I have been travelling a lot the last two weeks, but not missed out on football! I was in Lisbon this weekend, and Sunday evening, decided to go to the legendary Estadio da Luz to watch the home side Benfica against Braga. These two teams ended first and second respectively in last season's Portuguese league, and are currently the Portuguese representatives in the Champions League. Braga has done badly in the first two matches in the CL, first getting destroyed by Arsenal and this last week they lost 0-3 at home to Shakhtar Donetsks.
Benfica has a victory in the CL, but losing 0-2 to Schalke 04 still makes it a challenge for them to go through in a season that has started badly for them: before the Braga match they were only seventh in the league with 9 points for six matches, while Braga was fourth with 11, both trailing FC Porto, who started the season with six straight victories. It was therefore crucial for both teams to get a good result, and pressure was particularly on Benfica, whose play has been meagre this season.
For me, it was also special to go to the legendary stadium, and atmosphere was truly extraordinary in spite of it not being sold out (there were 44,000 spectators). I was specially impressed by the start of the match where a real eagle (the eagle is the symbol of the team) is let loose to fly in the stadium, to the cheers of the spectators, and to land by the Benfica captain.
Benfica were clearly the most motivated team, and played much better in the first half, where Braga was nevertheless disciplined in defence, including some splendid saves by the Braga goalkeeper Artur Moraes. Still, in spite of the dominance, Benfica, it seemed to me, lost too many balls, and is not entirely funcitoning as a team. In particular the elder Argentinean, Javier Saviola, worked hard as always, but lost many balls and missed some big chances (he was also taken out eventually). In the second half Benfica continued attacking, but for a while it seemed the air had gotten off the balloon, and both the fans and the team seemed more and more nervous as time advanced.
But finally, in the 77th minute, Carlos Martins scored a beautiful goal where he took the ball down very well and kicked precisely behind the goalkeeper. It could have been 2-0, as Braga, in spite of clear Benfica nerves (and some nasty nervous tackles towards the end), couldn't really answer back.
Benfica won 1-0, and because of the other results of this round, suddenly jumped to second spot (things are pretty close as there are three teams with 12 points and three with 11), but still 7 points behind the leaders of Oporto. However, this match may well mean that Benfica gets back the belief that they can again win the trophy this season!
And I was there!