After the first leg of their Europa League semifinal was settled by the slenderest of margins, much was asked, ahead of round two, about Benfica’s approach to the contest, and whether their fabled attacking prowess and famed home support would carry them to the Europa League final, Chelsea, and Amsterdam.
This evening’s triumph took a great deal of endeavour; be under no illusion.
After surviving the first leg in Turkey and the partisan support at Istanbul’s Sukru Saracoglu Stadium, the onus was on Benfica to rise to the occasion and repay the delirious confidence of their home supporters and hit the ground running.
They did just that.
From the first whistle, the home side were lightning; they hustled and hassled their opponents, preventing the visitors from settling, greeting their every touch with a rasping tackle and controlling the contest from tip to toe.
Their reward was not long in coming, and on nine minutes Nicolas Gaitan capitalised on Fener’s hesitancy to open the scoring—securing a genuine poacher’s goal after good work from Lima.
Often, when a team plays at such a high tempo, intending to thrust the opposition into disarray, their own game can suffer, and they can struggle to find the rhythm and the composure that comes more easily in relaxed confines.
Not so Benfica, they were unruffled by their own urgency, relishing in the position of dominant pace-setters and clearly keen to put the tie to bed.
What happened next was not part of the script.
A loose ball dropping down inside the home side’s box caught Ezequiel Garay—Benfica’s outstanding centre-back—unawares, and he knew little about the handball he was summarily accused of.
Dirk Kuyt dispatched the resulting penalty with aplomb, and all of a sudden, Benfica’s erstwhile bravado and swashbuckling ferocity was in danger of dissipating.
While weaker sides might have turned to the touchline and appealed to their manager—in this instance the expressive Jorge Jesus—Benfica rallied in the face of adversity, wiping the setback like sweat from their brow, and soon returning dutifully to the task they had been dealt.
Now requiring two goals, they barely looked anything like under the kind of pressure that surely must have been heaped upon them. Oscar Cardozo, more than anyone, decided that he wasn’t in any mood to let the prospect of a European final pass him by, and he set out to reduce arrears.
He may be one footed—painfully so if tonight was anything to go by—but wow, what a foot that is, and Eagles supporters may well be toasting Cardozo’s left for many evenings to come following this evening’s escapades.
With six in eight in the Europa League, he is one of the competition’s top marksmen, and tonight was a delicious example of why he is so sought after and revered in various quarters of the continent.
First, he fired home after some sterling work from Enzo Perez before the second half brought relief, and demonstrating the agility of a gymnast and the clinical reactions of a poacher, he kept his nerve to send Benfica home—his second, his team’s third, coming on 66 minutes.
The set-back had been merely that, a set-back, and imbued by self-belief, driven by the choral magnitude of the Estadio da Luz, Benfica forged their pathway to a first continental final since 1990—their European Cup defeat to Milan.
Come the 15th of May, they will find themselves pitted against Chelsea in a replay of last year’s Champions League quarterfinal. Few teams have built their recent success on character quite like the Blues over the last decade or so, and as the likes of John Terry and Frank Lampard come to the end of their storied sojourn at the Bridge, Benfica can expect to receive every ounce of the intensity and determination they offer.
While last night football talk was dominated by the prospect of Jose Mourinho’s return to the club where he found such glorious success, Rafa Benitez will be thrilled that his players have managed to draw the spotlight back to the club’s contemporary successes and the unloved manager that has guided them to another European final.
The Spaniard has pedigree in this competition—having won it with Valencia back in 2004—and will surely be confident of claiming it once again, with Chelsea. I imagine that Jorge Jesus and his Portuguese warriors will be keen to prove Rafa wrong. This evening’s battle with Fenerbahce certainly suggests they have the character to spoil the Pensioners’ evening.