Europa League Semifinal: Juventus vs. Benfica Preview
Juventus and Benfica are so close they can taste it.
For the Italian giants, it's a chance to end an 18-year drought for European silverware and play the final in front of their own fans in Turin.
For the Portuguese power, it's a chance to end an even longer drought—52 years—and make amends for their agonizing last-second loss to Chelsea in last year's final.
This tie may be a disappointment to the observer who points out that the two best teams remaining in the tournament will not meet in the final. The pairing will nevertheless produce a minimum of 180 minutes of fantastic soccer and provide the clear favorite in the final on May 14.
So who will emerge from this clash and claim a place in the final? Let's take a closer look.
Tale of the Tape
|I Bianconeri||Nickname||As Aguias|
|29* (defending champions)||League Titles||32 (last 2009-10)|
UCL: 2 (last 1995-96)
UEFA Cup: 3 (last 1992-93)
|Continental Titles**||UCL: 2 (last 1961-62)|
|Antonio Conte||Coach||Jorge Jesus|
|LWWWW||Last 5 matches ***||WWWWW|
*Number of titles officially recognized by FIGC—2 titles in dispute
**Champions League and UEFA Cup/Europa League only.
Juve allowed the quarterfinals against Lyon to get a little nervier than they wanted to when Jimmy Briand cancelled out Andrea Pirlo's second-leg opener and put an all-important away goal on the table.
Lyon came close to going in front on several occasions, but Gigi Buffon made several full-stretch saves before Claudio Marchisio's thunderous long-range shot deflected off Samuel Umtiti and into the net. It was a bit unfair to Marchisio that UEFA ruled the strike an own goal, but it gave Lyon the task of scoring twice in 22 minutes to advance—a tough ask against Juve at anywhere, let alone at home.
The Bianconeri are now three matches away from their first European trophy since winning the Champions League in 1995-96. Two of those matches would be in their fortress of a home stadium, where they haven't lost a match in over a calendar year.
In Italy, Antonio Conte's men are eight points up on Roma with five games to go. Three wins out of those five makes them champions for the third year in a row—and their next three come against Bologna, Sassuolo and Atalanta. They could very well make their top-of-the-table clash with Roma on May 9 moot before it happens.
That said, their loss to Napoli at the end of March makes Conte slightly less able to throw the whole weight of his first XI behind the Europa League than he was before the Lyon tie. Any slip-up before the Roma game could make that game very uncomfortable.
Benfica find themselves in a similar situation to the one they were in this time a year ago.
Their fans hope things go much better.
Going into May, the team was in position for a league-cup-Europa treble. Then it all came crashing down in the space of two weeks.
First, a loss to archrivals Porto in the penultimate game of the season saw the Dragoes pass them en route to the championship. It was all the more painful that they went ahead early only to blow the lead.
Three days later they came from behind to tie the Europa League final against Chelsea at 1-1 before Branislav Ivanovic headed a corner into the net with 47 seconds of stoppage time left in the match.
Two weeks later they took the lead in the final of the Taca de Portugal at 30 minutes, then gave up two goals in two minutes to Vitoria de Guimaraes—who finished ninth in the league—and were once again second. They had dreamed of three pieces of silverware, only to thrice be bridesmaids.
This time around the league is in safer hands. Their lead over Sporting Lisbon is seven points, and with only three games to play in the shorter Portuguese season they may have the title locked up this weekend before the semifinals even begin.
The league isn't their only other commitment, however. Both the Taca da Portugal final (against Rio Ave) and the Taca da Liga semifinal (against Porto) loom as matches for which Jorge Jesus will want to keep his team fresh.
The "O Classico" match against Porto comes smack in between the two legs of the semifinal. Typically a draining affair, the Dragoes will be looking for revenge after Benfica turned a 1-0 deficit into a 3-2 aggregate victory in the second leg of the Taca de Portugal semifinal.
Key Players: Juventus
None of the three teams Juventus have faced in the Europa League have been able to clamp down on Andrea Pirlo's masterful passing in the Juve midfield.
Fiorentina came closest, turning the all-Italian round-of-16 matchup into a slugfest. But even then L'Architetto had the last laugh—it was his drilled free kick that provided the difference in the second leg.
You would be hard-pressed to find a player who can unzip a defense with a single pass the way Pirlo does. His skills with long passes and over a dead ball are unparalleled anywhere in the world.
That said, his age has started to affect his game. He is no longer able to create space for himself as he once was. Instead he must rely on fellow midfielders Arturo Vidal, Paul Pogba and Claudio Marchisio to clear him the space he needs to operate at full power.
