After an almost flawless season, Benfica had a number of their squad’s limits exposed against Inter in their Champions League quarter-final first leg, allowing the Nerazzurri to travel back to Milan with a comfortable two-goal lead that will give them a significant edge at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza.
Inter’s overall display was impressive, and there was individual brilliance from the likes of Alessandro Bastoni, Nicolo Barella and Marcelo Brozovic (to name a few), and that was at the very heart of Inter’s 2-0 victory at the Estadio da Luz. But it was clear that something didn’t work in Roger Schmidt’s gameplan – the visitors’ masterful ability to retain possession under pressure, eluding Benfica’s attempts to recover the ball high up the pitch, ended up slowing down the pace of the game, inevitably diminishing the hosts’ threat.
But more than that, Benfica’s habit of coming up short in the final stages of a European competition and when their form suggests that success could be within grasp, will have surely reminded many of their fans of an unwanted tradition that has been plaguing the club for decades now, known as the Bela Guttmann curse.
Who was Bela Guttmann and how did he curse Benfica?
Let’s start with the most astonishing fact – Benfica haven’t lifted a European trophy in 62 years, the last of them coming under – you guessed it – Bela Guttmann.
Back in the late 50s, Guttmann was appointed by the Portuguese club after having proven his credentials all around the world, winning titles for Hungarian side Ujpest, San Paolo and rivals Porto, in addition to stints at AC Milan, Triestina and Vicenza in Italy.
A former player who went on to be considered one of the most innovative coaches, the Hungarian manager made an instant impact at Benfica, securing the national title in his first season before repeating the feat for a second consecutive year.
But most importantly, Guttmann had the merit to take the Lisbon outfit to a whole other level continentally as well, where Benfica were already very successful. From 1960, he guided Benfica to two consecutive Champions League titles, making them the first team to halt Real Madrid’s supremacy in the newborn competition.
It looked like there was more to come for Benfica, but it wasn’t the case – when Guttmann was denied the cash prize he was said to have requested following his achievements, he decided to leave the club and allegedly placed a curse on them by saying: “Not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever be European champion“.
More than 60 years have passed since then and Benfica have lost as many as nine international finals, including two consecutive Europa League final losses in 2013 and 2014.
Can Benfica upset Inter in the reverse leg?
Benfica’s awful record in European finals has certainly more to do with strong or better opponents rather than superstition, but there were times during their 63-year drought that it was particularly hard to explain what was keeping them away from victory.
They played two more consecutive European Cup finals after Guttmann’s departure, only to lose both of them at the hands of AC Milan and Inter, who had never won the trophy before. After that, three of their remaining final defeats came after either extra time or penalties.
Similarly, it was rather odd to see Benfica fail to score only for the second time this season against one of the most out-of-form sides in Serie A, but what is sure is that Roger Schmidt’s outfit will travel to fight at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, as the German tactician will have presumably taken note of what prevented the Eagles from expressing the best version of themselves.
In spite of the heated atmosphere they’ll find in Milan, Benfica know that scoring first could be enough to undermine many of the certainties of an Inter side whose lack of confidence has cost them many points of late, but what’s more important for the Portuguese side will be to reclaim their possession-based football and have the patience required to open cracks in a compact Inter defence.
Somehow, Benfica seemed first surprised and then discouraged by how prepared the visitors’ rearguard was to face their first-time combinations and relentless movements from the trio behind lone striker Goncalo Ramos, suggesting that they’ll need a more precise execution in the second leg in order to find a breakthrough.
A single poor game is not enough to cancel the brilliance that emerged from a whole season so far – Benfica will be able to pose a threat to the Nerazzurri if they manage to put them under pressure more than they did in Lisbon, and more effective ball recovery will be required to do that.
Needless to say, such an approach would also have to consider how Inter could benefit from the spaces left by a side that will be forced to play on the front foot – however, if they really accomplished the feat of overturning a two-goal deficit at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, then they’d have every reason to believe this could be the year to break the Bela Guttmann curse.