Benfica vs. Tottenham Hotspur: 6 Things We Learned
Tottenham Hotspur exited the Europa League at the round of 16 after a 2-2 draw in the Estadio da Luz saw them defeated 5-3 on aggregate by Benfica.
Ezequiel Garay's first-half header looked to have sealed the victory for Jorge Jesus' side—a self-inflicted blow from Tottenham in an otherwise commendable display from their makeshift defence.
Instead, a lacklustre middle period from the north Londoners gave way to a brave final 20 minutes that almost forced extra time.
Harry Kane's introduction for the ineffective Roberto Soldado immediately provided his team with more of a presence up front.
When goalkeeper Brad Friedel launched a ball forward, the striker dropped to win a flick-on that found Nacer Chadli in space out left. The Belgian ran purposefully inside and fired a stinging shot past Jan Oblak into the bottom corner.
The Kane-Chadli combination struck again soon after. Aaron Lennon lofted a cross to the back post that Kane nodded down for Chadli to sweep home and put Spurs 2-1 up on the night.
Spurs' search of an aggregate equaliser was not to be. Kane's claim of a penalty was turned down when he was nudged over by Miralem Sulejmani, then he and Gylfi Sigurdsson both had headers saved by Oblak.
In the dying seconds of stoppage time, Lima was bundled over in the Spurs box by Sandro and he converted the subsequent penalty to seal his side's entry into the next round.
Spurs' European adventure is over for another season, while Benfica progress to the quarter-final stage. Read on from some things we learned from their meeting in the Portuguese capital.
Fryers and Sandro Proved to Be Capable Deputies in Central Defence
With four senior centre-backs unavailable through injury and suspension, some were fearing the worst about how Tottenham would fare with a makeshift defence.
For the most part, though, covering central pair Zeki Fryers and Sandro did a steady and at times commanding job at the back.
The inexperienced duo and full-backs Kyle Naughton and Danny Rose were somewhat aided here by Benfica resting Lazar Markovic and Rodrigo, both players who caused them problems in the first leg. Still, Eduardo Salvio in right wing proved especially to be a handful and the threat from set-pieces provided by Luisao among others was still there.
Benfica's goal—scored by Ezequiel Garay—was the one moment Spurs were punished for falling asleep. But with Naughton nearest the advanced defender, his failure to be sufficiently alert was more culpable than either Fryers or Sandro not warning him.
Anything they had to deal with straight up, they largely did so responsibly and and with impressive aggression (save for Sandro conceding the penalty in the last few seconds of stoppage time).
Fryers cleared his lines well, with his headers either buying Spurs momentary relief or, on a couple of occasions, launching counterattacks. Sandro defended with typical verve, doing especially fine work covering for Naughton down the right.
Spurs will hope to have their first-choice defenders back as soon as possible, but their back-ups at least showed their manager Tim Sherwood he does have other options if needed.
Fryers especially should not be discounted as a genuine centre-back alternative, here again he backed up the versatility Spurs signed him for.
Chadli Has More Than Earned His Chance to Start
Following Sunday's North London derby defeat, Nacer Chadli told Tottenham's official website about his annoyance with himself at missing important scoring chances in the match.
The misses tarnished an otherwise good display in a rare start for the Belgian. Playing more centrally than he had most of this season, he clearly relished the greater involvement granted him operating there.
Against Benfica, Chadli did more than enough to justify him retaining his starting place. In the two goals he scored, he went some way to banishing the memories of the Arsenal loss too.
Despite the expansive Estadio da Luz pitch, Chadli found it difficult to find space against the Portuguese's restrictive defence. Yet, even in Spurs' quieter middle period of the game, he looked among their biggest threats, both aerially and running at his opponents.
When he was finally afforded some space, the 24-year-old made the most of it with two clinically taken goals.
Having mainly been confined to making cameo contributions for the best part of the campaign, Chadli is at last taking on more responsibility.
Spurs have been the better for it these past two games. Now we wait to see if he can turn it into something tangible.
Bentaleb Deserves More Credit for His Progress This Season
Though not as limited as they were in central defence, Tottenham were still without some considerable talent in midfield.
Etienne Capoue, Mousa Dembele and Paulinho were all injured for Thursday, while Sandro had to do a shift in defence.
