On Thursday Benfica resume their Europa League campaign as the Liga NOS leaders welcome German outfit Eintracht Frankfurt to the Portuguese capital.
What can the Lisbon club expect from Eintracht? Germany-based PortuGOAL reporter Matthew Marshall gives us the lowdown on the Bundesliga club.
Eintracht Frankfurt are currently 4th in the Bundesliga and are in a great position to claim a Champions League place next season. Can you sum up their season so far?
Eintracht had a horror start to the season, smashed 5-0 by Bayern Munich in the German Super Cup and knocked out of the DFB-Pokal in the first round by fourth division club Ulm. Many feared the worst after one win in their first five Bundesliga matches, but they quickly turned it around in spectacular fashion.
New manager Adi Hütter figured things out and they recorded successive 4-1 home wins against Hannover and Lazio with their next match at the Commerzbank-Arena a 7-1 thrashing of Fortuna Düsseldorf. They won every match in the Europa League group stage against Marseille, Lazio and Apollon before getting past seasoned campaigners Shakhtar Donetsk and Internazionale in the knockout rounds.
I predicted they would finish in the Bundesliga top four back in November and am pleased it looks increasingly likely. The Eagles are undefeated in 15 matches in 2019 and playing with plenty of confidence.
Ones to watch - Who are Eintracht Frankfurt's star players?
The front thee have grabbed all the headlines this season with Ante Rebic, Luka Jovic and Sébastien Haller contributing regular goals and assists. I was fortunate to be at the 7-1 home win against Düsseldorf in October when Jovic scored five goals, becoming the youngest player to score five goals in a Bundesliga match.
I was impressed with Jovic last season and he has improved under Hütter. The Serbian has all the skills, can score with both feet, head and has banged in 24 goals this season. It was a catastrophic error by Benfica to let him go when you consider they signed Nicolás Castillo last summer. Frankfurt are going to make a huge profit and will hope to enjoy his talents for another season before a bigger club opens their cheque book.
French striker Haller is also a player I rate very highly, he is incredible in the air and regularly brings his teammates into play with skill and vision. He is ice cool in front of goal, has scored 19 goals and contributed 12 assists this season. Rebic is also a very useful player who can hurt Benfica’s defence if he is allowed time and space.
35-year-old Makoto Hasebe has made the central defensive position his own and his experience is key. Left wing-back Filip Kostic is in supreme form with four goals and five assists in his last nine games.
Strong points/weak points – what must Benfica beware of and what can they exploit?
Benfica have to be aware of Frankfurt’s front three. Their combine very well together and once Kostic gets involved the threat increases. Danny da Costa is also a danger at right wing-back but it’s Kostic they will need to pay more attention to.
What Benfica can exploit is a vulnerability in transition. Once Benfica win the ball they have to attack quickly and try to isolate the wide central defenders outside Hasebe. Frankfurt can also be vulnerable through the middle once they lose possession and have injury concerns in that position.
Formation and playing style – what system do Dortmund usually play? Would you describe them generically as an attacking or a defensive team?
Adi Hütter has adopted a 3-4-1-2 formation for most of the season. Eintracht play an attacking style of football which can leave them vulnerable to counter attacks. Hütter is well aware of the problem and has turned things around with his team keeping five clean sheets in their last six matches: "We mustn't give Benfica too much space and must defend well. We need to find the right balance between solid defence and courage in attack."
Hasebe will anchor the defence but there are injury doubts about Martin Hinteregger who has been in great form. Evan Ndicka is likely to replace him while David Abraham returned from injury and played the full 90 minutes in the 2-1 win against Schalke.
Former Sporting CP player Gelson Fernandes should play in a holding midfield role but his partners in the centre of the pitch are uncertain. Sebastian Rode and Mijat Gacinovic missed the Schalke match with Jonathan de Guzman and Jetro Willems getting starts. Lucas Torró was an unused substitute and is an outside chance to feature in Lisbon.
Sébastien Haller also missed out against Schalke but his injury is not deemed too serious and he could return here.
Mood in the camp – do you think Eintracht Frankfurt come into the tie in a confident frame of mind?
There is no doubt about that. Eintracht proved themselves against Marseille, Lazio, Shakhtar Donetsk and Internazionale so will have no fear about taking on Benfica. They haven’t lost in 2019 and have made a habit of scoring late winners, most recently against Hoffenheim and Schalke.
Confidence won't be enough however, with Hütter saying in the press conference: "Obviously we've gained confidence in recent weeks, but the only thing that will help us tomorrow is a really good performance."
What was the reaction in German media with Eintracht Frankfurt landing Benfica in the draw?
It’s the Eagles vs the Eagles! I basically live in a bubble and don’t read much German media but the main narrative has to be that this is another glamour tie against a big European club.
Eintracht are the only remaining German club in Europe after Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund were knocked out of the Champions League. Frankfurt’s fanatical support has seen thousands travel across Europe and take over opposition stadiums, it's going to be a great occasion and I wish I could be there.
Hütter shares a similar sentiment, saying "There's a special atmosphere at this stadium. Benfica have brilliant support but our fans will give us great backing again." I assume there is plenty of interest in Germany, I hope people can put any club allegiances aside and jump on the bandwagon.
What do you think the result of the match will be?
I can’t tell you why, but I am not getting a peaceful easy feeling about this tie. Eintracht are the new kids in town, they will have to take it to the limit and hope that’s enough to avoid any regrets at the Hotel California this offseason.
In all seriousness, I have been fortunate enough to attend many matches in Frankfurt this season and European nights are unforgettable. I also traveled to Milan and had a night to remember despite Luciano Spalletti throwing in the towel.
I rate Frankfurt very highly but I am worried about this match and tie especially with the first leg being in Lisbon. My head tells me Benfica will just get through but my heart wants Frankfurt to progress.
Bonus question: Gonçalo Paciência update
I didn’t rate Gonçalo Paciência too highly as a youngster and had doubts he could reach the highest level. I was pleased he got his career back on track at Vitoria Setubal but was surprised Eintracht took a chance on him despite the minimal €3 million outlay.
After recovering from a torn meniscus which ruled him out for more than four months, Paciência made his first appearance off the bench on 17 February. He then scored almost identical goals with back post headers in successive matches against Hoffenheim and Fortuna Düsseldorf.
He also provided an assist in Düsseldorf in a man of the match performance when many experts were only focused on Jovic. Paciência is very much a backup player but has shown confidence, improvement and enough ability to be a useful squad player.
Once Jovic and Haller are eventually sold he should get his chance to nail down a spot in the starting XI. Until then he will have to make do with substitute appearances or starts when others ahead of him are unavailable.
By Matthew Marshall