If you took a poll of all Chelsea supporters before the Champions League, to a man they would have said that they would rather see Benfica or APOEL and no Real Madrid or Barcelona in the quarterfinals. Well, be careful what you wish for.
On Tuesday night, Chelsea will travel to the Estadio da Luz (referred to by its Portuguese name as not to be confused with the Stadium of Light in Sunderland), former home to current Chelsea players David Luiz and Ramires.
Luiz has already gone on record saying that the Estadio da Luz is known for its home support, and you can imagine that they will be up for it. Chelsea cannot take this Benfica side for granted as they have three or four players that can cause problems for any side.
Manchester United can attest to what can happen by underestimating Benfica. In the group stages, the Premier League contenders failed to take maximum points out of either fixture, drawing to Benfica twice. Also, do not underestimate the fact that under manager Jorge Jesus, Benfica have finished first or second in the last two Primeira Liga campaigns and reaching the Europa League semi-finals last term.
Regardless of how it appears on paper, this is a side every bit as dangerous as Napoli, though in a different way.
In the group stages, United found out the new style of Portuguese play, which in some ways, resembles the style played by their neighbors, Spain.
While the Portuguese sides don’t necessarily play the elaborate Tiki-Taka game that the Spanish do, they do employ a very similar pressing style that isn’t seen in England. Four times in Europe it’s given United issues, twice versus Benfica and twice versus Athletic Bilboa, and it’s something that Roberto Di Matteo does need to be aware of.
If you were to categorize the one area of the Chelsea squad that’s the weakest, it’s in the ball retention and movement against the press. If you force us to speed up play, the distribution of our midfielders becomes sloppy, leading to lots of poor passes in the center.
Against Benfica, that can be lethal given the quality of their midfield.
Benfica’s three-prong midfield attack is as quick and dangerous as we’ve seen this season.
Taking their striker out of consideration for just a second, their attacking midfield trio of Nicolas Gaitan, Pablo Aimar, and Nolito are as good as any three we’ve seen to this point. All three have the ability to create, with Nolito being second leading scorer with 8 goals, while being deployed on the left wing. Gaitan, in particular, gave Evra fits in the group stages and has alerted all of Europe of his ability, despite limited appearances for Argentina.
If that isn’t enough, behind them will sit Axel Witsel, the Belgian, who provides a ball winner in deep, and former Chelsea player Nemanja Matic will also see time in the midfield.
Benfica’s main threat is their lead striker, Oscar Cardozo.
On paper, the Paraguayan looks like the kind of striker that every Premier League side is used to: good in the air, not overly quick, strong center forward.
However, Cardozo, despite his limitations, manages to score goals, plain and simple. His record in all competitions this season is right up there with Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Robin van Persie.
Coming into this Champions League encounter, in 35 appearances, Cardozo has score 26 goals. That’s a remarkable ratio that dwarves the ratio of any of our strikers, and he will have to be watched carefully.
Speaking of strikers, Roberto Di Matteo has a tough call on which one to choose.
It would be a much easier choice if either Didier Drogba or Fernando Torres could find the net with some regularity. The fact is that neither have done so. Drogba has 9 goals in 24 appearances. Torres has 6 goals in 36 appearances. Neither player is setting himself apart, which makes this decision imperative based on style of play.
From my perspective, Torres must start every match in the run-in. The one thing that I’ve noticed with Drogba this season is that he can raise his game on one or two matches, but he goes missing for large amounts of times in matches he doesn’t seem to fancy. When that happens, he contributes very little to the overall play, except to provide a target to launch long balls to.
Torres, on the other hand, has turned himself into a £50M link man. The one thing that he’s shown a willingness to do is to drop off the opposition’s center backs and play in the space between the opposition’s midfield and defence. It gives the midfield a higher percentage out ball, and Torres has show that he might be the second most creative player behind Mata.
I know that strikers are paid to score goals, but when neither is firing, I’ll go with the one that provides more to our overall play.
Can the old guard find it in them for one last Champions League push? It could mean everything.
After dropping points to Tottenham, the gap to qualification for next year’s Champions League stands at 5 points with 8 matches to play. While Spurs could drop points, it stands to reason that we just might as well.
Given that scenario, winning the competition might be the only chance Chelsea have to virtually guarantee themselves a spot next year.
To that end, the senior players must acknowledge the dire situation that they’re in and raise their game accordingly. This will be this current era’s last chance at European glory as a team, and it might also, ironically, the only way to make sure that we don’t fail to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in a decade.
I honestly think that this will be a 2-1 defeat. I just have a sneaky suspicion that our terrible European away form will continue, especially after the dire performance we put in at the Bridge against Tottenham in a match that we had to win. I have confidence that we can still get into 4th, but it’s looking less and less likely, and beating Benfica over two legs will be no easy task.