From the Touchline: Benfica Begin Title Defence with 3-1 Win over Braga

From the Touchline

The Liga Nos season started with an intriguing matchup, as the defending title holders Benfica hosted Braga, who finished fifth in the league last season. While Benfica are the favourites to defend their title, Braga would prove a good opening test for manager Rui Vitoria.

The squad sheets had both sides lining up in a 4-2-2, but the reality was slightly more complicated. The title holders started the match in more of a 4-1-3-2 with Jonas appropriately as the playmaking number ten and roaming in space. Haris Seferovic was often left up top to try and time his runs while further back Ljubomir Fejsa dropped into more of a holding midfield role. Braga responded with a 4-2-3-1 with Fransergio and Nikola Vukcevic as the back two pivots and Ahemd Hassan as the player up top. What this meant is despite Braga being winless as the Estadio da Luz since December 2014, both teams were looking to play attacking, opportunistic football.

From the beginning, it was obvious there would be a few goals in the match. Both sides had excellent chances within ten minutes. For Benfica, it was trying to find Jonas in space to allow him to create a shot or pass to Seferovic. Primarily they looked down the flanks to exploit some of the space Braga left in the midfield by pushing forward. In response, the visitors held a higher back line and dared Benfica’s #9 (or more accurately #14) to time his runs behind them. For Braga, they tried to exploit some space in between the home side’s defence with well-timed runs from midfield which, except for some poor possession, could have resulted in an early goal.

The first goal came almost as planned from Benfica. The home side wrestled possession away from Braga on the left and Franco Cervi found Jonas. The forward then created some space around him just enough to cross the ball in front of the net, where Seferovic was able to reach it just with a few toes and more importantly Matheus could not. He poked the ball into the net at the 15’ minute mark to break the deadlock.

After the goal, Benfica seized the momentum and had the majority of chances. The second goal came from the one thing a defence on the road cannot do – take it easy. A lazy clearance on defence led to the ball falling to Jonas, who timed his strike just right to bounce his shot past the keeper.

Braga would threaten to stay in the match though. Near halftime, Braga had possession down the right side. Hassan made a run between two Benfica defenders and unlike earlier in the half, when he got the pass he converted on a tough cross. At that point, Braga had converted their shape to almost a 4-3-1-2 with Rui Fonte moving higher up to pull defenders away from Hassan.

There were no changes to start the second half as both sides were to varying degrees pleased with the status quo. Benfica resorted back to the more traditional 4-4-2 in the hope of allowing Pizzi and the wide midfielders chances to run into gaps. Braga sat back more and ceded possession hoping to strike on the counter or in transition. As it was, in the 53rd minute Braga had a moment of possession in the opposition’s half and Hassan thought he had beat an offside trap to score a gorgeous goal, but instead he was correctly called inches offside.

The backbreaker came in the 57th minute in transition. The ball went wide down the left and a cross in deflected off Seferovic to a cutting Salvio who easily knocked it into the net. From that point, the match was as good as done. The match certainly was a physical, early season contest but a good three points in Benfica’s title defence. While their defence showed some weakness – as was exposed in the preseason – they still look the class of Liga Nos.