There was a time when a meeting with Benfica would send shivers down the spine of any team in Europe. That was in the day of Eusebio, the rapier-like finisher from Mozambique with blistering pace and power like no other player. He was Europe’s answer to Pele – at least that’s what World Cup 1966, when he tore Brazil to pieces, suggested.
Benfica were one of Europe’s top clubs in the 1960s – they were the club that broke Real Madrid’s strangehold on the European Cup – and although they’ve been good for the odd run since, the Eagles from Lisbon don’t terrify the continent anymore.
That’s why Chelsea should be favourites to win the Europa League on May 15 when they meet Benfica in Amsterdam. But it won’t be easy for the Blues, because Benfica have shown they can mix it with the best that Europe can offer this season. They drew 0-0 against Barcelona in the Nou Camp in the Champions League, although they got knocked out in the group stage. And in the consolation prize that is Europa for the best third-placed teams, they have disposed of Leverkusen, Bordeaux, Newcastle and Fenerbache.
But let’s get things into perspective. Portugal is another European two-horse race and Benfica are currently grappling with Porto for top spot. Both clubs are unbeaten in the Primeira Liga and they will meet on May 12 in Porto’s Estadio do Dragao. At present, Benfica have a slim advantage over Porto, but the title may not be decided until the final game on May 19. Benfica are also in the Portuguese cup final on May 26 against Guimaraes.
Benfica’s strength is their ability to score lots of goals. They average almost three per game in the league and they’ve only conceded 16. Their key men are both from Latin America – the Paraguayan Oscar Cardozo and Brazil’s Lima. They’ve netted almost 60 goals between them this season. Cardozo, who was signed from Argentina’s Newell’s Old Boys, has been a fixture for a few seasons, netting over 100 goals in little more than 150 games.
Anyone assuming that Benfica represent Portugal’s finest would be mistaken, however. Only one Portuguese, defender Andre Almeida, featured in the Europa League semi-final second leg against Fenerbache. The squad is heavy with Latin Americans. As well as half a dozen apiece from Brazil and Argentina, there’s a sprinkling of Uruguayans and Paraguayans.
Portugal’s national finances are in a bad way, but Benfica are widely considered to be top of the “second division” in the football money league. According to Deloitte, Benfica are perched just outside the top 20 with revenues of EUR 111m. No other Portuguese team features in the top 30. What’s a little mystifying is that Benfica have only won the Primeira Liga twice in the past decade, despite their obvious advantages and an average gate – at 40,000 – that is 20 times some of their rivals’. Porto, the club previously managed by such luminaries as Jose Mourinho and his protégé, AVB, have been in the driving seat.
The man currently in the Benfica dug-out is Jorge Jesus, who has become something of a figure of fun in the media for his post-match comments and coaching limitations. If his claim that Portugal’s coaches are a decade ahead of the rest of Europe is true, then Chelsea had better watch out!
Chelsea’s desperation to win something in what has been a troubled campaign, coupled with Benfica’s resurgence, should make for an interesting final in the Amsterdam Arena. It has a nice old fashioned ring about it, but Benfica will not be a patch on the Eagles that won Europe’s premier trophy in 1961 and 1962.