Jorge Jesus, formerly a playmaker in his playing days, has assembled an exciting, technical side, as always seems to be the case with Benfica. They boast Angel Di Maria, Fabio Coentrao and Javier Saviola as former players, along with current Chelsea stars Ramires and David Luiz - all of whom have featured under the sensationally named (and maned) coach in broadly unsuccessful but thrilling, attacking systems.
Alan Pardew summed it up well. "They've got a lot of flair and pace, very progressive full-backs and varied attacking options. Benfica are difficult to contain and a real threat on the counter-attack."
Recent matches against Fenerbache and Porto are a good indication of the likely starting XI. The central defenders will be captain Luisao and rumored Manchester United target Ezequiel Garay, while in the full-back positions, Maxi Periera is suspended - so Andre Almeida will shuffle across to the right, with Lorenzo Malgarejo on the left.
In midfield, Enzo Perez and Nemanja Matic will certainly start, but Jesus might be wary of Chelsea's threat in that zone and start Carlos Martins as well, which would shift them into a formation similar to the 4-1-4-1 used against Barcelona.
In the wide positions, Eduardo Salvio will play wide on the right, but the key decision comes on the left flank. It is intrinsically linked to who Jesus wants to play upfront - he might be bold and keep with the Oscar Cardozo and Lima partnership that was so effective in the second leg against Fenerbache, or he might keep with the system that started against Porto on Saturday, with Gaitan playing behind Lima. He might be encouraged by Chelsea's troubles with Cardozo in last year's Champions League quarter-final, and field Gaitan out wide. This is also the formation Jesus has preferred in domestic games.
Otherwise, Ola John will start on that flank, with Gaitan centrally, and Cardozo on the bench.
Style of play
Benfica can play in a number of different styles. There are two reasons for this - firstly, they have many disparate attacking options and so can vary their attack according to who is selected. Secondly, they have a very unusual situation in the Portuguese Liga, where they and Porto are clearly the two dominant forces - therefore, they are guaranteed more possession and are nearly always tasked with forcing the initiative (as weaker opponents tend to sit back and invite pressure). In ‘bigger' games, such as the Champions League and Clasico's against Porto, they play more reactively, in a more direct, counter-attacking manner.
Therefore, they can hold the ball for long periods and defend for long periods before counter-attacking quickly. The latter seems more likely here, given Chelsea's natural superiority in talent over the Portuguese side, and considering Jesus's previously conservative tactics in big games.
Shape without the ball
In recent weeks, Jorge Jesus has settled on a 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 formation. He has also experimented with 4-3-3 and 4-1-4-1 shapes, although the latter was exclusively used against Barcelona, where Benfica played an exaggerated version of their counter-attacking system.
In the two images below, you can see how Benfica line up without the ball. They defend in two loose banks of four - so the yellow lines correspond to defenders, green to midfielders and pink to the strikers.
Note the narrowness of the side in defence - in the first image, they are defending a throw-in down their right hand side, and so the left sided players have come infield, effectively to the halfway point of the width of the field. You can see just at the very top, slightly right of centre, a Fenerbache player unmarked by any Benfica player.
In the second image, their defensive shape is more spread out, as a consequence of the ball being in play with the Porto centre-backs. The two strikers are spread out across the pitch, as their role is to prevent the centre-backs from playing easy passes forward.
Shape with the ball
Benfica's shape in possession is inherently linked to the players. For example, when Nicolas Gaitan is used on the left hand side - as he was in the second leg against Fenerbache - he frequently moved into more central zones, narrowing Benfica's attack down that side.
Generally though, they tend to play with greater width down the right-hand side. That is partly because Maxi Periera pushes forward in attack, and because the right-sided central midfielder, Enzo Perez, drifts towards the flank in support.
In goal, Artur Moraes is an assured starter - he's a well-rounded keeper, although he can look shaky when forced to punch away crosses. He always tries to distribute the ball quickly with quick, accurate throws to prompt counter-attacks, but will kick long if this option isn't available.
