Brussels- It was a night that this Benfiquista certainly will not soon forget! This past Wednesday night our Women’s Football team faced the biggest the match in its history. On the road against the Belgian giants Anderlecht, Benfica’s Lady Aguias had 90 minutes to conquer their dreams of playing in the biggest club football competition in the world.
In the first Preliminary Round Benfica traveled to Greece to face their champion PAOK. The truth is in the women’s game most countries only send one team to the Champions League. The top leagues in Europe only send two, therefore the opportunity when it presents itself cannot be taken for granted. Against PAOK our side found themselves going ahead 1-0 early and didn’t really look back. The Greek side seemed to underestimate the debutantes from Portugal. Benfica qualified for the preliminary stages by way of being in First Place in the Liga BPI at the time the 2019-20 season was canceled due to the COVID 19 pandemic. Though no one was recognized as champion, Benfica were ahead of Sporting on head to head and goal difference at the time of the shut down so naturally Benfica was selected to participate.
Winning in Greece in a “one off” win or go home play-off Benfica booked their spot in the second preliminary round and it was no doubt exciting for all of us. However, it came in a strange lunchtime kick off and for those of us watching at home on a poor quality, two camera stream from PAOK’s official YouTube page that was far from up to the level of what would be considered acceptable for the UEFA Champions League. I was sincerely disappointed that that presentation was the best a large club like PAOK could do. When I saw the evening kick off time slotted for the Anderlecht match I was officially excited!
Tuning in early as I did on match day I was pleasantly surprised with the level of pregame coverage and discussion on BTV. The television presenters on the club’s network did an excellent job setting the stage and informing the viewer of what they needed to know going into the match. Clearly they all did their homework and should us they knew our opponent and they knew the competition as a whole very well. Finally this FELT like it was going to be a historic night for our club and I had a sense that I was tapping into the feelings and sensations Benfiquistas felt in other eras when these Cup styled matches were the norm in European Football and where our club enjoyed some of its most famous nights. I was certainly overcome with nostalgia imaging how my grandfather for example must have felt on those famous European nights in the 60’s , 70’s and 80’s.
The cloud hanging over the match from our perspective was of course the harsh result against our rivals in the past weekend’s match. Supporters and media alike questioned manager Luis Andrade’s decisions both in the XI he selected and the substitutions he opted for in reaction to going behind. If you want to know more about this match against Sporting below is my podcast episode where I covered the match and gave my honest take.
But that was all in the past now, I stated on the podcast I felt that important lessons were learned in that match and I think the performance in Belgium proved that to be true. Whatever the preparation the manager used, it worked! After a match where we were done in by own mistakes, the ladies played practically mistake-free football in Brussels. Benfica’s movements off of the ball against Anderlecht were the best I have seen from this team in the now more than 2 years I’ve been watching them (I’ve watched since day 1 and that presentation match at the Luz against Deportivo La Coruna). The backline had sorted themselves out and were impeccably positioned all night and dealt with so many balls being whipped in by the Belgian side. Luis Andrade opted to go with Carolina Vilao in goal over Dani Neuhaus and for the most part she was well protected by the defenders in front of her. Silva Rebelo and Carole Costa answered the call time and time again and in front of them the in-form Pauleta continued to be a rock anchoring the midfield and winning balls like she was literally playing for her footballing life. That’s what it takes at this level and I’m so proud of our girls for the level of performance they reached in this match. No honest onlooker would have been able to guess they were playing in their first Champions League. Our girls played like they belong at this level and they proved that they do! Catarina Amado was once again our “máquina” down the right channel. Our attacking players were all at their best as well and again that’s exactly what it takes at this level. Ana Vitoria was once again on top form and so effectively used her pace and physical strength to power right through defenders as did double goal scorer Nycole Raysla who was too strong and too good for Anderlecht to deal with all night. Her two goals were both scorchers and she had herself a career she certainly will always remember. Cloé Lacasse used her pace and intelligence to constantly stretch and wear out the defenders in purple. Andreia Faria showed she quickly moved on from a key mistake on Saturday and was again breaking the opponent’s defensive lines with pinpoint throughballs and even getting stuck in on a hard challenge when necessary. Christy Ucheibe played her best match in a Benfica kit, so smooth and fluid with every movement and brilliantly spreading the ball around. Anita Seiça proved she’s adapting well to her new role as a Left Back having been converted from her normal central position. Check out the highlights below!
Manager Luis Andrade coached a near perfect match as well in this one. He got the XI, the system and the substitutions(or lack there of as the match called for) all on point. This team showed in this match that they are every bit as good as Sporting and that it’s way too early for a coronation for our rivals. The entire second stage of the league still lies ahead as well the Cup finals in the Portuguese Cup and the League Cup and if this team play like this, they will still bring home silverware this season! Next Tuesday November 24th UEFA will hold the drawing for the round of 32 and it’s likely Benfica will draw one of the big sharks of women’s football in Europe. I don’t doubt for one minute that this team will continue to make us proud in this competition no matter who’s name is drawn to face us in the 2 legged tie next month. Thank you girls for reminding me how much I love this game. This performance deserves to go down in the club’s history as another magical European night that I’ll look forward to watching back years from now. Coming soon will be a new podcast episode where I break down this match and analyze this historic victory! Obrigado Meninas, E Pluribus Unum!!!