Portuguese League: Preview of FC Porto-SL Benfica

The most anticipated match still to play in 2022 is taking place on Friday night, as Porto host League-leaders Benfica. After a flying start, Porto stuttered over the month of September, dropping 5 points and allowing Benfica to create a 3 point lead. That makes this match even more important, because I don’t think either team will drop points until the break for the World Cup.

After 9 League games plus at least another 5 in other competitions, I feel like we have a pretty decent idea of what to expect from both teams. In this post I’ve written a preview of what I think we’ll see in this match – highlighting the backdrop of both teams and some of the main tactical considerations on both sides.

We have seen all kinds of results in recent years – blow-outs, tight wins and cagey draws. Porto have won 5 games, lost 3 and drew 2 of the last 10 games. Not particularly impressive – we actually seem to have obtained better results away from home. I don’t think the past few encounters can really tell us much though, because this is a whole new Benfica – new coach, new players and new style of play.

Last season ended in a dominant 3-1 win, with Fábio Vieira scoring the opening goal.

The backdrop for Porto

Porto have come out flying since the break; if we exclude the 6-0 win against Anadia, Porto have won their last 4 games (Braga, Leverkusen x2, Portimonense), scoring 11 goals and conceding just 1. However, as I noted in my post game review (you can read that here), that second win against Bayer was extremely flattering – in reality, we probably should have lost.

Still, it’s important to come into these types of matches with some momentum and that is definitely the case for this team. We appear to have stabilised and found a formation that works. The starting line-up still has a couple of question marks though, which may prove to be our downfall.

I believe Pepê holds the key to this game. I’m not sure yet where he will play and that’s the point. If he’s allowed to play where he can be really effective – either left or right wing, I think he will terrorise Benfica, especially on the break. I don’t think their full-backs are very good. If Sérgio insists on playing him behind the striker or even at right-back, then we are wasting our key man.

Pepê scored in the home game and made the assist in the away game – both Porto wins, last season.

The backdrop for Benfica

In a short amount of time, we have seen a complete turn-around at Benfica. Roger Schmidt instituted a new style of play, oversaw an overhaul of the squad and brought back the ‘belief’. Benfica are a difficult team to stop when they’ve got the backing of fans and media, mostly for reasons unrelated to actual football playing ability.

When I wrote my League preview to start the season (you can read that here), I ranked Benfica as the third favourite to win – there was a lot of ‘new’ taking place. However, they have proved me wrong and started the season really well. I’ve since re-evaluated that prediction (you can read that here) and believe they are joint favourites with Porto.

Thus far, they remain undefeated despite having played the likes of Juventus and PSG (twice). I think they’ve been fortunate with their opening slate of games in the League though, with mostly weaker opponents. Their one really tough game was at Guimarães and they should have probably lost (goalless draw). But credit to them for capitalising on it and winning all of these games.

Whilst Enzo Fernandez is probably their best and most influential player, I believe Rafa is their key man to watch. Schmidt has kept Rafa as a #10 throughout this season and he has relished in that role. His pace on and off the ball, and ability explore the space between the midfield and the defence is really dangerous. He also has a knack for playing well against us in our stadium.

Containing Rafa’s ability to stretch the defence will be the recipe for success.

The tactical battle

I have a couple of doubts on both sides, but this is what I’m predicting (note: this not what I would do):

My predicted starting line-ups for Friday’s match.

On our side, I expect Sérgio to use the same line-up that beat Leverkusen. I don’t think it worked, because we played very poorly on offense, but we won by 3-0, so… I hope I’m wrong, but I’d prefer to see Evanilson starting instead of Galeno. So have Pepê on the left and Taremi working his usual support striker role, with Evanilson being the focal point up front. I would also start Wendell over Zaidu, but it’s probably not going to happen.

On Benfica’s side, there are some doubts on the availability of David Neres. However, even if he’s fit enough to start, I think he’ll come off the bench. This different set-up that Schmidt came up with worked fairly well against PSG. It looks funky with Aursnes, a defensive-midfielder playing as a de facto left-midfielder. But it gives Benfica a lot more cohesion in the midfield, both to win the ball back and to defend counter-attacks.

Whilst both teams start from a different formation, the principles are similar. Both teams use their full-backs to provide width, with the right-winger kind of working as a third centre-midfielder. Both strikers tend to come deep to get the ball and be involved in the build-up. Both teams play with a high defensive line and like to press high up the pitch.

The key difference is the movement of the second midfielder – whilst Eustáquio will occasionally make runs from deep to appear in the box, his involvement in the build-up tends to be mostly from a deeper position and to get the ball to the wings. Enzo on the other hand, is very much involved in the build-up in more advanced positions, both carrying the ball or making runs off the ball. He is also a threat from distance – he’s got a great long-range shot.

I have identified two key match-ups – one on each side. On offense, how Benfica’s right-back (regardless if it’s Gilberto or Bah) will cope with Galeno. He’s in great form right now and you saw against Bayer how dangerous he can be when running in space. On defence, how Carmo and Cardoso will deal with Gonçalo Ramos. I think he’s quite good and is also in great form. He is hard to track, because he moves so much without the ball. Not having Pepe available for this one is a huge blow.

I’d very much like to say that Porto are the favourites to win this game, especially given we are playing at home. But I think, at this moment in time, Benfica are the better team. It will take an extremely competent performance on both sides of the ball and for Sérgio not to be afraid to make changes if things aren’t going well. I have criticised him on occasion for being too slow to react – this is the type of match where you need to be active and not reactive.

If I have to give a prediction, I will go with a 1-1 draw. I hope to be completely wrong on this and that win comfortably instead – Força Porto!!!

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