Benfica and Porto go head to head at the Estádio da Luz tomorrow in what could well prove to be the title decider. Porto have not won anything for three seasons. Benfica are going for a 4th straight title for first time in their history. It’s a biggie.
The north vs. south “clássico” is always one of the major fixtures in the Portuguese football calendar, and with just one point separating the two rivals at the top of the table as the championship heads into the final sprint (7 matches remaining after this weekend), a victory for either team on Saturday night could prove decisive.
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Both sides come into the match after having suffered rare setbacks in their last match. Benfica were held to a goalless draw at Paços de Ferreira, but Porto failed to capitalise, sharing the points with Vitória de Setúbal 24 hours later at the Estádio do Dragão, thus missing the chance to go top of the table. Before the dropped points in Round 26, Benfica had won their previous 6 Liga matches, while Porto had been on an even more impressive run, with 9 consecutive victories in the Liga.
Further evidence that there is precious little to separate the sides can be gleaned from taking a closer look at their overall records in league play this season. Porto have scored the most goals and conceded the fewest in 2016/17, but the Dragons outdo the Eagles in these two statistics by just two goals and one goal respectively. Benfica are unbeaten at home in all competitions, while Porto have lost only one match away, at Sporting at the start of the season.
Tactics and team news
Rui Vitória was criticised in his first season at Benfica for the cautious manner in which he approached big matches. The Eagles lost 5 out of 6 games against Sporting and Porto. However, Vitória guided Benfica to victory in the most important one of the lot, beating Sporting at Alvalade 1-0 which paved the way to a title triumph. This season Benfica beat Sporting at home and drew with Porto away, although the Portuguese champions rode their luck in both matches.
With Benfica protecting a one-point lead and arguably with a more straight-forward fixture list until the end of the season Vitória may again adopt a low-risk strategy, setting up his team to be more reactive than proactive, while maintaining his preferred 4-4-2 formation. Fejsa has recovered from injury and will return to central midfield alongside Pizzi, while Jonas and Mitroglou are expected to start up front.
It is the wide players that generate the most doubt. Salvio has been in poor form recently, Rafa Silva has done little to justify his €16m price tag and Carrillo looks a shadow of the player he was before his self-inflicted year-long sabbatical. Cervi has been the most consistent of Benfica’s many wingers, which makes his relegation to the bench in recent months all the more mystifying, while Zivkovic has gone off the boil after impressing in his first appearances at the turn of the year.
Predicted Benfica line-up:
Ederson, Semedo, Luisão, Lindelöf, Eliseu, Salvio, Fejsa, Pizzi, Zivkovic, Jonas, Mitroglou
In contrast to Benfica, the contribution offered by Porto’s wide players has been a major reason for the Dragons’ upturn in fortunes this calendar year. Yacine Brahimi has found his best form, while Jesus Corona has also made key contributions.
But it is striker Tiquinho Soares, bought from Vitória de Guimarães in the January transfer window, who transformed Porto’s season. The brawny Brazilian has hit 9 goals in 9 Liga matches since making the switch, and forms a dangerous partnership with Portugal striker André Silva.
Midfielders Óliver Torres and André André have also sparked into top form since Christmas, while at the back Brazilian Felipe and Spaniard Marcano form the best central defensive partnership in Portugal this season.
Predicted Porto line-up:
Casillas, Maxi Pereira, Felipe, Marcano, Alex Telles, Danilo, André André, Óliver Torres, Brahimi, Soares, André Silva
Benfica coach Rui Vitória: “I want an 'inferno' created in the stadium in a positive sense, with plenty of noise, enthusiasm and joy. I know my team’s in good shape, with a huge desire to go out there and win the game. It’s an important game but it won’t decide the title. I believe the title will only be decided at the end (of the season).”
Porto coach, Nuno Espírito Santo: “Beyond the tactical questions, it will be a game of emotions. As a young team we have been improving, and we are becoming more mature. If we can control our emotions, we will achieve what we want. We’re going to the Estádio da Luz to compete and with the aim of winning the three points.”
By Tom Kundert