SL Benfica vs Arsenal preview

My first introduction to European Football as an Arsenal fan took place on 23rd October 1991 as I watched Arsenal play out a 1-1 draw on television in Lisbon in the then European Cup which I learned in later years was viewed to have been a good result only for the Brazilian Isaías to tear us apart at Highbury. A young and future Fiorentina, AC Milan and SL Benfica legend in Rui Costa also featured in that game.

On the 18th February we were heading to Lisbon to face the Portuguese giants SL Benfica for the first time since 1991 but due to the Covid 19 pandemic we will be heading to Rome for the away leg. I am absolutely gutted that due to the current Covid 19 situation that I cannot attend the double header in Lisbon and in London. I would have truly loved to have completed my Lisbon hattrick in grand style after trips to the city in 2012 and 2019 watching the team I love so dear playing away in the Estádio da Luz.

For those who are unaware SL Benfica are a truly guargantion club and one of the great European names that will never subside and will always remain respected and held in high regard. 37 Portuguese League titles, 26 Portuguese Cups and not to mention winning 2 European cups in back to back in 1961 and 1962 beating FC Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively in the finals with the help of their talisman Eusebio (who by the time he left the club in 1975 had scored 638 goals in 614 appearances for the club) .in a team that featured tremendous players such as Mário Coluna, the refined and their captain José Águas, Germano, the extremely quick José Augusto and daring and playmaking exploits of António Simões under the tutelage of Hungarian manager Béla Guttmann. I believe the achievements of that SL Benfica team are so underrated especially outside of Portugal that in my opinion they go down in history as one of the greatest club sides ever. They also reached a third successive European final in 1963 where they lost to AC Milan. Then again in 1965 where they lost to Inter Milan and also in 1968 at Wembley in Manchester United’s first European Cup triumph. I think that particular of the 1960’s in terms of domestic dominance of Portuguese leagues and cup perfectly encapsulated SL Benfica’s motto on their club crest E PLURIBUS UNUM All for one and one for all.

They are currently coached by the extremely charismatic Jorge Jesus who has returned to the club via Flamengo in Brazil to provide stability and get them back on track and he has done that in my opinion. They also have some excellent players in their squad most notably in my opinion Álex Grimaldo who I have rated since his days at Valencia CF. Arsenal fans will know of Jan Vertonghen from his days at Tottenham Hotspur. and Julian Weigl too who built a very good reputation at his former club Borussia Dortmund. Even on the women’s team SL are very ambitious. I recently interviewed their striker Cloé Lacasse and she told me that the team has only been in existence for two years and they are slowly selecting and investing in good players of a very high level to have success both at home and abroad and they accrued great experience in the women’s Champions League this season playing against POAK, RS Anderlecht and Chelsea FC. If I may suggest to the women’s team they keep an eye on the development of current Portuguese women’s vice captain Silvia Rebelo.

I think both games will be great encounters and it is such a crying shame that due to the current Covid 19 world pandemic that Arsenal fans cannot descend on the beautiful city of Lisbon for a right knees up in many ways. Laughing and joking with SL Benfica fans. Sampling wonderful Portuguese cuisine such as Bacalhau ( cod ) Pastel de nata ( egg custard tart pastry dusted with cinnamon ) and of course tasty Portuguese coffee before taking the blue Lisbon metro line from the area where i was based near to the São Sebastião metro station of opposite the Estádio da Luz Colégio Militar/ Luz.

When you come out of the station and walk out of the metro and the underpassage you cross the road and are confronted with a truly beautiful stadium. Not to mention the Eagle ( The symbol of the club starting right back at you. This would have been my third Arsenal European away day Ajax in 2003 ( I emigrated to Amsterdam two years later ) AC Milan in 2008 the famous 2-0 win the the San Siro but I like to think that of course safety in paramount but Arsenal fans will see SL Benfica and Lisbon in all it’s glory one day in the future I am sure.

As far as the game is concerned. I think it is going to be very tough. It would not surprise me if the score was the same as the last time we played a competitive match in Lisbon on 23rd October 1991 which was a 1-1 draw.

I also believe that if we are not careful this could be our last two legged European games for some time. We have been in Europe since the 1996/ 1997 season and there have been a few highs and a few lows and I also honestly think that some Arsenal fans took European participation for granted where participation bordered on an obsession of getting into the top 4 which appeared to be more important than actually making progression in the competition ( How different would Arsenal football club be in the current day if we had won that night Paris in May 2006 against FC Barcelona? ) My guess would be that it would be completely different both on and off the pitch.I can understand the clamour for Champions League football but in my opinion we are not ready for Champions League football neither on or off the pitch at the moment. I have stated on many different Arsenal podcasts that for me it is just about getting through the season in one piece ahead of extensive work in the summer.

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