The last time Benfica began a season this badly, George VI was on the English throne. Ben Shave rounds up the stories from Round 2 of the Liga ZON Sagres, including a second consecutive defeat for the Eagles.
You may recall last week's article, where I attributed Benfica's opening day defeat at the hands of Académica to a combination of rustiness and historical inevitability. Benfica are traditionally slow starters. However, on Saturday evening there was something far more sinister at work on the island of Madeira, where Jorge Jesus and his men were comprehensively beaten by Nacional. Don't let the 2-1 scoreline fool you, Benfica were poor, as poor as they have been for a good few seasons. Indeed, there is a fairly persuasive argument which holds that this is their worst beginning to a season in history. The two previous campaigns where they lost their opening two games included defeats from Sporting CP and FC Porto, the other grandees of Portuguese football. This time, Benfica have succumbed to a pair of teams that finished last season with 33 and 39 points respectively. That's 43 and 37 points behind the Eagles, in case you were wondering.
The inevitable post-mortem has been played out in the Portuguese press in the days following the defeat, and one figure has been singled out for particular criticism- Benfica's €8.5m summer purchase from Atlético Madrid, Roberto. Having had a less than stellar pre-season campaign, the pressure was already on the Spaniard following the opening day defeat, where he was embarrassed by Laionel's exquisite lob. But the nature of that goal ensured that Roberto's role in it was somewhat underreported, if not entirely forgotten. There was no danger of that on Saturday. Benfica, and their keeper in particular, were exposed acutely at set-pieces, just as they were against Académica. With Cardozo seemingly more concerned with his shoelaces than the area he was supposed to be marking, Roberto attempted to connect with a fairly innocuous free-kick. The distance by which he failed to make any sort of contact with the ball will be familiar to those Tottenham fans who had the misfortune to endure Heurelho Gomes's debut season in English football. As Roberto flapped and his teammates stood still, Luis Alberto converted the easiest of headers.
The ensuing fifteen minutes saw Benfica temporarily remember how to play football, or so it seemed. Aimar began to roam, Cardozo started to move, and it looked as if an equaliser was on the cards. However, the Argentine and Cardozo wasted decent chances, and Nacional's defence (anchored nervelessly by Danielson) held firm, safe in the knowledge that as long as they kept winning the occasional set-piece, a chance for a second would surely come. And so it did. A corner was hoisted across the penalty area and the ball was headed high back towards the goal. Roberto, in his wisdom, decided that it was going to land on top of the goal, and, well, it didn't. Instead, it hit the crossbar and Nacional's Orlando Sá (on loan from FC Porto) couldn't miss. It was a moment of spectacular misjudgement (and misfortune), and it unsurprisingly knocked the stuffing out of Benfica, with Carlos Martins adding a consolation in injury time.
Benfica were forced to issue a statement the next day denying that Roberto would be leaving the club, but he surely cannot start the next game, at home to Setúbal. After the second Nacional goal, he received torrents of abuse from all sides of the stadium, and one can only imagine the manner of reception he would encounter at the Luz. The problem for Benfica, and more specifically Jorge Jesus, is that the identity of his replacement is not immediately obvious. With neither Julio Cesar nor Moreira capable of transmitting confidence to their defenders on a long-term basis, the decision to allow Quim to return to Sporting Braga looks to be a more short-sighted one than even those who initially questioned it believed. For all that he was less prone to eye-catching saves, the veteran was a consistently calm presence behind his defenders, something that they are sorely lacking if the evidence of Saturday is any indicator.
But it's not just Roberto. The opening two rounds have made it all too clear that Benfica have not adequately replaced Ramires or Angel Di Maria. For some reason Carlos Martins continues to start on the bench, despite the fact that in both defeats his entrance has precipitated some sort of fightback. Nicolas Gaitan appears to be a more centrally-minded player, unaccustomed to producing the type of bursting runs down the wing that compatriot Di Maria did so regularly last season. Whilst Jorge Jesus enjoyed great success with a diamond last year, it looks as if without Ramires and Di Maria, the effectiveness of the formation (particularly in wide areas) is reduced.
Personally, I would like to see Benfica try the 4-2-3-1 which serves so many great European sides. Saviola and Franco Jara are capable of working sufficiently alongside the full-backs to ensure that the ball reaches wide areas, whilst either Aimar or Martins could play the more central role, linking up with the lone striker. In past seasons Óscar Cardozo has been among the first names on the team sheet, but his form thus far has been woeful. Either he is carrying an injury or simply on the wane, but it might be time to give Alan Kardec (who looked impressive last year, albeit in substitute cameos) a chance. Whatever Jorge Jesus decides, he will have to do so soon- Benfica will face Setúbal at home, Guimarães away, and Sporting at home in the next month, as well as two as yet undetermined Champions League group stage matches. Given their form so far, that tricky run of fixtures could define their season.
Round 2 talking points:
Having watched their city rivals continue to plumb the depths, Sunday evening's home fixture with Marítimo provided Sporting with the perfect opportunity to quell some of the vitriol that fans and press alike had been throwing their way. Despite this, their performance was woefully lacking in cutting edge, and the records will show that it took almost 90 minutes for the Lions to break down their dogged opponents; who from the opening set out to defend and occasionally strike on the counter attack. Although the youngster André Santos was impressive in the holding midfield role, too often Sporting were slow in moving the ball from the back, which afforded Mitchell van der Gaag's men ample time to steel themselves for another attack. The sparsely populated Alvalade was readying itself for a chorus of boos and jeers, when Robson clumsily took Liédson's legs from under him, and the referee awarded an indisputable penalty; coolly converted by substitute Matias Fernández. It wasn't a performance that will live long in the memory, but it at least provides Paulo Sérgio and his team with a measure of momentum going into their Europa League playoff round second leg against Brøndby, where they travel to Denmark trailing 2-0 on aggregate.
Porto continued to set the early season pace with a 3-0 victory over newly promoted Beira Mar at the Dragão, in what will surely be one of their least physically exerting games of the season. The only negative came early on, when youngster Ukra was stretchered off, having fractured a bone in his jaw. However, new signing Souza proved to be an able replacement, and his presence in the central creative role (combined with Beira Mar's lack of attacking threat) allowed Villas Boas to experiment with a new 4-3-1-2 formation, which saw Ruben Micael join Falcao up front. With the young Colombian James Rodríguez now eligible for action, Porto look to have found an irresistible combination of goals and midfield guile.
There was little to report from the other five games, which produced just three goals between them. Braga, clearly with one eye on Tuesday's Champions League tie with Sevilla, played out a 0-0 draw in Setúbal, and there were also no goals in Guimarães and Leiria. Naval continued their fine start to the season with a hard-fought 1-0 victory at Portimonense, whilst Académica and Olhanense crammed 90 minutes of action into injury time- where a fine header, a contentious penalty and a post-match dust up put the gloss on an otherwise forgettable 1-1 draw.
Round 2 results: Académica 1-1 Olhanense, Vitória Setúbal 0-0 Sporting Braga, Nacional 2-1 Benfica, Portimonense 0-1 Naval, União de Leiria 0-0 Paços de Ferreira, Sporting CP 1-0 Marítimo, FC Porto 3-0 Beira Mar, Vitória Guimarães 0-0 Rio Ave.
Round 3 fixtures: Nacional-Vitória Guimarães, Benfica-Vitória Setúbal, Paços de Ferreira-Portimonense, Beira Mar-Académica, Sporting Braga-Marítimo, Olhanense-União de Leiria, Rio Ave-FC Porto, Naval-Sporting CP.
Ben writes regularly for IBWM, but if you would like to read more from him please visit cahiers du sport.