A club mostly renowned for their impressive continental trophy drought, with their last title dating back to 1962, it’d be tempting to consider Benfica a mere underdog in the Champions League quarter-finals.
Yet, such a point of view would completely overlook the kind of transformation that the Portuguese club has undergone since the appointment of former Bayer Leverkusen and PSV Eindhoven manager Roger Schmidt.
The team that Inter will face over a two-legged tie between April 11 and April 19 2023 is a modern side that have only lost three games (one of them after penalties) across all competitions during the whole season, imposing their supremacy on Portuguese reigning champions Porto and going toe-to-toe with European powerhouses such as PSG and Juventus, also defeating the latter twice in the Champions League group stage.
And by analysing the features and qualities that Benfica have been showing along this path, it is evident how Inter will need a totally different approach to the games compared to the cautious one they put up against Porto in the round-of-16 if they want to stand a chance to make the Champions League semi-finals, just because the Lisbon side themselves seemed a more evolved version of Sergio Conceição’s outfit.
What makes Benfica one of the most exciting sides in Europe
The Eagles, as the club are nicknamed, are a dominant team that love and know how to control possession, which is also a key to their defensive solidity, as their territorial supremacy usually leaves their opponents with little time and chances to hurt them.
However, an extremely organised pressing system is what allows Benfica to control the game in the first place – Inter should be prepared to face a team capable of manipulating their opponents’ possession, aiming their build-up towards the flanks, where they can be particularly aggressive with their man-on-man pressure in order to win the ball back quickly.
With the ball at their feet, Benfica tend to pack the central midfield to dominate possession and constantly offer their own players a wide array of passing options. A double pivot composed of Florentino Luis and Chiquinho is arguably the key to their playing style.
The two can divide their tasks, either dropping between the central defenders to prevent transitions or moving up to support their attacks, joining the three-man line behind lone striker Goncalo Ramos that includes their most creative players, notably Rafa Silva and former Inter midfielder Joao Mario, who also narrow their position to create space for the wingers.
This is also the reason why Simone Inzaghi‘s side should not consider the option of sitting back for long stretches as they did at Porto – while the Nerazzurri have proved a solid and resilient team, allowing Benfica to force them into their own box would certainly be a risky move, as their quality-packed midfield always finds a way to break through defences, which is why they only failed to score once (back in October) in the whole season.
The polished feet of the likes of Silva, Mario and David Neres allow them to unhinge the opponents’ rearguards through quick combinations with relative ease, and they also have a stunning forward in Goncalo Ramos, arguably the perfect striker to capitalise on their huge volume of play, as proved by his impressive 25-goal tally in all competitions.
Inter’s weapons against Benfica in the Champions League quarter-finals
But how can Inter hurt Benfica? As much as the Portuguese outfit are going through what seems a dreamlike season, they’re not free of flaws – their intense pressure on the side of the ball often results in spaces down the opposite wing that the Nerazzurri could explore by quickly switching flank, making the most of the width provided by their 3-5-2 system.
In this respect, either Federico Dimarco or Robin Gosens, just like Denzel Dumfries on the right, should be ready to take advantage of the freedom that Benfica could give them, as their precision and ability to combine with the midfielder and strikers could be pivotal in helping Inter pose a threat down the weak side.
In addition to that, Benfica’s constantly high backline, a natural consequence of their offensive style of play, makes the team vulnerable to pinpoint long balls and crosses, an option that the likes of Nicolò Barella and Marcelo Brozovic could explore. They could do this by playing repeated direct balls towards the strikers, especially as Romelu Lukaku possesses the kind of speed that could put their rivals’ defence to the test, triggering several runs behind that could end up wearing Benfica out.
In order to do that, however, Inter need to have a crystal-clear idea about what to do as soon as they win the ball back, as the Portuguese side won’t give them enough time to think and look around. Ultimately, everything will depend on how the Nerazzurri will behave as a team – a bold and brave performance is required, as a passive and fearful approach to the game will not go unpunished.