Benfica beat Estrela da Amadora 2-0 at the Estádio da Luz tonight in front of almost 60,000 fans in the first home game of the defence of their championship title.
The hosts were on top for the vast majority of the match, but were constantly frustrated by a strong rearguard action from the visitors and a heroic goalkeeping display by Bruno Brigido.
Estrela’s resistance was finally broken by substitute David Neres, who set up late goals for Casper Tengstedt and Rafa Silva in a brilliant cameo appearance off the bench.
There were surprises in the Benfica lineup, not least the selection of 21-year-old goalkeeper Samuel Soares who has come through the youth ranks, with expensive purchase Anatoliy Trubin on the bench and long-term first-choice Odysseas Vlachodimos dropped from matchday squad altogether. Brazilian striker Arthur Cabral made his debut, while Fredrik Aursnes and João Mário got a recall to the starting XI.
For Estrela, coach Sérgio Vieira brought in Omorwa, Leo Jabá, Leonardo and Hevertoon in relation to the team that began the season with a 1-0 defeat against Vitória last weekend.
As expected, Benfica took the initiative with Estrela heavily populating their defensive positions and adopting a counter-punching approach.
After a slow start João Mário and Rafa Silva combined, and the latter appeared through on goal, but as he was crowded out his hurried shot from close range was deflected over the bar. João Neves then did well to shimmy on the edge of the box and make space for himself for a shot that whistled narrowly wide.
However, chances were few and far between with Benfica finding it tough to penetrate a well-organised Estrela defence.
Midway through the first half Ronaldo Tavares showed an excellent burst of pace to drive to the byline and cut the ball back for his strike partner Ronald Pereira who blasted dangerously close to Benfica’s goal on the turn.
Benfica chances come and go
In the 32nd minute Kökçü chipped a delightful cross onto the head of Alexander Bah, but the right-back miss-timed his header and a promising chance was gone. João Mário then smashed a curling 20-yard effort over the bar.
Moments later Cabral was released by Kökçü, the striker denied a debut goal by a sharp Bruno Brigido save.
The best chance of the half came in the 42nd minute as Di María cut along the top of the box and curled a shot towards goal that brought a magnificent diving save out of Brigido.
The Argentine was involved in two half-hearted penalty appeals, but the referee was having none of it and the teams went into the break all square.
Schmidt made a change at the break, bringing on Florentino Luís for Neves, but initially there was little change to the pattern of the match with Benfica enjoying most of the possession but not doing much with the ball.
The home fans were given an enormous scare just before the hour mark as Ronald skipped past his marker and his cross was cut out by Florentino with his arm according to the referee who immediately pointed to the penalty spot. However, after a VAR and pitch-side TV check, the decision was overturned with the ball actually stopped by the midfielder’s midriff.
Brigido the brick wall
The crowd let out a collective sigh of relief and inevitably vented their anger at the referee and the increased noise level seemed to jar Benfica into action. Kökçü was whisker away from a goal with a deflected shot that was kept out by another sensational sprawling Brigido save.
The goalkeeper was having an inspired night, and in the 66th minute he denied Ángel Di María with an outstanding diving save at full stretch for the second time in the match.
On 69 minutes David Neres came on for the out-of-sorts João Mário and it proved the key substitution.
Neres immediately began terrorising Estrela’s tiring defenders with his mesmerising dribbling, and Benfica’s pressure was now incessant. Kökçü was denied by yet another superb Brigido save and Di María shot into the side-netting.
Neres provokes late breakthrough
As the final 10 minutes approached the hosts at last found the way to goal, with two substitutes combining to make the breakthrough. More Neres magic on the left flank saw him skip past two defenders and drive to the byline before crossing low for Casper Tengstedt to tuck into the net from close range.
To Benfica’s credit, they did not sit on their lead, continuing to push forward for the second safety-net goal, which duly arrived in the 90th minute.
Neres was again at the heart of it, bamboozling his marker on the edge of the box with an outrageous dummy and threading an inch-perfect pass into Rafa’s path, who could not miss with just Brigido to beat from point-blank range. 2-0, game over and the Benfica fans could at last roar their approval in full voice.
Rafa was not done yet, rattling the post in stoppage time, and Neres almost got a deserved goal shortly before the final whistle, although 3-0 would have been harsh on a spirited Estrela team.
Benfica are favourites to win the Portuguese title after apparently strengthening well in the summer transfer market, but coach Roger Schmidt has yet to fit all the pieces together.
The hosts were deserving winners but the smooth attacking football that characterised their play last season was conspicuous by its absence for most of tonight’s match.
I don’t know what Benfica’s strongest XI is, but it surely must have David Neres in it. Even last season Schmidt seemed to underuse the Brazilian, and in a 20-minute cameo tonight he was simply unplayable. It was no surprise it was Neres who finally broke Estrela’s resistance.
As for Estrela da Amadora, it is too early to say if they have enough quality or talent to stay up, but spirit and fight is certainly not lacking. The visitors showed terrific fight all night long, with every player battling for every ball like his life depended on it, personified by the sacrifice shown by Mansur.
The defender got injured with 20 minutes remaining and all the substitutions had been used, but he remained on the pitch as Estrela chased a famous point, pushing further up and trying to make a nuisance of himself despite literally having to limp around the pitch.
Also worthy of note, in addition to goalkeeper Bruno Brigido’s incredible performance, was the extremely assured display of centre-back Kialonda Gaspar – a player to keep an eye on for sure.
By Tom Kundert, at the Estádio da Luz
[1-0] Tengstedt, 79’
[2-0] Rafa Silva, 90’