If Benfica is able to penetrate this bubble and put a man body-to-body with Pirlo, they will make things 10 times harder for Juve. If Pirlo gets his space, though, he can thoroughly dominate this tie.
If Benfica can reduce Pirlo's effectiveness, the Bianconeri do have another way to set up their attack. Leonardo Bonucci is without question the best ball-playing center-back in the world right now.
His passing ability—especially on long balls—gives Juve a way to bypass the midfield and move the ball into the attacking third if Pirlo can't operate. He is also a threat in front of goal—he has two goals in the last two seasons in European competition, including a crucial winner in the first leg of the quarterfinal.
Defensively, Bonucci continues to make strides. Often the scapegoat for Juve's horrific 2010-11 season, Bonucci is still guilty of the occasional error, but they have been fewer and farther between. Against Lyon—particularly in the second leg—he made several excellent plays to disrupt moves that could otherwise have resulted in dangerous chances for the French side.
He will be a huge part of the back three. Juve fans will hope that his passing abilities play a supplemental role to Pirlo's mastery, but they know they have them available if needed.
Still goalless in Europe since the 2008-09 season, Tevez was still incredibly disruptive against Lyon. It was the Argentine that drew the free kick that Pirlo converted into an early second-leg lead against Lyon, and his constant running parted the defense for his teammates to get their chances.
It would be wonderful for Juve if Tevez could finally break his European slump. Even if he can't, his presence will make it more difficult for Benfica's defenders to keep track of the team's other offensive threats.
Claudio Marchisio, Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal (if he plays through his knee injury) and a suddenly in-form Fernando Llorente are all made more dangerous by Tevez's presence on the field.
Key Players: Benfica
The Spaniard has helped lead Benfica's line since 2011 and has been instrumental in the team's successful season. He has scored 15 times in all competitions, including three times in the Europa League. WhoScored.com rates him as Benfica's fourth-best player in Europa League play.
Rodrigo has played both as a striker in a 4-4-2 and as a winger in a 4-3-3 in the Europa League, but the latter role could be particularly dangerous to the Bianconeri. Juve's 3-5-2 proved vulnerable to top-notch wing play last year in the Champions League—so much so that when faced with Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo in this year's competition Antonio Conte deployed a makeshift 4-3-3.
If Jorge Jesus tries to exploit that potential weakness, Rodrigo's play on the outside would be a key element in getting the ball past Gigi Buffon.
Benfica's second-best player in the Europa League, per WhoScored, Gaitan will be important to his team's success.
After Nemanja Matic departed for Chelsea during the winter transfer window, midfielders like Gaitan were saddled with more playmaking responsibility. Gaitan will also be expected to fill any space left in the Juve back three by Rodrigo and Lima and finish if need be.
He has scored three times in the league and once in the Europa League against PAOK. If he can get into position to score another one, Benfica will be a lot closer to winning the all-important midfield battle.
This competition likely holds bad memories for the Brazilian goalkeeper. He was the one who stood rooted to the spot while Branislav Ivanovic's header fall under the bar to deny the Portuguese side extra time.
He's going to be facing a midfield that is a cut above anything he sees in Portugal.
Any of Juve's midfielders—Pirlo in particular—can unzip a defense and put goalkeepers in difficult positions. With the likes of Tevez, Llorente, Vidal, Pogba and Marchisio potentially facing him from the start and players like Mirko Vucinic and Sebastian Giovinco on the bench, he will be looking at a team with many ways to beat him.
If Juve starts to gain supremacy in the midfield it may be up to Artur to single-handedly keep his team in the tie.
Before the quarterfinal Antonio Conte faced a severe selection crisis. Once the first leg was over, eight of his players had played in five consecutive games after injuries and suspensions ruined the team's depth.
He has no suspensions to deal with, but there are still some injuries. Angelo Ogbonna returned to the field on Monday against Udinese, and Andrea Barzagli is close to making his own return. Their presence will ease the tremendous burden on the shoulders of Martin Caceres, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, who have had to man the Juve back line for the better part of a month with no backups.
On the wrong side of injuries, however, is Arturo Vidal. He traveled to Udine but didn't play in the game due to a knee injury that had been bothering him since the team's string of three games in 12 days against Fiorentina. His form has dropped in that period, and it's now finally clear why.
Conte will almost certainly employ his vaunted 3-5-2. It has been exposed on occasion in Europe, but it fits what his players do best. Conte will ride it to glory or ruin for the rest of the tournament.
Jorge Jesus has used three different formations in his team's six Europa League games. Either the 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 that he has deployed previously would present dangerous problems for Juve, whose 3-5-2 can be vulnerable to superior wing play.