In front of him is a consistent centre-back pairing of Luisao and Garay - the latter plays on the right side, the former on the left. Jardel is the back-up for either, having played in central defence last season whilst the captain was injured.
Broadly speaking, Garay is the more proactive defender, more willing to step out and close down opponents. The positioning of their aerial duels is a good measure - Luisao steps back and uses his sheer physical presence (he's very tall) to win challenges, while Garay tends to attack the ball higher up the field. They are both very strong in the air, which is important given that Benfica tend to defend narrow and invite crosses from wide positions.
They are at their most vulnerable when forced to deal with passes in behind - against Porto and Fenerbache, Moussa Sow and Jackson Martinez (incidentally, two similar types of players) looked most threatening when they made diagonal runs angled into the space behind the two central defenders. The image below shows a rough example of one of these chances.
Fernando Torres remains frustratingly inconsistent, but he's become more aggressive with his runs in recent weeks. Mata is certainly capable of picking out passes over the top in these situations - the evidence including Demba Ba's goal against Manchester United - and with Torres likely to struggle in direct confrontation against a physical centre-back pairing, these runs in behind seems a more promising strategy.
In attack, the two centre-backs stay in deeper, covering positions - but still relatively high up the pitch, as they are comfortable playing a high line - accounting for the more advanced positioning of the full-backs.
Maxi Periera, a constant presence at right-back, is suspended, so Almeida will shift across from the left. This is a loss for Benfica, offensively speaking, as Periera links up with Salvio and is a decent crosser - often looking to whip the ball towards the far post, where Cardozo times many of his runs.
The contrast with Almeida is obvious, as the Portuguese (who can also play in midfield) is not that great technically, and tends to play safe, sideways passes towards the centre rather than actively trying to stretch the play, which is Periera's role.
Instead, Malgarejo might be given the responsibility of getting forward down the left. Although he has good pace, this isn't ideal as he's positionally suspect and struggles in one-on-one situations (which is where the absence of Eden Hazard is particularly frustrating).
The full-back positions are Benfica's weak link. For example, against Porto, Ola John was told to track the forward runs of Danilo, and although the former Braga player was diligent with his responsibilities, it came at the expense of his attacking threat. Furthermore, his positioning was overly cautious. The problem wasn't with his work-rate - it was with how deep he was positioning himself, as the images below illustrate. He was so deep, Danilo didn't actually have to push forward as much, and his most promising moments came when he received the ball in deeper positions.
This was also a problem in the first leg against Fenerbache - as the chalkboard below shows, the majority of his meagre defensive contribution came in positions associated with a left-back, while the infrequency of his passes shows how little he was involved (especially in a 90 minute performance).
Meanwhile, on the opposite flank, Periera's problem was simply that Silvestre Varela was constantly getting in behind. The winger was happy to go around the outside of the defender, and although his final product was poor, the constant pressure down that side resulted in a goal - albeit deflected, but still significant in the fact it was Varela who produced the cross.
Periera won't play, obviously, but Chelsea must try and press their advantage in these areas. With an attacking trio of Oscar, Mata and Moses likely, the key player is the Nigerian, given that the former two like to receive passes to feet in playmaking zones. Moses is the only one likely to make runs in behind the defence, and as a natural wide player, he will be comfortable taking on the Benfica full-backs in one-on-one situations.
Benfica's defence as a whole is interesting - as mentioned earlier, they defend very narrow as a unit, trying to condense the attack down one particular zone.
This is a strategy common across the entire side - when they lose the ball, those in close proximity always try and box in the player in possession. After the initial press described above, Benfica drop back into two banks of four, but still continuing to keep a very narrow shape.
The by-effect of this is that they can be exposed to quick switches of play, where the entire defence is forced to shuttle across to the other side. In the first left-sided image above, you can just see Sow making a run off the shoulder, in behind Almeida - the pass was just overhit, but it was a good example of Benfica's major defensive weakness.
