Benfica's Style a Worry for Borussia Dortmund, but BVB Remain Strong Favourites

Lars Pollmann@@LarsPollmannFeatured ColumnistDecember 12, 2016

Dortmund's Marco Reus, right, celebrates with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang after scoring his side's 2nd goal during the Champions League, Group F, soccer match between Real Madrid and Borrusia Dortmund at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
Francisco Seco/Associated Press

The luck of the draw was seemingly on Borussia Dortmund's side on Monday, as the Ruhr club were paired with Portuguese champions Benfica for the round of 16 of the Champions League.

The Eagles are by no means an easy opponent to play against, but, considering the alternativesManchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Sevilla and Porto—fans and officials can be fairly happy with the draw.

Benfica came second in Group B, behind Napoli but ahead of Besiktas and Dynamo Kiev, benefiting from a 6-0 win of the Ukrainians against the Turkish champions on the final matchday. They lost 2-1 to Napoli at home themselves, ending the group with only eight points and a level goal difference of 10-10.

Dortmund, of course, won Group F ahead of Real Madrid, Legia Warsaw and Benfica's city rivals Sporting CP, setting a new Champions League record by scoring 21 goals during the group stage. They especially impressed in the direct matchups with Los Blancos, coming back from behind and earning 2-2 draws in both meetings.

The Black and Yellows faced Benfica once before, eliminating a team built around the great Eusebio in the first round of the 1963/64 European Cup. The Portuguese legend did not play in the return fixture at Dortmund's old ground Rote Erde due to a knee injury, with his absence perhaps partially explaining the heavy 5-0 defeat for Benfica.

The Ruhr side scored three goals in a matter of four minutes in the first half, and striker Franz Brungs ended up with a hat-trick in what was indubitably Dortmund's greatest European night at the time.

Team captain Marcel Schmelzer reminded of the previous meeting with Benfica in a press release on Monday: "The game brings up memories of the recently departed BVB legend Aki Schmidt, who played for BVB in the win over Benfica in the 'Game of the Century' in 1963."

Both clubs have added many more magical nights over the past 50 years, even though Benfica had to endure a number of crushing defeats in finals. They were runners-up in no fewer than six seasons across the European Cup, the UEFA Cup and the Europa League. 

The curse of Bela Guttman seems to harrow the Eagles. "Not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever be European champion," the Hungarian coach allegedly said when he left after a contract dispute in 1962, per Daniella Matar of The Independent.

Chances are Benfica will not be able to follow the Chicago Cubs in lifting their curse this season—the Cubs won their first World Series since 1908 in October, overcoming the Curse of the Billy Goat. The Eagles are far from the perennial superpower they represented a few decades ago.

Head coach Rui Vitoria leads a squad without big names. Thirty-seven-year-old back-up goalkeeper Julio Cesar may well be the best-known player on the team, while 35-year-old centre-back Luisao is in his 14th season at the Estadio da Luz after moving to Portugal from Brazil in 2003.

Apart from the veteran defender, it is a fairly young team with players in their early-to-mid 20s forming a talented nucleus.

Swedish centre-back Victor Lindelof chasing Napoli's Jose Callejon on Matchday 6 of the group stage.
Swedish centre-back Victor Lindelof chasing Napoli's Jose Callejon on Matchday 6 of the group stage.Armando Franca/Associated Press

Goalkeeper Ederson (23), full-backs Alejandro Grimaldo (21) and Nelson Semedo (23), as well as centre-back Victor Lindelof (22), all seem destined to make a move to one of Europe's bigger clubs fairly soon. Duncan Castles of the Mirror reported earlier in December that Swedish defender Lindelof tops Jose Mourinho's list of transfer targets for Manchester United in the winter.

It would be far from the first time the Eagles cashed in on one of their talents, as they have regularly sold players over the last few years. Between Atletico Madrid's Jan Oblak and Nico Gaitan, Barcelona's Andre Gomes or Bayern's Renato Sanches, a lot of quality has left the Estadio da Luz recently.

Of course, Dortmund would be wise not to underestimate their opponents in the round of 16, regardless of Benfica's unimpressive performances in the group stage.

Having won three Portuguese championships in a row, they are again top of the table. Beating Sporting in a heated Lisbon derby at the weekend, Benfica now hold a four-point advantage over second-placed Porto in their quest for a fourth title in as many years.

Benfica have scored the most goals in Primeira Liga with 29 in 13 matches, but it is their defensive stability that could cause Dortmund trouble come the new year.

German fans may remember Benfica going toe-to-toe with Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals last season, when they only lost 1-0 at the Allianz Arena and managed a 2-2 draw at home against Pep Guardiola's men.

Benfica's Raul Jimenez scored against Bayern in last season's quarter-finals.
Benfica's Raul Jimenez scored against Bayern in last season's quarter-finals.Armando Franca/Associated Press

Defending in a compact 4-4-2 shape, Vitoria's side were content leaving the ball to Bayern and focusing on not allowing them to move it into dangerous spaces on the pitch. They created danger from counter-attacks when they won the ball off Bayern, scoring the opener through Mexican attacker Raul Jimenez after 27 minutes.

Dortmund at times struggle with teams that form massive defensive blocks and put pressure on their buildup players while crowding passing lanes, and Benfica have that kind of structure.

Thomas Tuchel and his staff will have to come up with solutions. It could be an advantage that Dortmund faced Porto and Sporting this year, as they will surely have watched those teams against Benfica as a part of their preparation.

Ultimately, the Black and Yellows have to be considered favourites against the Eagles. They have the edge in terms of individual quality and have played a much-stronger Champions League campaign so far.

Miguel Delaney of ESPN FC expects the Ruhr side to go through, calling it a tie "between a good team and one who are that bit better." He added: "It should mean the two legs are entertaining, but not that unpredictable."  

They also have the advantage of playing the second leg at home, even though Gabriele Marcotti pointed out for ESPN FC that the side playing away in the first leg advanced on only 16 of 30 occasions in the Champions League over the last five seasons, rendering the home-field advantage in the return leg less significant than one would perhaps think.

However, Dortmund have looked far more comfortable at home than on the road this season, for example, beating Bayern Munich in the Westfalenstadion in the Bundesliga in November. The Black and Yellows welcomed Benfica to their home ground via Twitter after the draw:

If nothing else, the two meetings on February 14 and March 8 should make for fantastic atmospheres. Both the Estadio da Luz and the Westfalenstadion are known to have loud crowds and offer two of the most spectacular backdrops in all of European football.

It should be the perfect stage for Dortmund to advance to the quarter-finals for the first time since 2014. They cannot underestimate Benfica, but they enter the round of 16 as distinct favourites.


Lars Pollmann also writes for The Yellow Wall. You can follow him on Twitter.


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