Jesus went into the season under significant pressure after the team went trophyless for the first time since 2007-08—and in spectacular fashion. His league win this year will ease some of that pressure, but he is not totally secure.
A win against a team like Juve could make his seat quite cool indeed.
Benfica are of the few sides against whom Juve have a truly poor record.
The two teams have met each other four times. Benfica have won three of them. The Bianconeri have won once and carry a minus-1 goal differential into the tie.
There is a "but" in this discussion: The teams haven't met in 21 years.
The first meeting between the two was in the European Cup semifinal in 1968. Benfica won the aggregate of that tie 3-0.
The Bianconeri fared better the year they last won this tournament, which in 1993 was known as the UEFA Cup. Benfica carried a 2-1 lead into the second leg of the quarterfinal before being thrashed 3-0 by Giovanni Trapattoni's men.
Key Matchup 1
Fernando Llorente vs. Luisao
Carlos Tevez may be Juve's leading scorer, but their hottest one is Fernando Llorente.
The Spaniard has emerged from a spate of bad form to score three times in his last two league games. After starting the season slowly he has exploded since November, scoring 14 times in the league and twice more in the Champions League.
His pairing with Tevez has become an excellent one. The two have combined for more goals than any tandem in club history save for that of John Charles and Omar Sivori (40 in 1957-58). Tevez's creativity and Llorente's aerial ability and holdup play are a potent combination.
Llorente has had a terrible run in the Europa League and has often been second-choice in the competition to Dani Osvaldo. Given his current form, that is likely to change. Expect Llorente to pair up with Tevez in both legs.
Tasked with stopping them will be a Benfica defense led by Luisao. The former Brazil international has played well in the Europa League so far, defending well and even scoring twice against Tottenham Hotspur in the round of 16.
If he can shut down Llorente—the more easily beaten of the Juve pair—it will take away an important element of their attack. If he is playing badly, he can tend to gum up the gears of Juve's offensive machine.
Luisao's success in making the Juve forward line more one-dimensional could go a long way toward catapulting the Portuguese side to their second consecutive title.
Key Matchup 2
Gianluigi Buffon vs. Artur
Goalkeeping gets more important as a tournament goes on. Indeed, it's at this stage that you often see goalkeepers take a tie by the scruff of the neck and shove their team through.
Artur is an experienced goalkeeper who knows what it's like to be in these situations, but in the opposite goal he's facing arguably the best goalkeeper ever to step between the sticks.
The constant whispers that Gigi Buffon is too old for his job are laughable. The Juve and Italy captain is rarely beaten by stoppable shots and often snares the one no one expects him to get.
Against Napoli at the end of March he very nearly willed his team to taking points from a game in which they had no business doing so. He made a string of incredible saves in the first half and even got his hand on Jose Callejon's opener.
Similarly, Buffon bailed his team out of jail with several fine saves in the second leg against Lyon, including a long-rage effort from Maxime Gonalons in the first half and a wicked free kick from Arnold Mvuemba in the second.
Artur is a fine keeper, but anyone who says that Juve doesn't have the edge in this matchup must be on something.
Key Matchup 3
Giorgio Chiellini vs. Rodrigo
As mentioned before, Rodrigo has played out on the right wing in Jorge Jesus' 4-3-3 in Europa League play.
If he plays there again, the man he'll meet is Chiellini.
The heir apparent to Juve's armband is one of the best center-backs in the world and has held some of the best strikers on the planet in check.
Whether Rodrigo plays as a striker or winger, Chiellini is going to be the man tasked with limiting his ability to function.
The Italy international has shut down Spanish strikers of much higher quality than Rodrigo. If he can limit him and his partners on the forward line, Juventus will be in good position to move on.
This was the worst possible draw for Juventus. Benfica was the most difficult team they could have faced.
In a single-game situation like the final, Juve would have enough of an edge in talent to overwhelm the Portuguese side. In a two-legged format, a team like Benfica can make a lot more happen.
This will come down to tactics. If Jorge Jesus can find a way to unlock the vulnerable Juventus wings, the Bianconeri could be in trouble. On the other hand, if Antonio Conte's midfielders are able to clear enough space for Andrea Pirlo to operate at full capacity, Benfica could start hemorrhaging goals.
In the end, Juve have the superior players and one of the brightest coaches in Europe. Benfica is dangerous and at times downright scary, but at the end of the day Juve just have too much talent.
This will be a tight one, but I predict a 1-1 draw at the Estadio da Luz in the first leg before Juve keeps its unbeaten run at home intact with a 1-0 victory, securing a 2-1 aggregate win and a place in the final at Juventus Stadium.