In this regard, Frank Lampard's ability to hit long cross-field balls will be important.
Like the central defenders, the personnel in the central midfield zone is obvious, with Enzo Perez set to partner former Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matic. (In a curious twist of fate, should Benitez elect to start Luiz in midfield, the Serbian will play in direct confrontation with the player he was exchanged for).
Matic plays the deeper, more defensively-minded role. He's very tall and strong, and so uses his body as a shield excellently, whilst also breaking up attacks with well-timed tackles. He will be responsible for tracking Juan Mata, while his role in attack is simple - receive the ball, take one touch to face the play, and then hit a forward pass towards the attackers.
Alan Pardew is a big fan. "Matic has really grown since he left Chelsea," he said before their quarter-final tie in this competition. "He's a terrific player now. The way Benfica keep the ball - and Matic in particular - is fantastic."
Meanwhile, Perez is the more ‘offensive' midfielder. He sometimes motors forward to lead the pressing, closing down the deepest opposition midfielder, and is also more proactive in attack, shuttling out to the right wing to create overloads as well as breaking forward to support the strikers as a midfield role. The division in roles is obvious when Matic ‘fills' in for a player caught out of position, as can be seen on the right where he has dropped into left-back to intercept an attempted through-ball.
It's important to note that Matic can also drop in between the two centre-backs to help facilitate build-up play. Against sides that press from the front with two players - as Chelsea will with Torres and Mata - the centre-backs are easily tracked, so Matic provides a third, unmarked option to carry the ball forward.
Sometimes, the function of the midfielders can sometimes make Benfica's shape appear like a diamond, leaving Matic isolated in front of the defence. This was the major issue with Tottenham Hotspur's midfield in last Wednesday's Premier League tie, and it was Mata's intelligent movement either side of Huddlestone that dragged Tottenham's defence out of shape. Benfica must be wary that this does not happen here, as it was often an issue against Porto, when Lucho Gonzalez and Moutinho dragged the two midfielder's upfield - an example of the space that created can be seen in the image to the left. Jesus's response to that problem was to introduce Roderick, a defensively-minded player, for Gaitan, pushing Enzo Perez further forward in a very cautious substitution.
Benfica's counter-attacks are reliant on the ability of Perez and Matic to transition defence into attack quickly - they are very good at hitting short, positive passes forward into the feet of Gaitan and Salvio. They are less good at spreading the play, and kind of like how they congest their defending down one side, they also congest their attack down one side, with the two central players' not comfortable hitting long, sweeping passes to switch the focus of the attack.
On the right, Eduardo Salvio will play a clever wide role - he'll stay wide and receive passes to feet, but is also comfortable coming inside to play one-twos with the strikers inside the penalty area. He's also defensively responsible, dropping back into right-back if Maxi Periera is caught up-field. It'll be a point of frustration for Jesus that he can't deploy his usual right-sided partnership - they have a good understanding and help Benfica play intricate passing moves down that channel. Salvio's directness also opens up room for Periera to cross from ‘middle' positions, as the chalkboard below shows.
Almeida is right-footed - which explains his conservatism against Fenerbache, where he is on his ‘weak' side - but must be more positive here, trying to get forward to help Benfica build attacks down his flank.
Salvio's favoured mode of crossing is getting to the byline, and then cutting the ball back towards the penalty spot - exactly how the opening goal originated in the 3-1 win over Fenerbache.
It was Gaitan who put the finishing touch on the move, a fine illustration of their contrasting roles. As the chalkboard shows, Gaitan received passes generally in central, playmaking positions, whilst Salvio's game was all about providing service through low crosses wide on the right.
The freedom to execute that fantastic outside-of-the-foot finish came from the fact Gaitan's movement went unmarked by Fenerbache's midfielders. The images below show how his drifting inside into central zones gave him the freedom to dictate Benfica's attacks.
