Benfica produced an accomplished European display to overcome Tottenham Hotspur 3-1 in the first leg of their UEFA Europa League round of 16 tie at White Hart Lane on Thursday night, with the Portuguese outfit executing the perfect game plan to put one foot in the quarter-finals.
As for the north London club, however, it was an evening where little went right, with the defeat being compounded by more untimely injuries and an ugly touchline dispute between the rival coaches as the home side geared up for the visit of archrivals Arsenal this Sunday, March 16, in the worst possible fashion.
And if Tottenham manager Tim Sherwood had been seeking a response from his players after their second-half collapse at Chelsea this past Saturday, then he would have been desperately disappointed with what he saw.
So what went so wrong for Spurs, yet so right for the visitors? Well, let’s look at the tape …
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I love it when a plan comes together
Benfica’s wily head coach, Jorge Jesus, guided his side all the way to the final of last year’s competition, only to lose to Chelsea, and so the Portuguese knows a thing or two about how to set a team up away from home in Europe.
The visitors were able to cope comfortably with what Tottenham had to throw at them in the early stages, using their close but quick passing game to cleverly bypass the Premier League team’s early pressing game.
And after taking a first-half lead, Benfica closed down the spaces in front of their two centre-backs brilliantly, with holding midfielder Ljubomir Fejsa (pictured below) immense in this regard, as he protected his back four throughout in the role vacated by the departure of Nemanja Matic to Chelsea in January.
However, the Serbia international did a more than passable impression of his compatriot. In the second half, Benfica’s two central defenders began to hold a higher line as the Portuguese took control of proceedings, scoring twice in the process to add to their first-half opener as the Spurs defence became more and more exposed.
Meanwhile, Jesus also waited until just past the hour mark for when the game was stretched before introducing the guile and trickery of star man Nicolas Gaitan, who he had held back in reserve initially, only to then show his class in the closing stages.
No Oscar this time for Citizen Kane
The Tottenham boss took a huge pre-match gamble by opting to include young Englishman Harry Kane in his starting lineup at the expense of more experienced attacking options, including internationals Roberto Soldado and Andros Townsend.
Sherwood asked the 20-year-old to play in the hole off in-form striker Emmanuel Adebayor; however, the plan backfired, as Kane struggled throughout to find any space in between the lines and in front of the Benfica back four.
And as his frustration grew, the England Under-21 international dropped deeper in search of the ball, which culminated in him losing possession just outside his box. He nearly gifted the Portuguese a second goal on the night (pictured below), although Benfica did then score from the resulting corner.
Spurs attack has no answers to the visitors' thin red line
The Portuguese Liga leaders boast one of the meanest defences on the Continent, having let in just 13 goals all season. They were also desperately unlucky not to qualify from their UEFA Champions League group before Christmas, and so, as Spurs discovered on Thursday, they are a polished European outfit.
And in reality, the only way that the north Londoners were ever going to breach the visitors’ back line was via a set piece, such was the commanding performance produced by the experienced central-defensive pairing of Luisao and Ezequiel Garay.
However, the back four as a whole worked in perfect unison all evening long, epitomised best perhaps by the home side’s forward players constantly being caught offside (seven times in total). A prime example being when, in the opening half-hour, Spurs tried but failed to gain some crucial early momentum (pictured below).
Rodrigo’s vital strike exposes more defensive confusion
Tottenham’s disappointing night was best characterised by the mistakes that led to the crucial opening goal just before the half-hour mark, only moments after Benfica had nearly taken the lead in similar circumstances involving a similar move through the left-hand side of the home team’s defence.
On that first occasion, Lazar Markovic wasted the opportunity following a misplaced pass from Sandro. Minutes later, Spurs were not so fortunate, as former Bolton Wanderers front man Rodrigo gave the visitors the lead.
However, errors were made in the build-up to the goal. It began when Spurs failed to put any pressure on Ruben Amorim in his own half, allowing the midfielder time to lift his head up and unerringly pick out Rodrigo’s run (pictured below).
And yet, Tottenham’s left-sided centre-back Jan Vertonghen should still have tracked the striker back toward the danger area and his own goal.
Instead, the Belgium international and left-back Kyle Naughton decided to play a high line (pictured above), allowing Rodrigo the chance to break the deadlock in a display of defensive uncertainty like we saw in the early exchanges of Tottenham's 4-0 loss at Stamford Bridge last weekend.