Atletico were looking to set a Champions League record when they hosted Benfica at the Calderon. They were looking to become the first team in the history of the competition to keep 8 consecutive clean sheets at home. Sadly, this was not to be the case.
As Champions League games go, this is not one that will go down in the history books as one containing scintillating football. It was attritional, high tempo, it was very British. Both sides for the first fifteen minutes didn’t really want to play football. Benfica wanted to impose themselves physically on their hosts, not the best game plan against one of the most physical sides in the competition. Soon Benfica realised that if you pick a fight with Atletico Madrid, you’re going to lose and they began to settle down into their shape to try and suffocate Los Rojoblancos.
After the game had settled down into an actual football game rather than an "I’m tougher than you" competition it was Atleti who came out on top. Benfica couldn’t really handle the threat posed out wide by the very advanced fullbacks in Felipe Luis and Juanfran combined with the interchanging of positions from Griezmann and Correa. While the wide positions were clearly going to be the main source of creativity as the match wore on, it was centrally where the first real chance came from. On the twenty minute mark, Gabi clipped a wonderful ball over the top for Jackson – who was clearly offside but not given – who tried an acrobatic volley from around twelve yards out. The ball wouldn’t drop quickly enough and the chance was skied over the bar.
However, it was not long afterwards that Atleti took the lead to save Jackson’s blushes. The ball came to Juanfran on right flank in acres of space, he fizzed a ball into Griezmann who showed in a split second why he’s world class. He showed excellent awareness and vision and even better technique to cushion down a perfectly weighted ball down for Correra to slot home.
This goal really affected Benfica, they totally lost their shape and discipline after this goal went in and Atleti started creating chances for fun. First came another chance for Jackson, a delicious deep cross from Oliver Torres met by a diving header crashed off the bottom off the post and the chance for a bit of security went begging. Then came another chance for the former Porto man, Griezmann in his best spell of the match slipped a ball through to put him in one on one, but he could only fire straight at Julio Cesar. The work rate was noticeably improved by Jackson in this game, but his finishing was appalling in the first half.
Then came a massive shock, a Benfica equaliser totally against the run of play. Ten minutes before the half time whistle was due to go Semedo, the Benfica right back was given as much time and space as he could have wanted on the flank to whip in a dangerous ball. Flicked on by Godin onto it came Nicolas Gaitan to finish it off expertly. Poor defending from Atletico Madrid. Juanfran had been sucked in towards the ball rather than staying out wide to guard against the wide player coming inside. One lapse in concentration and it was punished. The game, and the Calderon went flat after that until half time.
After the break Atleti came out and were very sluggish. They seemed to be trying to play a slow passing game, which simply doesn’t work for Atletico Madrid. They need to play quick incisive passing to open up the opposition. This was punished by Benfica five minutes into the second half who broke at the speed of light from a failed Atletico attack. Jonas released Gaitian down the left who turned Godin inside out and then played one of the passes of the season to Guedes who in turn put in one of the best finishes of the competition so far, on the stretch past Oblak. Nothing could be done about that, it was simply wonderful.
Atleti tried to respond immediately and upped the tempo to that of the first half and had Benfica on the ropes for at least fifteen minutes but only really testing Julio Cesar once, and what a test it was. Ball whipped in to the centre for Jackson who smashed it at the Brazilian. The rebound came out to Correra who had the entire goal to aim at, it was a nailed on goal. Then leaping across the goal like some sort of green superman came Cesar to claw the ball away. Incredible goalkeeping to keep Atleti behind. The rest of the half went on in a similar vein. Atleti struggling to create any real chances and when they did, Jackson fluffed his lines. The odd counter attack from Benfica put the frights into Los Colchoneros every now and again, but never really threatened for a sustained period of time. Even the introductions of Saul, Vietto and Torres for Oliver, Griezmann and Correra weren’t enough to give Atleti that cutting edge they needed. Benfica left the Calderon with three points, but given the pattern of the game, no one could understand how.
This was a game in which missed opportunities cost Atleti the three points. They were the better side for nine tenths of the match and deserved the win. Jackson squandered so many guilt edged chances, especially in the first half. Los Rojoblanco’s should have been out of sight by the time the half time whistle went, but alas, this was not the case. Jackson is clearly having a crisis of confidence and only time on the pitch will adapt him to the rigors of Simeone’s system. This is the kind of pain we must take in order to have a goal machine in our ranks as the season wears on. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, but it’s necessary.