Tonight we take a break from domestic fixtures and the struggle to reach fourth place, and continue our pursuit of European glory. We have now reached the quarter-finals of the Europa League, and our opponents in this round of the last eight will be Portuguese giants Benfica.
The first time I’d heard of Benfica was during the 1966 World Cup. Portugal was one of the top footballing nations at that time, and one of the stars of that World Cup was the Portuguese striker Eusébio whose club side was Benfica. In one memorable match, he and his team-mates were three goals down after only twenty five minutes in their quarter final match against North Korea (played at Goodison Park). Eusébio managed to then score two in reply before half time, and added two more in the second half in a 5-3 win for Portugal. Those four goals led to him becoming the top scorer of the competition with nine goals in all.
Roughly one-third of the 1966 Portuguese World Cup squad were drawn from Benfica, with the remainder mostly from F.C. Porto or Sporting Lisbon. Those three clubs have dominated the Portuguese league with only two other clubs managing to take the league championship once each in seventy five years. Benfica have won the league thirty one times, well ahead of their nearest rivals (Porto with twenty four) as well as adding twenty four Portuguese Cups, two League Cups, and four Portuguese Super Cups. For the years that they were not league champions, they were runners-up twenty four times. That’s a truly impressive record for any club in any league.
The foundation of S.L. Benfica began in 1904 when a group in the city of Lisbon formed a football club called Grupo Sport Lisboa. In 1908, they acquired the club Sport Clube de Benfica (founded as Grupo Sport Benfica in 1906) and changed the name to Sport Clube de Benfica, which later became S.L. (Sport Lisboa e) Benfica. As with many other European clubs, Benfica is a multiple sports club, with basketball, cycling, rugby, water polo, athletics, gymnastics, billiards, and indoor football among its many departments. By the 1940’s it was football that dominated all of the other sports, and continues to do so to this day.
In European competition, Benfica have won the European Cup twice (1961 and 1962) out of seven appearances in the final. Those two successes came during the club’s Golden Era of the 1960’s, when they were the first club to break Real Madrid’s hold on the European Cup, who had held it for five consecutive years from 1956 to 1960. Benfica were also European Cup finalists three more times before the decade ended, to add to their seven league titles and four Portuguese Cups during that period. Since that golden era, the club has had mixed fortunes with continued domestic success but not so much in Europe. They managed to reach the final of the UEFA Cup in 1983, losing to 2-1 Anderlecht over two legs.
Benfica have had several notable players over their history, including Eusébio, Rui Costa, Simão, Luisão, Pablo Aimar, and Javier Saviola. Former managers of note are Sven-Goran Eriksson (twice), Ronald Koeman, Graeme Souness, and José Mourinho.
Liverpool have met Benfica four times in past years of the European Cup, the first time being in the 1977-78 season when Liverpool easily went through 6-2 on aggregate in their 3rd round tie. Liverpool were defending champions, and went on to win the cup again that year. The next meeting was again in the third round, this time in 1984 when Liverpool were once again on their way to becoming European Champions. Benfica were once again easily dealt with on this occasion, with an aggregate score of 5-1. The following season, Benfica were opponents yet again, this time in the second round when Liverpool went through 3-2 over the two legs. It might have seemed that Benfica were a good omen, where beating them would lead to a European Cup. It might have seemed that way after this most recent meeting, when Liverpool were in the final a few months later, but that was 1985.
Benfica were not a dominant force in Europe during the 1980’s and 1990’s, but they did have a large and very loyal following. Their home stadium, the Estadio de Luz (Stadium of Light) was expanded in the late 1980’s to reach a capacity of 120,000 – although much of that was standing room. That stadium was demolished in 2002, and replaced with a modern structure with a seating capacity of over 65,000. The new stadium hosted the final of UEFA Euro 2004, and it is now recognized as one of the “UEFA Elite” stadiums with a five star rating.
Liverpool met Benfica one more time, in the modernised stadium, when they were drawn against each other in the first knock-out round of the 2005-06 Champions League. We were defending champions (as we were in 1978) and did not expect too much difficulty from the once famous Lisbon club. But, they surprised us with a 1-0 victory in Lisbon and followed that with an even more surprising 2-0 win at Anfield, putting them through with a 3-0 aggregate.
This time we won’t be so sure of a victory, especially when we realise that Benfica are currently at the top of the Portuguese league with only one loss in twenty four games. Also, they managed to come through the group stage in first place, beating Everton 2-0 and 5-0 along the way. They then beat Hertha Berlin 5-1 over two legs in the first knock-out round, and then beat Marseille 3-2 in the round of 16. Of course, any club that makes it to the last eight has to be taken seriously, and we can be sure that we’ll be well prepared for this one and not taking it lightly by any means. But, if we can produce the form that we’ve been showing lately, from our 3-0 win over Lille, and our Premier League wins over Portsmouth and Sunderland, then we should be fine. Let’s hope so as it would be a huge boost for our confidence if we can make it to the semi’s, and then who knows? The Europa League is our best chance of some silverware for a few seasons now, so let’s make the best of it.