Benfica shows strength going into Champions League quarters
When Benfica started its Champions League campaign in the third qualifying round in August, few expected the Portuguese team to make much of a run in Europe’s top club competition.
It was coming off a poor season by the club’s standards, and expectations were low.
But round after round, Benfica kept battling, advancing and showing improvement under new coach Roger Schmidt.
Now the traditional club is in great form and is seen by many as one of the teams to beat in Europe entering the decisive stages of the Champions League. Come the draw for the last eight next week, Benfica will not be considered one of the softer opponents.
That hasn’t been the case recently, as until last season it had not reached the round of 16 since 2016-17.
It surprised this time with an unbeaten run to win a difficult group that included powerhouses Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus. It routed Club Brugge 5-1 on Tuesday for its biggest Champions League home win, advancing to the quarterfinals 7-1 on aggregate.
“At this stage of the Champions League there are always good opponents, we have to respect everyone,” Schmidt said. “But playing this way, with this focus, motivation and defending well, we will try our best to reach the semifinals.”
It would be the first time Benfica qualified for the semifinals since 1990, when it eventually lost the final to AC Milan. Last season, Benfica was eliminated by eventual runner-up Liverpool in the last eight.
“We had a lot of respect for Brugge, now we are already focused on the next round,” said striker Gonçalo Ramos, who scored twice in the team’s rout on Tuesday. “No matter who is our next opponent, we will keep playing the same way.”
The 21-year-old Ramos has been one of the top players for Benfica this season along with Rafa Silva and João Mário, who also scored a goal each on Tuesday at the Stadium of Light.
They have been linking up well with Gonçalo Guedes, who arrived in the winter transfer window from Wolverhampton.
Chiquinho and Florentino have been doing the hard work in the first line of defense, with young defender Antonio Silva and veterans Nicolás Otamendi and Álex Grimaldo thriving behind them.
Benfica has lost only once in 42 matches this season and is unbeaten in its 19 homes games. It is unbeaten in its last 13 matches in all competitions, with 11 wins. It now has the most prolific attack in the Champions League this season with 23 goals, one more than Napoli and two more than defending champion Real Madrid. It comfortably leads the Portuguese league, eight points ahead of rival Porto.
“The team has been working hard and things have been going well for us,” Silva said.
Twice a European champion in the early 1960s, Benfica had last made it to the last eight in consecutive seasons in 1968 and 1969.
It will find out its next opponent in the draw on March 17. Chances are, though, Benfica’s players aren’t too worried about which rival it will face next. ___
Chelsea win over BVB in Champions League is Graham Potter’s best since taking helm. Can he keep it going?
Chelsea beat Borussia Dortmund at Stamford Bridge 2-0 on Tuesday to book their place in the Champions League quarterfinals and ease the mounting pressure on head coach Graham Potter. Needing to overturn a 1-0 deficit from the first leg in Germany three weeks ago, Chelsea made a fast start but had to wait until Raheem Sterling’s 43rd-minute strike to break the deadlock.
Kai Havertz sealed a 2-1 aggregate win by converting a 53rd-minute penalty at the second attempt. The spot kick was awarded after referee Danny Makkelle was sent to the monitor by VAR official Pol Van Boekel to review a handball by Marius Wolf. Havertz’s first effort struck the post, but VAR revealed encroachment into the box by multiple Dortmund players, and Havertz slotted home the retake.
Christian Pulisic made his first appearance for Chelsea since Jan. 5 as a late substitute, and Chelsea hung on to a precious victory that sees them reach the last eight of Europe’s premier club competition for the second consecutive season.
1. Potter enjoys best night since becoming Chelsea boss
Chelsea may have beaten Leeds United by a solitary unanswered goal last weekend, but Potter was still under significant pressure ahead of Tuesday’s clash with Borussia Dortmund.
The sheer scale of recent investment poured into the club by ownership — around £600m all told — demands a better immediate return than the Blues have managed of late. An early Champions League exit would have strengthened Potter’s critics in arguing the job might be too big for the 47-year-old to handle.
Potter was noticeably more animated in this match on the touchline, regularly trying to rally the crowd and reacting to refereeing decisions with more vigour than normal.
Perhaps the most telling moment came when Havertz stepped up to try and convert his 53rd-minute penalty at the second attempt. Potter sat in his seat and couldn’t watch. It may have been rough going at times, but this must surely rank as Potter’s best night in charge since succeeding Thomas Tuchel in September.
The prospect of a Champions League quarterfinal next month will give Potter a tangible achievement to point to if the domestic stutters continue. But he will be hoping back-to-back wins for the first time since October will prove to be a long-awaited turning point.
