Benfica bristling with 'determination and optimism'
May 1962: Lisbon giants Benfica win the European Cup for the second time in a row. After the final whistle in the 5-3 victory over Real Madrid there is a dispute between the club officials and coach Belá Guttmann over money. As a consequence the coach quits in high dudgeon, laying a curse on the club for good measure: "You shan't win a European cup for the next 100 years!" Or so the legend goes.
56 years later the so-called Guttmann curse still seems to be in force. Benfica have reached eight European finals since then, losing every single one of them. Even Benfica legend Eusebio, who prayed at Guttmann's grave and asked for the curse to be lifted, was not able to change that. A bronze statue of the Hungarian coach at the Estádio da Luz has been of no help either. The curse remains intact.
However, Benfica are the gold standard on the home front with an unrivalled trophy collection: 34 championship titles and 25 cup triumphs, making them the Portuguese record champions and record cup winners. They currently top the domestic league table with a five-point edge. The club have advanced to the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time since the 2011/12 season. Benfica have won 17 of their last 19 competitive fixtures, with one defeat and one draw, scoring a total of 101 goals in all competitions so far this season.
'Fight until the end'
Prior to the encounter with Bayern, Guttmann's curse is no issue at Benfica. Indeed, the visitors could not be more confident, which is reflected in the statements made in the build-up to the clash: "We won't back off. We're not afraid," declared Rui Vitória, Benfica coach since last summer. The 45-year-old played in the third and the fourth tier in his active career, in 2013 he won the cup as Vitória SC coach. Now he aims to advance to the semi-finals with Benfica.
"We'll approach the game with great determination, with self-belief, with optimism and with joy," announced Vitória. Bayern are "one of the best teams in the world, favourites for the title. We know what awaits us. We'll probably suffer a lot. But we think we have a chance, and we'll fight until the end."
Europe's top striker
Vitória set "a good position for the return" as his minimum target. "The fact that we're here shows that we've put in good work so far," commented right-back André Almeida: "We'll play as we always do." Benfica, who beat Zenit St Petersburg in the Round of 16, boast a real gem in striker Jonas. The 32-year-old Brazilian has scored 18 goals in 16 competitive fixtures this year, topping the rankings on 30 goals in the race for the Golden Shoe as Europe's best scorer.
But Jonas is not the only player Guardiola has to keep under control. There are his fellow striker Konstantinos Mitroglou, Benfica's current CL top scorer Nicolás Gaitán on four goals, and the 18-year old Renato Sanches, "one of the best young players in Europe," according to Guardiola. But the Portuguese camp stressed on Monday that their real strength is their team spirit. "Together we're capable of anything," said Argentinian winger Eduardo Salvio: "We've shown on several occasions that we can achieve the seemingly impossible." Manuel Neuer thus has good reason to expect "two tough games" against the Lisbon giants, curse or no curse.
Benfica squad to face Bayern:
Goalkeepers : Ederson, Paulo Lopes, André Ferreira
Defence : André Almeida, Nélson Semedo, Jardel, Lisandro, Lindelöf, Eliseu
Midfield : Pizzi, Carcela, Talisca, Salvio, Fejsa, Gonçalo Guedes, Renato Sanches, Samaris, Gaitán
Attack : Raúl, Jonas, Mitroglou
Unavailable: Keeper Julio Cesar, defender and captain Luisão, right-back Silvio, forward Nuno Santos (all injured)