Q&A with Planet Benfica | A Benfica perspective ahead of Manchester United's first Champions League tie

LISBON, PORTUGAL - AUGUST 24: Oscar Cardozo of SL Benfica is challenged by Douglas of FC Twente during the UEFA Champions League play-off second leg match between SL Benfica and FC Twente at Estadio da Luz on August 24, 2011 in Lisbon, Portugal. (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)

Manchester United venture into Europe for the first time during this campaign when they they trek to Estadio da Luz for a clash with Benfica on Wednesday night. The Portuguese side finished second last season in their domestic league and they appear to be the other favorite to advance from United's group in the UEFA Champions League. Thus, this away tie in Lisbon is likely to be the most difficult fixture for the Reds during the group stages. Ahead of this game, we've arranged a 'Question & Answer' exchange with Planet Benfica, a Benfica fansite. Be sure to check them out for any news on their club ahead of Wednesday's clash. They provided some thorough and informative answers. This is actually probably one of my favorite exchanges that we've done so I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did. Here are the answers they provided to questions posed by us, both you the readers and myself:

TBB: Does Benfica manager Jorge Jesus have any tricks up his sleeve for this one? Could you elaborate a bit on his tactics? It appears that Benfica play in a 4-3-3 shape, if so, can you expand on this? Despite winning the title in his first season and being praised for such attractive football prior to last season, it appears that Jesus was criticized during this past campaign for his tactics.

PB: With the influx of players over the summer (14 of our Champions League squad are either new signings or youth players who have broken through), I think Jorge Jesus will be obliged to play things a bit differently to previous seasons.  The general feeling amongst Benfica supporters before the start of the season was that our squad was generally not stronger and our 1st team probably weaker year on year, given that a replacement for Angel Di Maria wasn't found last summer, and now Fábio Coentrão has moved on too, both of which are sorely missed.  Personally I think Jorge Jesus' tactics last season didn't suit the tools he had at his disposal, however after this season's early games, particularly in the Champions League qualifiers, we are looking like having plenty of options going forward, finally!  So unlike previous European campaigns under JJ which haven't necessarily been blessed with the attacking football we are capable of, I'm hopeful that he might realise that attacking is our key strength and the best way we're going to win the big games.  I know he does subscribe to the mindset of “score more than you concede”, which is fine as long as you can!  That being said, it is in European games where he has made his biggest selection errors in his time at Benfica, both against Liverpool in the Europa League 2 seasons ago, and last season against Braga.

TBB: Who are Benfica's key players? Pablo Aimar as the playmaker with Oscar Cordozo and Javier Saviola seem fearsome, can you tell us a bit more on them? How has Alex Witsel settled in at Benfica? How big of a role will he play this year only being 22 years old? Are there any other key players that we should be aware of?

PB: Aimar is a very inteligent player and although he's not got the fitness he once had at Valencia or River Plate, he is still the same player, and brings a great deal of experience to the heart of the midfield.  As such, despite the fact that he seldom plays a full 90 minutes, he is a key player in our team, and will no doubt have some say in how the Champions League group finishes up.  Along side him we now have Axel Witsel, who I personally was sceptical about given his reputation of being a bit hot headed in Belgium, and potentially a liability for red and yellow cards.  However he has impressed a lot in pre-season and in the first few games has looked like he's settling in very quickly and making his mark on the midfield.  I think his discipline problems were probably a sign of his immaturity, but he has certainly looked like he's got a good football brain and as he matures will turn out to be a great player, so definitely one to watch.  Nevertheless, our most impressive summer signing has to be Nolito, who joined us on a free from Barcelona.  The winger scored in his first 5 games for us, and is turning out to be a real handful.  I think any other club would probably have tried a bit harder to hold on to him, but with Barcelona's current abundance of talent he wasn't realistically going to get a look in, and he's far too good a player to have sitting on the bench or in the B team.  I have no doubts he will show his talent in the Champions League as he seems to be a class act.

