As the last English side remaining in the competition, Chelsea went to Portugal with a burden on their shoulders- not to humiliate the level of the PL among the elite sides in Europe. Benfica, who were enthusiastic from their comeback win against Zenit St Petersburg in the round of 16, were known for their attractive style of football. Their one touch pass-and-go fluid style of football had both its pros and cons, but with a balanced side of youth and experience, they were a team to be reckoned with. Interestingly, we also faced the side based in Lisbon in the following years UEL final, where we became the first club ever to hold both the European competitions at the same time. Bela Guttman’s curse remained intact. (Bela Guttman left Benfica in 1962 after the club rejected a pay raise for him, and he resigned and cursed the club saying they won’t win another European trophy for the next 100 years. Since then, they have reached seven finals, having lost all of them).
Getting back to the 2012 quarter final clash, Di Matteo named a rather erratic starting line-up, and he seemed to draw inspiration from his predecessor Andre Villas-Boas. A host of players who are otherwise the first name on the team sheet- including Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba- were left on the bench. This certainly raised several eyebrows, and presented two scenarios. Either he would face the same fate as Villas-Boas and severe backlash, or will gain the reputation of a great tactician with a masterclass. With Benfica naming a fully fit line up with their regular starters, let’s find out how the nervy night unfolded at the Estadio da Luz.
The game begun with Benfica having all the ball, although they could not create any significant chances with the possession. Chelsea’s tactic seemed clear within the first 15 minutes of the game- sit back and let the hosts run out of patience, and pounce on the counter when they lose the ball. They managed to do this successfully, forcing the Benfica players to take several long shots, wide and wayward. Torres had a decent opportunity to grab a goal against the run of play when he showed some brilliant control, but sliced the ball high. Meireles, who was already cautioned earlier in the game got away with a handball, nearly scored the breakthrough with the brilliant shot from distance, only to be palmed away by the experienced Artur. Prior to this, Benfica absolutely dominated the game with slick passing moves that they had put hours of training on, but were left fruitless as Chelsea’s defensive unit stood firm. They ended the half with more possession, chances created and shots. It looked a case of when rather than if the goal would come, and the home crowd started to grow impatient as the referee blew the half time whistle.
The second half kicked off in the same fashion as the first, with Benfica now threatening more and more. They won a free-kick a few minutes into the restart and nearly scored the opening goal of the tie, with Cardozo showcasing his striker’s instinct to hit the ball finely. However, up stepped former Benfica player David Luiz to put his body on the line and deny the hosts the lead after Cech was wrong footed and comfortably beaten. The urgency in Benfica’s play was now evident, and this was now a chance for Chelsea to pounce on any loss of concentration by the Portuguese giants.
And the chance fell for Kalou from a Torres cross, but unfortunately the African winger headed over. This seemed like one of those days for both clubs alike. Benfica were unlucky to be denied a penalty after the ball quite clearly hit our captain John Terry’s arm, but the referees deemed it too soft to point to the spot. Chelsea’s second glorious chance of the night fell to our little Spanish magician Juan Mata, as a Cech clearance missed everyone and fell straight into his path. Mata did well to round the keeper, but was forced to a tight angle and only managed to hit the woodwork.The expression of disbelief was etched on the faces of the fans and Mata alike, as everyone would expect a player of his ability to put the ball into the back of the net from that distance. Soon it was Benfica’s turn to ramp up the pressure, and they took several shots, most from range. However, Jardel had a brilliant opportunity to finally score the first goal of the night with his head, but Cech’s excellent positioning denied him the honour of doing so. Lampard was finally introduced by Di Matteo, hoping for a smash and grab now that the opposition were tired and moving in a sluggish manner. This seemed to work to perfection, as Kalou made up for his earlier miss by sliding the ball into the net from point blank range. Some fantastic play by Ramires to play Torres through paid its rewards as the Spanish striker laid a perfectly weighted ball into the centre of the box for the unmarked Ivory Coast international to tuck the ball home. With 15 minutes left to play, Chelsea were happy to sit back with all 10 players behind the ball having secured an away goal. It could have nearly been doubled as our attackers missed a good chance- not for the first time in the night. Full time, Benfica 0-1 Chelsea.
Despite Benfica ending the game with nearly 60% possession and 17 shots, they could not find the back of Petr Cech’s net. Chelsea, who were more than happy to play on the counter had a fair amount of missed chances of their own. However they seemed content with the result- an away victory could hardly be disappointing. So, it turned out to be a tactical masterstroke by the manager after all- and he rightfully earned the plaudits he received. While Benfica could very easily blame their sheer bad luck, they chose to be positive about their chances in the reverse fixture as they had dominated this game from start to finish. Did they manage to reverse the deficit at Stamford Bridge? Find out this time next week, and always remember to stay inside and stay safe!