Pitchside

Emotion, drama and mystique never far away from Benfica

Pitchside

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Few European clubs serve up the same heady mix of emotion, drama and mystique as Benfica who have been left licking their wounds again after another heroic European failure.

Wednesday's penalty shootout defeat to Sevilla in the Europa League final was just another dip on the emotional roller-coaster which Benfica fans have become used to over the years.

Last season ended in tears after Benfica lost the Portuguese league on the last day of the season to Porto, lost the Cup final to a controversial goal against Vitoria Guimaraes and were beaten by a stoppage time goal in the Europa League final against Chelsea.

This season, Benfica have bounced back, delighting fans with their attacking football as they wrested the Portuguese league title from Porto, added the League Cup and reached the Portuguese Cup final, where they face Rio Ave on Sunday.

Typically, they have often done it the hard way.

In both cup competitions, they overcame arch-rivals Porto in the semi-finals despite playing with 10 men for more than one hour on each occasion after having a player sent off.

Their flowing football on the pitch has been accompanied by a one-man show from coach Jorge Jesus on the sidelines as he rants at the referee and clashes with rival coaches.

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Tottenham Hotspur coach Tim Sherwood said that Jesus "lacked class" after making gestures, including a goodbye wave, to him following Benfica's 3-1 win in the first leg of their Europa League quarter-final.

After being sent off in the Portuguese Cup semi-final, Jesus stepped into the crowd behind the technical area, watched the game from there and was mobbed by fans at the end.

This season has also been tinged with sorrow after two of the club's greats, Eusebio and Mario Coluna, the backbone of the great sides of the 1960s, passed away within weeks of each other.

There is also a hefty dose of mystique with many blaming the so-called curse of Bela Guttmann for their extraordinary run of eight successive defeats in European finals.

The late Hungarian coach led Benfica to their European Cup titles in 1961 and 1962 but left under a cloud and said the Eagles would never win another continental competition.

The way in which Benfica have edged closer to a European title in the last few years, only to be denied at the very last, has only added to the suspicion that the "Guttmann curse" really exists.

In 2010, Benfica reached the Europe League quarter-finals and in the following year reached their first European semi-final for 18 years.

Last year, they reached the Europa League final and lost in the 93rd minute. On Wednesday, they went even further before losing on penalties after enjoying the better of the match.

Behind all the drama lies a well-defined strategy for competing with Europe's elite in which the club buy young players from South America and Eastern Europe and sell them several seasons later for a handsome profit.

Their current squad includes Nicolas Gaitan, valued at 18 million euros (£14.7m) compared to the 8.4 million (£6.8m) he cost in 2010, Eduardo Salvio, bought for 10 million euros (£8.2m) and now estimated to be worth 17 million (£13.7) and their fellow Argentine Ezequiel Garay, who could fetch 20 million euros (£16.3).

Along with fellow Portuguese sides Porto and Braga, Benfica are the only team from outside the so-called big five leagues to have reached a European final in the last five seasons.

Wednesday's despair could quickly turn to joy if Benfica can overcome Rio Ave on Sunday to complete a domestic treble.

"Today we cry and tomorrow we have to lift our heads again because there is another final on Sunday," said captain Luisao "We have to be strong."

"This has been a marvellous season," added defender Guilherme Siqueira. "We have another final on Sunday. The top teams have to be in these games. It didn't work out against Sevilla but we have another final on Sunday and we have to be ready."

Reuters

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