 

TBB: Some reports say that Benfica's can be vulnerable when defending -- do you feel that is a fair assessment? How has former Chelsea defender Nemanja Matic done so far since his arrival? Also, has the club recovered from the losses of David Luiz and Fabio Coentrao? If an attacking full-back is one that a side desires, it appears Coentrao may be one's best option at left-back in that regard.

PB: It's a fair shout that the weakest part of our team is our defence.  Too many easy goals have already been conceded this season for my liking, and certainly against top teams it's a real worry.  I touched on the lack of a convincing replacement for Coentrão in an earlier question, and I'm sure that's relevant, but in the centre of defence I'm actually very confident in the abilities of our main pairing of Luisão (our captain who has 42 caps for Brazil), and new signing Ezequiel Garay who is just breaking into the Argentina squad, and is proving a solid replacement for David Luiz.  The main issues for me are on the left side of defence, where Emerson is just settling into the team, and whilst he's showing fair skill going forward, his defending isn't necessarily up to scratch for me (though I know there are people who say the opposite of him - the general consensus being he has a bit of work to do!).  Whilst in the league, we now have Joan Capdevila as solid and experienced World Cup winning backup, he isn't in our Champions League squad, and instead we have to make do with César Peixoto, who has apparently refused to play at left back any more!  As for Matic, the tall Serb impressed on loan last season at Vitesse in the Dutch league, and whilst he has shown good defensive qualities, he is more of a midfielder and as such is looking like a decent deputy for Ruben Amorim, and his height will certainly pose an interesting threat for other teams in the Portuguese league where average heights are lower than those in England.

 

TBB: With the departure of David Luiz and Fabio Coentrao, this makes Benfica's transfer policy come to mind. Can you discuss a bit on your club's recent dealings? Is the strategy to fund the club by developing young stars and selling them to clubs abroad? Benfica is certainly a famous club, how is this balanced with the club's ambition in European competition?

PB:I touched on this in a couple of previous questions but I’m going for the long answer here!  It is a little known fact that Benfica is actually the club with the most paid up members in the world, but that is largely irrelevant when the club plays in what is currently the 6th best league in Europe, in a country where the minimum wage is 1/3 that in the UK.  It really boils down to 2 things.  Money and competitiveness.  The gulf between the budgets of the clubs in the 2 countries' respective leagues is probably 20 times that on average (at a reasonable estimate), if not more.  They are literally in a totally different league.  Add to this the fact that, although the league is improving of late, and there are a few sides pushing the top sides a bit more, most people in Portugal support one of 3 teams, Benfica, Sporting and FC Porto, and these are the only teams really capable of attracting the top players and of paying good wages to them (relatively speaking), but the best players want to play in the best leagues, and these aren't the ingredients for the best leagues.  So it's natural that when a player makes their mark in Portugal, especially when they're in the "shop window" of European competition, the bigger, richer teams in England, Spain, Germany and Italy (and even France occasionally) are going to come calling, cheque book in hand.  To keep things progressing, teams have to offer bigger salaries, but the TV money isn't like it is in England, and the revenue from ticket sales is significantly less, despite being a much bigger chunk out of people's wages.  All these factors make it quite easy for teams like Benfica to accept offers for their best players, as frankly we need the money!

Nevertheless the fans are always disappointed to see the best players leave,
as I'm sure you can relate to with the fairly recent sale of Cristiano
Ronaldo.  The money helps take the edge off it, but when it's only going
really to service the club's debts (which again I'm sure you can relate to -
though that's for another day!) it still leaves people feeling a bit unhappy
with the direction the club is going.  The manager has admitted that part of
his job is to increase the value of young players where they can be sold for
a profit in the future - partly players from South American contingency,
which has been the club's principal market for the last decade due to 'low
cost' transfers in comparison to the European market.  It's a vicious
business cycle which has both its advantages and disadvantages.

The biggest problem is that for every successful example, such as David
Luiz, Di Maria, Simão etc., there are at least twice the number of 'failed'
transfers.  Players from abroad often need time to adapt to a different
country, league and culture.  We've had numerous players who have made very
little impact for the club, and the club has ended up losing a great deal of
money in wages and transfer fees, money that it can't really afford to
waste.

