Neither have a lost a game thus far in the Europa League. Both are considered the ‘favourites’ to win the competition but there can only be one winner when Benfica taken on Juventus on Thursday night in the semifinal of the Europa League. A match many feel ought to have been the final, the Portuguese champions have just celebrated their 33rd league title whilst the Old Lady is on the verge of celebrating her 32nd. An intriguing match between two Champions League dropouts, this isn’t simply a game between two teams but a battle between two nations in the fight for coefficient points.
The last time Juventus won the competition was in the 1992-93 season and they beat Benfica in the quarterfinals on their way to the trophy. Juventus manager Antonio Conte played both legs against the Portuguese side, suffering a loss away and then 3-0 victory at home to seal their progression and their eventual success. Now Conte is on the bench, attempting to prove that his fluid and entertaining Bianconeri side are capable of winning both in Europe as well as in Italy. But it won’t be easy. Boasting a solid defence that has conceded only 15 league goals this season and an attack blessed with great individual ability, Benfica are perhaps the toughest opponents Juventus could have faced in the semifinals of this competition. Having just secured the Portuguese Liga trophy, they are desperate to qualify for the final in order to make up for the many last-minute disappointments they suffered last season.
In Jorge Jesus, Benfica have a methodical coach who has clearly learnt from his mistakes and understood what it takes to create a winning side. Bolstering the defence, ensuring balance and rotating the squad to avoid exhaustion, Benfica are full of confidence and well equipped to cause serious damage.
In many ways, they resemble Juventus. They have a solid goalkeeper who has instilled his back-line with confidence, a squad capable of sharing the goal-scoring responsibilities and most importantly, a winning mentality that has seen them resolve difficult situations. However, a Champions League group stage win vs. PSG aside, they haven’t truly been tested against the very best this season.
With Porto suffering a terrible year and Europa League opponents that have hardly provided stern challenges, one has yet to see what Jesus’ men can do against a top level side - - one that will stretch their lines and effectively defend against their quality attackers.
Going forward, Benfica’s pace and quick transitions will trouble the Bianconeri, especially as their forwards are capable of dragging players out of position to create space for the midfielders behind them. However, Juventus have proved capable of defending quick passages of play, learning from their mistakes at the start of the season. Their organisation at the back and the manner in which they close down space and tighten their lines will hold them in good stead against the likes of Lima or Rodrigo. But the Italians must stay vigilant of the threat whilst the wing-backs must ensure they remain disciplined. We have already seen the Old Lady’s careless approach in certain matches and should possession be lost in midfield, Benfica will not waste the opportunity to exploit the error and show off their pace and ability to score.
Sadly for the Portuguese side, they will be without Mr. Europa League, Eduardo Salvio, who is set to miss the rest of the season. The player twice won the competition with Atletico Madrid and reached the final with Benfica last season only to lose to Chelsea. Having recently recovered from an early injury, he quickly regained his Europa League form to score the only goal in his team’s first leg win over AZ Alkmaar and provide the two assists for the 2-0 victory in the return leg. Their European maestro was back but it wasn’t for long and for the superstitious among us this could be a sign.
Thankfully for Italy, Juventus seem to have understood the importance of this competition, both for their own development and for the reputation of Calcio. The possibility of lifting another trophy will help to temporarily quench their thirst for European glory, even if the Champions League is what they want to be winning. Baby steps.
Along with his coaching team, Conte spent his Easter Sunday studying his Portuguese opponents. Noting their strengths and the weaknesses he hopes to exploit, the coach is enjoying this exciting time in his career. This is his chance to further develop his team and enhance his own reputation and it is one he mustn’t squander. Juve simply have to reach the final.