In normal circumstances, a match between Rangers and Benfica at Ibrox would make for a captivating atmosphere. Unfortunately for fans, a global pandemic has taken away that opportunity. Nonetheless, this promises to be one of the marquee matchups on matchday four of the Europa League Group Stage.
At the time of the draw, on paper, most would have picked both these sides to top the group. Looking at how both their campaigns have played out, Steven Gerrard will be optimistic of his chances to win.
For Benfica, they too could leave Glasgow top of the group, but recent performances will have some fans uncertain.
LEARNING FROM THE PAST
When we look back at their previous match at the Estádio da Luz, prior to Otamendi’s sending off, the hosts were the better side.
They pressed high and made things difficult for the visitors, until a defensive mental lapse completely unraveled their game plan.
Speaking of defensive mental lapses, something you don’t hear associated to a Jorge Jesus managed side very often, that will be a topic that should be front and center for both managers ahead of the match.
Steven Gerrard witnessed first hand how vulnerable the Benfica defensive unit could be in their last meeting.
While the Scottish league leaders weren’t able to do much until the sending off, the play that led to that foul is part of the bigger issue Benfica has experienced over the last few weeks.
Vertonghen and Otamendi aren’t the quickest, and with Jorge Jesus’ style of a high line, that spells trouble if there is no pressure on the ball. It’s the basics of football. When there’s no pressure on the ball, you drop off, something they didn’t do.
Despite the international break offering up a chance for some players to reset mentally and physically, for Benfica, it didn’t work out as planned. Both Otamendi and Vertonghen were away on international duty, again limiting their ability to spend time on the training ground. Having not featured at the weekend against Paredes, hopefully a week of training will be enough to at least iron out some of those issues that have left the back line looking like a handful of cotton candy dropped into a bucket of water.
The hosts will have studied Benfica’s defensive movements meticulously, but will Jorge Jesus make changes to throw a wrench in Gerrard’s plan?
Darwin Nunez – a name that all Rangers fans will know well is unavailable due to a positive COVID test. I know, you’re surprised, right? Traveling around the world in the middle of a global pandemic, what could go wrong?
Anyway, in his absence, it will be interesting to see who Jorge Jesus inserts into the starting XI.
Seems the appropriate time to call on Seferovic, who despite only starting three matches this, the Swiss international currently leads the team with six goals scored in all competitions.
If he was to get the nod, he does bring a completely different dynamic than Darwin does.
Seferovic will offer a bigger aerial presence in the box, but, he doesn’t offer those individual capabilities that Darwin possesses. The ability to go at defenders one on one is not there. He also isn’t the type to try and get in behind the defenders. But, for some reason, when he’s on, somehow, he manages to put the ball in the back of the net. Hopefully he can carry his good form into this match.
He did start in the 3-3 draw against Rangers just a few weeks ago, and as previously mentioned, Benfica did look the better side until the red card, so maybe we can get a repeat of those initial 18 or so minutes, this time for 90 minutes, and, without the red card. Is that too much to ask for?
Further back on the pitch, Julian Weigl, who also started in that 3-3 draw will be unavailable due to COVID.
A likely candidate to replace the German midfielder would Samaris, but the Greek international was kept off the roster for the Group Stage of the Europa League due to foreign player limitations.
That means, we will either see Taarabt or Gabriel in that deep midfield role. If I had a choice, taking into consideration that Rangers will likely try to control the tempo being the home side, I’d opt for Gabriel.
Why? Well, he’s more patient on the ball, and has the precision to play the safer pass during that first phase of the buildup. Taarabt on the other hand has the ability to unlock the defense with his passes, but he prefers to take more chances, be that with his passes, or with his one on one attempts.
The most important question will be whether Jorge Jesus opts for a two man midfield, with a free roaming attacking midfield who can help defend, such as Pizzi, or even Rafa in a central role. Or, will he go with a two man midfield, with Waldschmidt playing close to Seferovic in a more classic 4-4-2 formation?
Time will tell, but apart from the final result, Benfica desperately need to put together a complete performance in Glasgow. It’s still early in the season, and the Portuguese manager still has a lot of work to make this team his own, but Benfica fans aren’t patient, especially considering that most of them weren’t on board with Jorge Jesus’ return to begin with.