First, the goal:
And more examples:
By contrast, his central deployment against Porto saw him up against Fernando, who drops back into defence - drawing Gaitan forward - before bursting forward to support the attack - dragging Gaitan deep. Porto's dominance of possession meant Gaitan was closer to his own back four than Lima.
That lack of support for Lima (don't forget, Ola John was playing practically as a left-back) nullified his influence on the game. He can hold up the ball decently but he was simply outnumbered when left to fend upfront by himself.
Instead, he is better when partnered with Oscar Cardozo. It means he doesn't have to stay central as the focal point of attacks - instead, he can move in either direction, drop short towards the ball, drift wide to create overloads and play on the shoulder of defenders. Such variety provides great unpredictability, and suits Benfica's varied system.
Lima particularly focuses on moving out to the right, which helps in freeing up Salvio to cut the ball back towards Cardozo. As you can see on the left chalkboard above, the Benfica stalwart receives passes in more central zones, sometimes dropping off into a second striker position, and it's sheer presence and threat that allows Lima to thrive.
The left image is an example of Lima dropping off to receive a pass away from the attention of the central defender, while the middle image shows how Cardozo's decoy run - the yellow area - drags away a Fenerbache centre-back and thus opens up room for Lima' shot. The third image is another example of a Cardozo run in behind - and thus this [small] selection of screenshots illustrates the assortment of threats from Benfica's strikers.
A particularly potent attacking combination is the one between Gaitan and Cardozo. It was important in last year's quarter-finals - the Argentine drifted laterally, lost the attention of Chelsea's defenders and floated crosses towards the middle for Cardozo to attack.
Their partnership has evolved slightly - Gaitan will try and slide passes in behind for Cardozo from a left-of-centre playmaking position, and will also burst forward to try and work one-twos with him in and around the penalty area.
Jesus has a number of options on his bench. Pablo Aimar is a childhood hero of Mata's and plays a similar role as a classical number ten, while one of Ola John or Cardozo will not start, but is likely to feature.
Rodrigo, once a loanee at Bolton is also an exciting option, with tremendous pace and clever movement towards the channels. His manager at Bolton, Owen Coyle, spoke glowingly of him at the time: "[he] is outstandingly quick, energetic and brave. He moves into places where defenders do not want to go and centre-backs do not want to get dragged out wide against him because he has pace and tricks to do you."
Benfica often take long throw-ins. Salvio takes them on the right, Gaitan on the left, with Luisao coming forward from the back to challenge for the ball. Against Fenerbache and Porto, they scored two goals as a result of scrappiness rather than a particularly clever move, but it illustrates the threat they possess in these situation. Sometimes, they will go short to their nearest man, catching the opposition off-guard.
Lima and Gaitan share responsibility for direct free-kicks. The former hits them with power on the instep of his right foot, whereas Gaitan tries to place them with accuracy.
Benfica defend corners with zonal marking. One man - generally the full-back of the side the corner is coming from (so Malgarejo for the left, Almeida for the right) stands on the near post, and then the two centre-backs, one striker and the ‘spare' full-back line up on the edge of the six yard box, looking to clear any ball that enters their zone. Matic stands slightly closer, manning an area in front of the near post, while Perez and Salvio around the edge of the area, mopping up second balls. Lima stays upfield, looking to counter.
The area of weakness comes at the far post, where there is no designated man. Therefore, Chelsea might try and play a short corner, working the ball to Oscar who then whips the ball in from the edge of the area towards a central defender. John Terry's goals against Brentford and Fulham stemmed from this simple training-ground move.
Conceding a last minute winner to your arch rivals to effectively seal the title is hardly ideal preparation for a European final, so Benfica's motivation for this fixture will be intensified by the fact this remains their last chance at a trophy this season. Rafa Benitez will ty to make this a tight, congested fixture - but the technical quality of the players might win out in an intriguing fixture.
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