Benfica v Rangers – how Clement can play the Portuguese game

Benfica v Rangers – how Clement can play the Portuguese game
GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - NOVEMBER 26: Kemar Roofe of Rangers celebrates after he scores his team's second goal during the UEFA Europa League Group D stage match between Rangers and SL Benfica at Ibrox Stadium on November 26, 2020 in Glasgow, Scotland. Sporting stadiums around the UK remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

You know, if Rangers play any more games in Portugal, we should just join the Liga Portugal. Anyway, it’s back once more to see our good old friends at The Estádio da Luz football ground, and we hope this time we can go there and get a well-deserved win.

For those who can’t keep track of all the fun games we have played in Portugal and your memory is a wee bit fuzzy about what happened during the Covid years, it was Benfica who we played three years ago in November 2020, on a cool wet day, with zero fans present.

In that surreal match we drew 3-3, in Group D. Connor Goldson started the scoring in the very first minute, with a screamer for Benfica. It was a goal that gave McGregor no chance. Benfica then had a player sent off in the 18th minute for pulling down Ryan Kent. Then in the 23rd minute Diogo Goncalves forgot which way he was shooting (Conner Goldson obviously confused him) and he thumped the ball into his own net, and the game was level. After that Rangers took control and Glen Kamara (yes…Glen, always pass the ball sideways, Kamara) did something strange and moved forward and scored a beauty from outside the box. This was followed by a tap in by Morelos in the 51st minute from a sublime pass by Tavernier to give Rangers a commanding lead. Then things changed. Darwin was brought on, Ryan Kent hits the post, and then we got hit twice with two fantastic goals, and as I am sure you now remember Darwin scored in injury time.

In the return match, which was again played behind closed doors we drew a respectable 2-2. Scott Arfield scored in the 6th minute with Tavernier heading off the crossbar just before he scored (which I think makes that an assist), and Kemar Roofe scored in the second half to take us two up and coasting once more, but just like in the first leg, we let the two goal lead slip from our grasp and we ended the match level.

Despite drawing with Benfica twice, Rangers ended up top of Group D, with the other two teams being Standard Liege and Lech Poznań, and we went straight to the last 16.

From the Rangers team that played in the those two legs, only Tavernier, Goldson, Balogun, Barasic , Ryan Jack and Roofe remain, but because 35 year old Balogun is not in the Europa squad, Roofe can only play 20 minutes before he injures himself, and now 32 year old Ryan Jack has just never recovered the form he had before his injury we really only have Tavernier and Goldson who are likely to play this week.

So, who is likely to play in the upcoming match. Here it is clear that the back line will need to include Rıdvan Yılmaz. Clement has brought him back into the Europa league team because of he is direct and he can take a shot at goal. In midfield we have Sterling, who I would play as defensive mid, Lawrence, Wright, Lundstram, Diomande, Ryan Jack and Raskin. Then up front we have Lewis Stewart and Findlay Curtis as stand-ins for Fabio Silva and Cyriel Dessers, for when they get injured, which knowing our luck is bound to happen.

Yep, the injury situation is that bad we will be down to our youth team.

Last time we played Benfica they were managed by Jorge Jesus, who set up Benfica to play a very aggressive game, with a very high defensive back line. This did not work and Rangers were able to hit Benfica numerous times on the counter, and for long periods we were even able to comfortably control the game.

This time around Benfica is managed by Roger Schmidt, who prior to entering management played as a midfielder. He has previously managed PSV between 2020 to 2022, and Bayer Leverkusen between 2014 to 2017, and yes the same manager did manage both PSV and Bayer Leverkusen against us, but thankfully that was Peter Bosz, and not Roger Schmidt. Intriguingly, in both cases Roger Schmidt predated Peter Bosz, and again in both cases there were two other managers between Schmidt and Bosz. In many ways it just seems like its fate.

Though it is said Schmidt likes his teams to play a very aggressive, in the opponent’s face, type game, if you compare Benfica to Motherwell and Celtic his teams are tame. This is despite his team getting two players sent off in the Champions League group stages. In fact, his tactics are a lot less cavalier than the Benfica we played against three and a half years ago.

What that means is it will not be as easy to get behind the defenders, (note their key defender Alexander Bah was injured before their game against Porto) and we will need to press Benfica to force them into errors.

Overall Benfica play a very simple game. When play turns tactical, they will more often than not play centrally during the defensive phase, leaving the wings open. Then if the game turns scrappy, they swarm the area where the ball is (just like in a kid’s game), leaving huge gaps on the opposite side of the park. This is a fault that I am sure Clement has seen and hopefully we can take advantage of it.

On attack, one of their primary tactics is to again bunch together, and to try to force their opponents into making the same “mistake”. Then Benfica will play just one or two players open, on the other side of the park, with the aim to quickly switch play. Here their hope is their player will be open and get an easy shot on target. One problem is often these wide players will suddenly ghost into the penalty box at the tail end of an attack and pick up the loose ball for a free shot on goal. This could be a problem for Rangers, because Goldson’s reading of the game is often just 100% chaos, and without Ryan Jack at his peak, our midfield is just too slow at reading the movement of our opponents. In my view Sterling is the best option we have to replace Jack, and though Clement has recently played Dujon up front, that would be a massive mistake in this game.

Being blunt this Benfica team is a very good team. Their problem is Benfica has great players who are being hamstrung by crap tactics. If you keep your head during the game, and watch how play is developing, you can easily use their own tactics against them and cause them huge problems. Porto did this, this weekend and they scored five against them. If you watch the replay of the game, you will see Benfica’s defensive line does not move far from the box, and that gave Porto all the freedom they needed to play down the wings.

Our problem is if they decide to instead play wide and they deploy a deep defensive line, it is possible that a more tactical, more boring game, where there are only three shots the entire game on target, would give them the advantage. They have far more natural goal-scorers, and their ability to see gaps is impressive. You don’t score three goals against Inter Milan if you can’t play the game.

We need to show controlled aggression, but we also need to play in layers, so that if someone commits to pressing this Benfica team, there is someone watching out for Ángel Di Maria. Ángel is Benfica’s Ryan Kent. He is fabulous player who can turn a defense inside out, but he is also wasteful when it comes to getting the ball in the net. That said, when he is on form he can destroy the best teams in the world.

One thing for sure, Benfica will not underestimate Rangers. In the past Rangers were just another Scottish team. Now Rangers have a reputation, and the teams we play are now far more wary. As for a prediction, that’s a tough one. Our team has been decimated with injuries, but we still have a solid central core. In contrast Benfica have now lost two of their best defenders to injury (Juan Bernat and Alexander Bah), and that could be the critical difference between the teams. Being honest this game will be decided by mistakes, and it is up to us to make sure we keep our head, and they are the ones who panic.

Game on!

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