We certainly don't want to be branded as a "selling club" (and in national
terms we're not!), because in an ideal world a club with the stature of
Benfica shouldn't need to sell their best players.  Nevertheless it is now
increasingly difficult to compete with top European leagues such as the
Premiership and La Liga, where apart from being more competitive and
inviting leagues, the  inancial rewards are much greater than what the
Portuguese clubs can offer.

The fans believe we should at least be challenging for the latter stages of
any European competition, it has been a while since we won a European Cup -
losing in the last five final appearances, with 1990 vs AC Milan being our
most recent.

TBB: Speaking of Benfica's European ambition, Manchester United certainly have a tie with your club. In 1968, Sir Matt Busby led the Reds to a famous victory at Wembley when he captured our first European Cup versus Benfica. I'm always quite curious about football history and the interesting figures of it's rich past. Can you tell us a bit about the great Eusebio?

PB: What I have seen of him, he was a legendary player, and in my absolutely unbiased opinion, the best the world has seen, relegating the Pelé/Maradona question to settle merely who was 3rd best  behind Stanley Matthews in 2nd!) It's great to still have him involved with the club as he still brings real inspiration to those around him.

 

TBB: Do you expect to win the Primeira Liga this season? With the departure of Andre Villas-Boas from FC Porto, does this make you favorites to overtake them? Benfica appear to be the other favorite besides United to advance from our group in Champions League -- what are your European goals for this season? What is your form coming into this game? 

PB: André Villas-Boas' departure from FC Porto certainly makes things a little easier for us, but their victories won't stop just because he's not there any more!  They remain our biggest threat if we are to regain the league this season, but I tend to think along the lines of we only depend on ourselves to get the successes we want.  I'm personally quite positive with our improvements over the summer, now I've seen them in action in a few league and European games, and I think we have what it takes to become champions again domestically.  Our Champions League group would appear fairly straightforward on paper, obviously with Man Utd as favourites to top the group and us strongly fancying 2nd!  However all the teams that have got this far can present a threat, and we won't be taking any of the games lightly.  I expect qualification from the group, and realistically anything further than that is a bonus given the lack of European experience in many of our players, although I think we have a good enough squad to reach the quarter finals certainly.

 

TBB: Can you explain to us a little about Benfica's rivalries? Sporting CP appear to be the historical rival but how does Porto compare?

PB: Historically speaking, Sporting are probably our more traditional rival, due to the proximity of the 2 clubs, and also the greater challenge provided by Sporting during the bulk of the last century.  Prior to when their current president came to power in 1982, FC Porto were relatively insignificant, having won only 7 league titles, compared to the 18 they have won since (in addition to their European successes).  It is this turn around in form, as well as the north-south rivalry, that has made them the club's principal rivals both on and off the pitch, and has perhaps relegated our neighbours to 2nd rivals.  It is often said that Sporting are the "adversary", whilst Porto are the "enemy"!  Having said that, there are very few Porto supporters in Lisbon, so there is a definite resentment towards Sporting's fans as we have to share our city with them, and there is definitely no love lost!

 

TBB: Finally, can you tell us about A Catedral (Estadio da Luz)? This seems to be a  place that any football fan would love to see. With the new stadium replacing the old one that was also called Estadio da Luz, is this somewhat similar to the old and new Wembley?

PB: Having had the privilege of going to both the old and new Luz, as well as the old and new Wembley, I would probably agree with the analogy in general. I went to one of the last games at both grounds, and would agree that both needed either replacing or serious renovation, but my heart always favours the latter option for classic old grounds wherever they are.  Our new ground can certainly be an intimidating place for opponents to go when it's full and when the crowd get behind our team, but it doesn't have the same imposing nature of the old stadium which on its day could put the Nou Camp to shame.  Those days are long gone though and I can't complain about the better facilities available at our new stadium, and after a good 6 years or so it does now feel like home (even to old school fans like me!)  On this point I would add that this is for me the most attractive point about Man Utd, as you've been fortunate enough to be able to keep expanding the ground over the years in line with the club's progress, and you now have a massive, up to date, yet classic old football ground, which is definitely a personal favourite.

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