline from the league, the federation or the authorities. What else is new??

On our last visit to the Dragão our boys picked up a memorable win that spring boarded us to the top spot of the table last March in Round 24, and we’d never relinquish that lead on the way to winning #37. Spirits were up and anxieties were down when the two sides met again earlier this season. This time at the Estádio da Luz in Round 3 and this time our rivals came in and reminded us which club has had the upper hand in this rivalry for the better part of the last 30 plus years. Playing Porto pits an empty hole in our stomachs unlike anything else. As evidenced in August that even when our team is much better than theirs there is still a fear of the opponent, of questionable refereeing and more recently fear of how the VAR is going to influence the match (Even when VAR shows Pepe in an offside position ducking under his teammate’s shot at goal it still won’t be called back for offside). So with all that baggage let’s take a look at the keys to how Benfica can and should succeed in this match on Saturday.

Let’s start by making one thing clear, as much as we want Benfica to win this match outright the primary objective has to be to come away with a point at the very least. Fans don’t like to hear that, but when going into your main rival’s ground with a 7 point lead in this league a draw for all intents and purposes is a win. If we return home Saturday night with a 7 point lead at this stage, Porto’s spirit and morale will be broken and I don’t see a team as inconsistent as they’ve been being able to mentally handle that result. Sergio Conceição has already put his own job in question after losing the League Cup final a few weeks ago to Braga. So Porto will come into this match knowing they will have to take risks and leave themselves exposed at times if they are to come out with the 3 points. That means Benfica should have plenty of oppertunities on the counter and should not go chasing a result in this match.

Bruno Lage Attempts to be the First Ever Benfica Manager to Win Back to Back at Porto

Porto fielded a mostly second choice squad this past Tuesday in their Portuguese Cup semi final first leg away to Academico Viseu. But here is the squad Sergio Conceição rolled out last week in the league at Setubal

The Dragons are hoping to have midfield anchor Danilo back for this match but we may very well face a very similar line up to this one. I also would not be surprised if Conceição works Marega into his XI perhaps in place of Otavio and partnering the Malian with Tiquinho Soares in attack. In August Tecatito Corona featured as the right back in place of Manafa but given that the Mexican has been one of Porto’s brightest players this season I expect him to play further up the pitch as he did against the Sadinos and expect a lot of crosses to be whipped in from both sides for Tiquinho(Soares) who’s much more dangerous an attacker in the air than on the ground. Expect Porto to attack our left side predominately knowing that Grimaldo is more of an attack minded back and Ferro has been in a dip of form as of late. Now below is the Benfica XI that I am expecting Lage to roll out:

This is of course hopeful that Julian Weigl recovers from his illness in time to be fit for this match and if that’s case Lage has one difficult decision to make next. Gabriel or Taarabt? Now before everyone closes out this page and unsubscribes to the podcast because I’d go with Gabriel over Taarabt hear me out first. Remember that this game is in Porto and will be a dog fight. The opposition will undoubtedly look to up the physicality of the match and I don’t expect much in the way of pretty football and quite frankly the game may become very direct as a result. Gabriel is the better ball winner and better at knocking the long ball and switches across the pitch to the weak side to change the point of attack. Taarabt’s superior dribbling ability will be met with studs up tackles and a lot of body throwing by the horses in Porto’s midfield. I see Taarabt’s qualities better suited for the later stages of the match as the opponent has grown tired and will probably be carrying a yellow card or two, that’s when I’d bring the Moroccan in and let him run at the “Tripeiros”. Also Gabriel gives more in the way of set pieces both by defending them and getting on the end of them in the attacking third. Porto are the best team in the league when it comes to scoring on setpieces. Also, his late goal against Familicao on Tuesday is an example of a quality that sets him apart even if he is not playing particularly well. One thing is for sure and was proven on Tuesday and that is that Taarabt and Gabriel is not a good combination as a double pivot in midfield. Sure they looked good together for a few matches but once they faced an opponent who attacked  our central corridor (specifically down the left side of that channel) the way the Gonçalves boys did on Tuesday our central corridor became an expressway to our back line and as result Ody picked the ball out of his goal twice that night. If Weigl can’t go, then I’d prefer we plug Samaris into that hole and advise him to stay home and protect his central defenders (particularly Ferro). In addition to his expirence in big matches and stellar positioning Weigl is also very strong under high pressure and can construct play out of the back into his transition players in front of him. Below is a chart of his completed and missed passes against Belenenses SAD courtesy of

Very few errors come from the German and he will be needed to pick out the Pizzis and Rafas that roam between Porto’s lines looking to exploit the open spaces. And exploit the open spaces is what they’ll have to do, again expect Alex Telles and either Manafa or Tecatito to play very high as Porto have to win at all costs. That should leave space for Benfica’s play makers to create and get forward in transition.

There are two key match ups in this match I’m watching for. First is in our end and it’s Marega(if plays) against Ferro. I expect either the Malian or the Brazilian Tiquinho to pick on Ferro and try to force an error to pounce on. Again Weigl (if fit) is going to be very important in preventing service to Porto’s attack and in dropping in as cover for the center backs when needed. The other key match up will be Corona vs Cervi as we know Grimaldo will likely do alot of the attacking from our left flank leaving the Argentine with alot of the defensive duties and his primary one will in my opinion be to neutralize the Mexican and prevent him from getting good looks at goal and/or from providing service to Porto’s big strong forwards. Time will tell how this one plays out but Benfica have never had a better opportunity to sink our rivals this early in the season. Make sure you check out my re-cap on the podcast early next week. You can listen here and don’t forget to rate and share the pod! Carrega Benfica, Da-me o 38!

Published by Mike Agostinho

Former Coach turned Podcaster/Blogger involving all things Sport Lisboa and Benfica from the perspective of the Mister and in English for Benfiquistas all over the English speaking world.

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