Group Stage Fan Preview: Benfica

Zach Lowy talks to Benfica Podcast host Cristiano Oliveira about Benfica.

ZL: What are your expectations for Benfica going into the group stage?

CO: It’s a tricky group, but I expect Benfica to fight it out with Ajax for that coveted 2nd place and advance to the knockout stage.

ZL: How do you think Benfica can beat Ajax to the 2nd spot? What do they need to improve on?

CO: Well, it won’t take much to improve on last season’s UCL campaign (0 points, 1 goal for-14 goals conceded). That was the worst ever performance by a Portuguese team in the competition. If Benfica are to get out of the group, they will need Jonas and Pizzi at their best. SLB are a totally different team with the Brazilian sniper on the field, he and Pizzi are a lethal pairing. Ajax are a team with very talented youngsters with a few veterans, Benfica will have more experienced players in this competition and that’s where they will have the advantage over the Amsterdam club.

ZL: Would you say Benfica improved or worsened this summer?

CO: They definitely improved; they did this summer what they should have done last summer when they had an opportunity to win a Penta, something they had never done in their stories history. They brought in players to strengthen the squad. Castillo and Ferreyra will surely help the attack when Jonas isn’t fit or rested, and the additions of Gedson and Gabriel will give Rui Vitória options that he didn’t have last season when Pizzi wasn’t at his best and the addition of a real goalkeeper (Vlachodimos) will solidify the team at the back.

ZL: What player on Benfica has the most to prove this summer?

CO: Pizzi for sure. After a terrible season by his standards, he has a lot to prove. To his credit, he started this season on the right foot and has been rewarded by being called up again by Fernando Santos to represent Portugal.

ZL: Who do you expect to be Benfica’s most vital player this season?

CO: I can go with a couple of different players here but I’ll go back to Pizzi. SLB go as Pizzi goes; when he’s on his game they are hard to beat and when he’s off they’re average.

ZL: Predicted first choice XI without injuries?

CO: Vlachodimos; André Ruben Jardel Grimaldo; Gedson Fejsa Pizzi; Salvio Jonas Cervi. Seferović will start for the time being as Jonas is still injured. With everyone fit and ready to go, Jonas is a no brainer. I would love to see Andrija Zivković get the minutes instead of Cervi but for some reason Vitória is not in love with Ziv like the rest of us.

ZL: What’s one advantage Benfica have over Ajax?

CO: UCL experience and most of the 11 is back from last season.

ZL: Have you been satisfied with Benfica’s European results under Rui Vitória?

CO: With the exception of last year’s atrocious UCL campaign, I really can’t crucify him for losing to Bayern and Dortmund in the knockout stages the previous years.

ZL: Is there any weakness Vitória needs to overcome to win over more Benfiquistas?

CO: Yes, he needs to win games vs our big rivals, he’s got 2 wins in 15 vs them.

ZL: What do you feel is holding Benfica back from doing well in Europe?

CO: The budgets of the European sharks! Management prioritizes making money on selling players and winning the league over European competitions.

ZL: That’s because of the debt, no? When do you think Benfica will have paid off their debt, and after doing so, will they stop being a selling club?

CO: No clue as to when they will wipe out the debt and the hope as a Benfica fan is exactly that, to go from a selling club to a club that is able to hold on to their kids for a few more years and see what kind of challenge we can put up in the UCL.

ZL: What’s your mood on Rui Vitória—a coach that seems to divide the opinion of Benfiquistas?

CO: Never been a fan of his coaching/tactical ideas since day one. He’s a class act but lacks the creativity the the fans so desperately want.

ZL: What are his biggest strengths vs. his biggest weaknesses?

CO: His biggest strength is his man management; he relates well with players, and they seem to like playing for him. His weakness is that he doesn’t know how to get this team to play at a high level in big games, hence the ONLY 2 wins in 15 games vs the club’s two biggest rivals, Sporting and Porto.

ZL: How important has Vitória been in incorporating academy talent into the first team?

CO: With the club selling off any one who shows promise, Vitória has had to introduce players from Seixal, and to his credit he’s been very good with the kids. As I said before, his man management skills are through the roof and the incorporation of the youngster shoes exactly that.

ZL: Do you see anybody possibly leaving in January?

CO: I can definitely see third string goalkeeper Bruno Varela and Samaris leaving in Jan. The latest rumor is that Cristian Lema is not happy that he has not seen any minutes, and he might be looking to leave in January.

ZL: Do you think they would sell any players that are actually good?

CO: No, not in January. If anyone of note is to leave it will be in the summer.

ZL: Who’s gonna be the breakout star for Benfica this season?

CO: Easy, Gedson. Kid has come up to the main squad from Seixal and hasn’t missed a beat. At the tender age of 19 in a span of 6 weeks he’s already made his UCL, Liga Nos debut and scored in the CL qualifiers… did I mention he also go the call from Fernando Santos to represent Portugal ?

ZL: I saw him live and he’s a stud, but do you think he’s being overworked?

CO: That’s definitely a concern at the moment but with the addition of Gabriel late in the transfer window, both Gedson and Pizzi will get plenty of rest.

ZL: What’s Benfica’s biggest weakness?

CO: Weakness?? There’s no real weakness but if I’d have to pick a position of concern it would be the right back position. André Almeida did a tremendous job of replacing Nélson Semedo who left for Barcelona last summer and was a lot better then we all expected he would be. Yes, André has his struggles at times but for the Portuguese league he’s more than suitable to play that position for the águias.

ZL: What does Ruben Dias need to do to improve and become Portugal’s future #1 CB?

CO: Ruben is a very physical center back with above average feet, in order to take the next step and become a stud at that position he needs to improve his ball skills, and needs to play a long ball or two out the back for his attackers.

ZL: Do you think he’s too error-prone?

CO: No, he’s just not very good with the ball at his feet. He’s still young and can still improve that part of his game.

ZL: What’s one player who’s about to have a make or break season at Benfica?

CO: Gedson, the kid has everything to develop into a star with the right guidance from Rui Vitória.

ZL: Do you expect Benfica to go through to the knockout round?

CO: I really think it’s 50/50 between them and Ajax. It all depends on how serious Rui Vitória and management take this competition. What’s more important to them, is it getting out of the group or is it winning the Liga NOS title?

ZL: So what do you expect him to do? Prioritize Liga NOS or CL?

CO: That’s the million dollar question. I think they will prioritize LigaNOS but they will want to put forth a good showing in the UCL also.

ZL: What’s one hidden advantage Benfica have over their opponents?

CO: It no secret to anyone but this core has been together for 4-5 years, so familiarity with one another is a plus.

ZL: What’s your biggest concern when it comes to Benfica?

CO: My only real concern is how we perform against our biggest rivals; I’m hoping Rui Vitória changes that this season.

ZL: Vitória gives our opponents way too much respect, sometimes you have to go in guns blazing and demand respect.

Photo: Global Imagens