PAOK 2-1 Benfica
Benfica’s brand-new chapter, with Jorge Jesus again at the helm, got off to the worst possible start in Greece tonight.
Despite a summer of heavy investment and voicing of big ambitions in the Champions League, the Eagles crashed out of Europe’s foremost club competition at the very first hurdle, beaten 2-1 by PAOK, managed by Portuguese coach Abel Ferreira.
In these pandemic times the match was played without fans and it was a one-off tie. The first consequence of football during Covid-19 appeared to remove a possible advantage for PAOK, who could not count on the fervent backing of their notoriously passionate supporters. The worry for Benfica fans, though, was the fact that a game decided in one match might favour the team who, theoretically at least, were the underdogs.
With Benfica’s squad costing seven times as much as PAOK’s, it was no surprise the Portuguese team were widely expected to make it to the play-off, and those predictions looked on course to be proved correct in a dominant first half by the away team.
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The first 45 minutes were played almost entirely in the half of the pitch Benfica were attacking, with Pizzi and new signing Everton Cebolinha especially impressive. The Brazilian set up Seferovic with a sumptuous cross, only for the Swiss striker to fluff his header, and shortly afterwards Pizzi was unlucky to see his free kick cannon back off the post.
Another Brazilian midfielder making his official debut for Benfica, Pedrinho, then brought a sharp save out of Zivkovic with a rasping shot from distance.
Despite reaching the interval goalless, so comprehensive had been Benfica’s superiority in the first half that it appeared only a matter of time before Jorge Jesus’ side made the breakthrough, but the game drastically changed complexion in the second half.
Shortly after the restart a swift break by the hosts saw a menacing cross whipped across the box, with Grimaldo making a timely clearance, and soon afterwards it needed two excellent blocks from Rúben Dias to stop shots from dangerous positions in the Benfica box.
Nevertheless, Benfica were close to taking the lead again in the 57th minute, a lovely pass by Taarabt playing in Everton, whose shot drew another good save out of Zivkovic.
Disaster struck for Benfica in the 63rd minute when PAOK’s increased confidence was reflected in another well-worked counter-attack which ended with Jan Vertonghen turning the ball into his own net from close range to give the home team the lead.
What happened next will be the most worrying aspect for Jorge Jesus, with Benfica losing their composure and rarely looking as threatening as they had done in the first hour of the match, while PAOK were increasingly dangerous whenever they swept forward at speed.
JJ threw into the fray club record signing Darwin Nuñez and last season’s top scorer Vinícius, but it was a PAOK substitute who made the difference, as Andrija Zivkovic – who left Benfica to join the Greek side just last week – produced a neat finish to double the lead for the Greek side in the 75th minute.
Benfica huffed and puffed but never looked like recuperating the deficit, and Rafa’s late header was too little too late.
by Tom Kundert
Benfica: Vlachodimos, André Almeida, Rúben Dias, Vertonghen, Grimaldo, Pedrinho (Darwin, 66’), Weigl, Taarabt (Rafa, 77’), Everton, Pizzi, Seferovic (Vinícius, 73’)
[1-0] Vertonghen (o.g.), 63’
[2-0] Zivkovic, 75’
[2-1] Rafa, 94’