Benfica has advanced to the 2013 Europa League final after a 3-1 win over Fenerbahce. The Portuguese side won the semifinal with an aggregate score of 3-2.
This was shaping up to be the much more intriguing Europa League semifinal. The Estadio da Luz is one of the few real cauldrons left in Europe. Benfica has only lost one match at home all season, to Barcelona in the Champions League. Despite Fenerbahce's one-goal lead, you knew Benfica had a great chance to make the final.
It didn't take long for Benfica to erase the deficit. In the ninth minute, Lima got some space on the right wing and delivered in a low cross to Nicolas Gaitan. The Argentine midfielder hit it beautifully with his right foot as the ball floated in off the left post. It was a wonderfully controlled finish.
Overall, in the early going, Benfica was able to go very much out on the attack. The opening goal obviously helped things along. The Portuguese side was able to impose its will on the match and clearly looked the stronger side.
Things unraveled a bit in the 22nd minute. Ezequiel Garay was judged to have handled the ball in the box. The replays showed that he had clearly touched the ball, but the Benfica players were arguing that it was ball-to-hand rather than hand-to-ball. Benfica's protests were all for naught as Dirk Kuyt stepped up and slotted the penalty kick into the bottom left corner.
Infostrada Sports has an interesting stat regarding Kuyt's performance in Europe this season:
That away goal was crucial as it meant Benfica needed to score at least three goals if it had any chance of advancing.
Fenerbahce began to drop back and protect its lead. That only allowed Benfica to continue getting on the attack and trying to overturn the 2-1 aggregate deficit.
Following the goal, and for much of the match, the official did little to help Benfica. There were at least three possible penalty opportunities, as Planet Benfica points out, and none were given:
Deciding it had enough of leaving it up to the official, Benfica just went ahead and scored. In the 35th minute, Oscar Cardozo found himself with space inside the 18-yard-box. As the most lethal finisher on the pitch, Cardozo had no problem striking a well-placed shot into the right side of the net.
It was an appalling bit of defense by Fenerbahce as it lost track of a player like Cardozo and gave him the space to score.
The match then fell into a lull as Benfica struggled to break down the Fenerbahce back four.
There was a scary moment in the 57th minute as Gokhan Gonul took a high boot from Gaitan. There was a long ball sent in near the goal line that Gonul tried to head clear, but Gaitan came flying in to try and keep the ball alive. He connected with Gonul's head, and the right-back fell motionless to the pitch. Players on both teams immediately called for the medical staff. Gonul was eventually carted off.
Eurosport.com was right on top of it after Gonul's injury and rightfully gave credit to the defender for not backing away from the challenge:
Almost 10 minutes later, the match was shot back into life. It was Cardozo again who found himself with space in the box to put Benfica up 3-1 in the match. This was a pivotal goal as it meant the club would be through to the final.
There wasn't much in the goal. It came off a throw-in, and Fenerbahce failed to clear it out. Eventually, Cardozo had the ball, and it was an easy finish.
After that, it continued to be all Benfica. Fenerbahce tried to throw as much forward as possible, but it simply didn't have the weapons to make its attacking movements count.
Benfica now has a chance to win its first European title since 1962. Following that title, manager Bela Guttmann supposedly cursed the club for the next 100 years upon his exit. The Portuguese side will have a great opportunity to break that curse when it meets Chelsea in the Europa League final on May 15.
Oscar Cardozo: A
Cardozo was simply sublime in front of goal. He finished off his best chances in the match, and that's exactly what you'd want from a striker like him.
OptaJoe noted only Radamel Falcao as a better goalscoring record in the Europa League:
Nicolas Gaitan: A-
The goal from Gaitan was a nice piece of class. He made what was a difficult finish look so easy. Gaitan was one of Benfica's best attackers going forward. He was constantly trying to set up his teammates to score.
The foul on Gonul was unfortunate, and there was no intent to injure. He fouled Gonul, but that was all there was to it.
Joseph Yobo: B-
Joseph Yobo was a rock at the back for much of the match. He and Egemen Korkmaz were the two biggest reasons why Fenerbahce was able to keep Benfica out of the box for as long as it did. It wasn't a matter of keeping the Portuguese side off the board but rather stopping a flood of goals.
Unfortunately, it was Yobo largely to blame for the Cardozo goal. He lost track of the striker and was badly out of position to try and make any play on the ball.
Dirk Kuyt: B+
Fenerbahce was missing a lot of key offensive players. You don't want to leave much of the attacking burden on a guy like Kuyt, but that's exactly what the Turkish club was forced to do.
Kuyt was his usual workman-like self. You always know what you're getting when it comes to a player like Kuyt. He did well to score the penalty to give Fenerbahce the aggregate advantage.