BENFICA BOUNCE BACK WITH STYLISH DEMOLITION OF ESPÉRANCE
The enormously talented Benfica Under-17s said goodbye to Al Kass 2018 with another performance of the highest quality, running out worthy winners against Espérance de Tunis by three goals to nil.
The Portuguese youngsters, with their tremendous brand of non-stop attacking football, had captured the hearts of the Al Kass crowd, and many had hoped that they would go on to be crowned champions. However, their seemingly inevitable advancement to the final had been ended in cruel fashion on Monday night, beaten on penalties by the irrepressible Kashiwa Reysol.
Following this defeat, coach Renato Paiva had remained philosophical, stating: “I am working to develop players to the higher level…we are not in the final, it’s true, but probably we are in the memory and the heart of everybody who saw this game, and everybody who saw this tournament.”
Espérance had also displayed a degree of attacking flair in their previous games, with striker Zied Berrima catching the eye. Their primary strategy, though, was an altogether more pragmatic one, which depended on adopting a physical approach designed to knock opponents out of their stride. This tactic had worked well until the semi-finals, when Tunis came up against the indomitable PSG.
Benfica had made six changes to their starting 11 for this third-place play-off, with highly prized left winger Jair Tavares among those on the bench. Espérance included seven survivors from their semi-final, although midfield playmaker Wael Dhouibi was not one of them. In his absence, Tunis adopted a less aggressive brand of football, and worked the ball around well.
The game’s early exchanges were open and entertaining, with each side seeing plenty of possession and looking to get forward at every opportunity.
However, on 20 minutes, Benfica could easily have been down to 10 men after keeper Samuel Soares had a rush of blood to the head and clattered Farouk Mimouni as he advanced on goal. The linesman, though, had already signalled offside, to the enormous relief of the shaky Portuguese stopper.
Despite Benfica coming into this game as overwhelming favourites, Espérance more than held their own throughout the first 45 minutes and, if anything, were the more impressive of the two teams. And, with the last attack of the half, they really should have gone ahead when a well-worked free kick set Khalil Melliti scampering down the right. He cut back an inviting cross from the byline, presenting Ghassen Jellali with a free header at the far post, which he somehow directed wide.
On 56 minutes, Benfica turned on the style which they have become so renowned for, and opened the scoring. An intricate series of passes inside the Espérance penalty area ended with Ronaldo Camara spinning away from his marker and firing a low shot into the bottom corner.
On the hour mark, Espérance introduced Dhouibi to the fray, but his presence did little to stymy Benfica’s growing dominance, and the Portuguese soon had the ball in the net for a second time, only for a linesman’s flag to intervene.
Tavares took to the field with 25 minutes remaining, and immediately began to ask questions of Tunis right back Melliti. On 76 minutes, he got away from his marker on the edge of the area, and his powerful low shot beat Tunis keeper Helmi Nesibi at his near post.
With the game effectively over as a contest, Benfica were now enjoying themselves and, with two minutes remaining, added a third. Tavares was the architect, crossing from the left for Gomes to apply the easiest of finishes from inside the six-yard box. It was the prolific striker’s sixth goal of the tournament, confirming him as the leading scorer of Al Kass 2018.
Benfica depart Doha with their reputation greatly enhanced. In five matches they have plundered an astonishing 23 goals, and their team of richly talented youngsters will surely go on to light up the game for many years to come.