A lot of responsibility was placed on Nabil Bentaleb to hold the fort without his more experienced teammates. Along with some tidy, if mostly unremarkable work from Gylfi Sigurdsson, the midfielder did so with a good amount of class and fortitude.
Going away to a Benfica side very hard to beat at home and imposing your will on them is not easy. Spurs did better than most have recently in this regard, and a lot of that was through Bentaleb.
He stopped them in their tracks on several occasions, making four tackles and a further three interceptions that included stopping some burgeoning Benfica moves (as tallied by Squawka).
On the ball, he was a near-constant option for his teammates as they tried to get something going against the alert, often predatory defending of the Eagles—as shown by the above action heat map. A teasing first-half cross for Roberto Soldado and, later, a brilliant dribble and cross-field pass for Kyle Naughton were among the flourishes that marked this out as more than a water-carrying performance.
Sherwood is still figuring out his best midfield, an issue Spurs have struggled with all season. If he had not done so already (which this writer thinks he has), surely now Bentaleb deserved to be recognised as a legitimate, worthy option.
The 19-year-old will benefit from his experiences this season moving forward. A work in progress, sure, but undoubtedly one with considerable upside.
Soldado's Best Chance to Succeed at Spurs Is Likely to Come as Part of a Duo
Harry Kane's contributions—described in this article's introduction—marked one of the young striker's best Tottenham performances in his fledgling career.
After another underwhelming showing from Roberto Soldado, he may have conceded the initiative to Kane in the competition for places as it relates to Spurs playing a lone striker.
Emmanuel Adebayor is still first choice in Sherwood's eyes here, but Kane's similar physical presence and his own increasingly impressive instincts as a striker were potent than what Soldado offered here.
The Spaniard has had a tough few weeks. After a well-taken winner versus Cardiff City, he was dropped for the next three games as his manager went to one recognised forward up front.
Soldado is a player who—once in the zone—needs consistency to stay there. His scuffed first-half shot against Benfica suggests he may have left it again after his brief return.
Without that form, it was going to be hard for Soldado to make a desired impact here alone up top. Spurs' struggle to create in the final third for much of the game left him isolated. As it happened, their best moments around the box came after he had departed.
Unlikely to get the chance to truly build an understanding with his teammates when operating in the lone role, it is looking like the striker's best chance of playing is going to come as part of a front two.
Whether Sherwood has a return to that setup in mind remains to be seen. But when that next opportunity comes, Soldado is going to have to make the most of it if he is to convince his manager he can truly deliver for him.
Sherwood Needs His Team to Build on This Draw Against Southampton
The disappointment of exiting the Europa League or at least winning out at Benfica will have receded by the time Tottenham host Southampton on Sunday.
Champions League football via the top four may be a long shot now, but whilst it remains a possibility, Spurs must give their all to try and claim it.
Southampton will not be easily dispatched, while Liverpool away the following week is as daunting a prospect as it has been in half a decade or more.
The much-improved displays against Arsenal and now Benfica at least gives Sherwood and his side a foundation to build on for the remainder of the campaign.
The manager is likely to require them to do so if he to ensure he is still in charge come next season. But, more than anyone, the players owe it to themselves to make the most of a campaign.
Perhaps fifth and a return to the Europa League is all all they can hope for. Yet, whoever is managing them in 2014-15 will want to see the the right attitude from those games left.
Spurs have again hinted at restoring the quality and character of their first couple of months under Sherwood's stewardship. Now it's time to see how much there is to that.
Benfica Have a Good Chance to Return to the the Europa League Final
The draw for the Champions League last eight will grab most of the headlines, but the fixtures selected in its Europa League equivalent should ensure an entertaining quarter-final section in that competition too.
At the time of writing, Juventus, Porto and Valencia were confirmed to join Benfica there.
Serie A leaders Juve will be the the tournament's favourites, but Jorge Jesus' team have as good a chance as anyone at progressing further. Though their focus may be on winning the Portuguese Liga title, they may yet find themselves back in the Europa League final.
Defeated last season by Chelsea, Benfica have underlined their qualities against Spurs. It's something all the more impressive considering they have not been going full pelt.
The prospect of even bigger games should be enough to entice them to up their efforts as and when required.