Benfica edged closer to becoming 2022/23 champions of Portugal with a deserved 1-0 victory at the Estádio da Luz in Lisbon tonight.
The hosts were on top throughout the 90 minutes but excellent last-ditch defending by Braga in the first half and poor finishing after the break kept the result uncertain until the end.
Rafa Silva’s goal midway through the second half proved the winner.
For Benfica João Neves kept his place in the starting XI after recent good performances, forming a duo with last week’s hero Chiquinho meaning that Florentino Luís dropped to the bench. With Alexander Bah suffering a relapse of the injury that has kept him out of action in recent times, Fredrik Aursnes continued at right-back.
As for Braga, the northerners were hit with a big blow as midfield anchorman Al Musrati, so impressive all season, missed out after picking up an injury in last week’s win over Portimonense.
Benfica suffocate Braga
Feeding off the vociferous crowd hungry for a victory that would push Benfica close to the title, the hosts were straight on the attack from kick-off.
Braga could barely get out of their half in the opening 30 minutes, with Neres, Rafa and Gonçalo Ramos buzzing in and around the last third, albeit without creating clear goal-scoring occasions.
On 16 minutes Grimaldo played in Gonçalo Ramos, the striker beat Braga goalkeeper Mathues to the ball as he raced towards the by-line, doing well to stay on his feet when many a player would have taken a tumble for a potential penalty as the Brazilian stopper slid into him. Ramos turned and crossed for the onrushing João Mário, who was thwarted by a magnificent headed clearance by Cristian Borja.
Benfica 1-0 Braga match highlights
Soon afterwards Borja produced another miraculous clearance. Neres fizzed a cross-shot into the box and Rafa seemed certain to tuck it into the net only for the long leg of the Colombian footballer to somehow sweep the ball away from under the speedy winger’s feet.
The chances were now coming, Neres taking advantage of some hesitant defending by Victor Gómez and forcing Matheus into a diving save.
Aursnes then raced clear down the right flank and crossed towards Rafa but Tormena’s back-heel intervention saved the day for the away team.
Bruma in the mood
Having somehow weathered the storm Braga began at last to get a foothold in the game, stemming Benfica’s incessant attacking and getting some forward movement of their own going, chiefly through the electric Bruma who was playing with a zip and verve that reminded one of the hype surrounding his early career.
But it was still Benfica who looked the likelier to break the deadlock, João Mário heading narrowly wide from a Neres cross and Ramos hesitating and allowing Niakaté to snuff out a chance on the stroke of half time.
The pattern of the game did not change after the break, with Benfica making all the running but failing to carve out clear-cut opportunities.
That changed on the hour mark when a delicious Grimaldo cross arrowed straight to the unmarked Ramos 10 yards from goal who seemed certain to score. The out-of-confidence striker somehow planted his side-footed effort wide of the post.
On 66 minutes the crowd angrily jeered Iuri Medeiros as he was slow to leave the pitch when substituted, but the boos soon turned to applause as the Benfica faithful gave former stalwart Pizzi a warm welcome.
Neres unlocks Braga with eye-of-the-needle pass
Just a minute later and the crowd exploded into ecstasy. David Neres deep in his own half near the left touchline looked up and played a stupendous through ball to Rafa Silva. One of the fastest players in Portugal had a clear run on goal, and he duly sprinted away from the chasing Braga defenders and calmly beat Matheus with a low firm shot from just inside the area.
Braga were now committing more men forward, and Benfica almost took advantage in the 78th minute when Rafa Silva was again set up one and one against Matheus after a neat pass by substitute Peta Musa. This time Rafa attempted a lob, which sailed over the Brazilian goalkeeper but also cleared the bar.
One minute later and Braga showed the precarious nature of a one-goal lead as Sequeira’s low cross from the left was just missed by the sliding Banza.
And in the 85th minute Braga came even closer. Bruma went on another fine dribble, leaving Neves and Aursnes in his wake, and this time producing an excellent cross with his left foot. Banza rose high to head it but could not keep the ball down as it narrowly went over the bar.
That was as good as it got for Braga as Benfica controlled the final minutes without undue alarm to claim a third consecutive win and all three points.
By Tom Kundert, at the Estádio da Luz
[1-0] Rafa Silva, 67’