2. Have Chelsea found their shooting boots?
The lack of goals has been Chelsea’s biggest problem under Potter. It threatened to be another hugely frustrating evening as they created and then spurned a series of chances repeatedly, including when Havertz hit the post, or when had the ball in the net with a brilliant finish only for the offside flag to be raised.
But this time, Chelsea were rewarded for their perseverance.
Raheem Sterling had endured a torrid first half, but he stuck to his task and fired the home side in front two minutes before the break. Havertz needed two tries but converted his second spot kick after hitting the post with the first as several Dortmund players encroached in the penalty area.
Remarkably, this was the first time since Dec. 27 that Chelsea had scored more than once in a game. It was precisely what they needed to do to qualify, but encouraging performances from Joao Felix and Havertz in particular should help Chelsea banish what had surely, at least in part, become a psychological issue in front of goal.
3. Depleted Dortmund needed more from Bellingham
Dortmund were already without injured key attacking players Karim Adeyemi and Youssoufa Moukoko, and goalkeeper Gregor Kobel when their preparations were further disrupted by a late arrival to Stamford Bridge, forcing kick-off to be delayed by 10 minutes.
To make matters worse, Julian Brandt was forced off injured inside the first five minutes, and so the task of holding on to their first-leg advantage grew tougher almost by the minute.
On such occasions, teams need their big players to step up, and although Jude Bellingham is just 19 years old, he has captained the side previously and is a vital player in Dortmund’s attack. Unfortunately for BVB, this was not his finest night.
Bellingham was not to blame for Dortmund’s exit, but equally the midfielder was unable to influence the game to the same extent that has seen his proposed transfer fees skyrocket ahead of a likely summer move to either the Premier League or LaLiga.
He missed a glorious chance to pull Dortmund level on aggregate just before the hour mark as Sebastien Haller’s shot hit Ben Chilwell and fell to him 7 yards out. Remarkably, Bellingham side-footed it wide.
A glittering career surely awaits such a prodigiously gifted player, but this was a night to forget.
Best and worst performers
Best: Kai Havertz, Chelsea
Linked play intelligently, had a brilliant effort ruled out for offside and took advantage of a second chance to score from the spot to seal a priceless victory.
Best: Mateo Kovacic, Chelsea
Won the midfield battle for Chelsea and set the tone for a largely authoritative collective display.
Best: Ben Chilwell, Chelsea
A regular threat down the left flank and made a vital interception on the stroke of half-time.
Worst: Jude Bellingham, Borussia Dortmund
Missed a great chance on the hour mark and was not at his influential best.
Worst: Sebastien Haller, Borussia Dortmund
Struggled to impose himself, completing just 60% of his passes and managing only one shot.
Worst: Raphael Guerreiro, Borussia Dortmund
Lost six of his 10 duels and gave the ball away too often.
After a ball from Chelsea’s Ben Chilwell hit the arm of Dortmund’s Marius Wolf, a video review ensued and the referee pointed to the spot.
Kai Havertz stepped up and missed, but due to encroachment in the box, the referee ordered it to be retaken, and Havertz didn’t make the same mistake twice, putting Chelsea up 2-0 for the match, and up 2-1 on aggregate.
Although Chelsea were the better side on the night, it’s not as if Borussia Dortmund didn’t have their chances.
Within five minutes of Havertz’s goal, Bellingham had a chance to pull one back for BVB but put it barely wide.
After the match: What the managers and players said
Chelsea manager Graham Potter on how he is feeling: “I’m not sure! There is a lot of emotion in the end. It was tense in the end but the boys played fantastic. I am delighted for them to get the win and great for everyone here.”
Potter on the result after a rough stretch: “There was a fantastic feeling in the dressing room. We have been through a tough period and this competition means a lot for us. We wanted to progress and get into the last eight and it sets us up for the next few weeks.”
BVB manager Edin Terzic on the result: “I think the first 10 minutes you can feel the power not just from Chelsea but from the stadium. After that, we came back into the game but they managed to score and we didn’t. We had a clear chance through Bellingham and only had a couple of counter-attacks to defend. We didn’t create much later and that’s the problem.”
BVB midfielder Jude Bellingham on the penalty call, and then the penalty kick retake: “It is a yard or two away. I am not too sure. I don’t want to get in trouble. That in itself was disappointing, but the fact they had a retake is a joke. For every penalty with such a slow run up there is going to be encroachment by people running into the box by a yard or so, but that’s the game. They’ve made the decision and we’ve had to live with it.”
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information research)
Chelsea have reached the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals for the 12th time, tying Juventus for fifth most all time.
Dortmund see their 10-game winning streak snapped in all competitions, as they suffer their first loss since before the World Cup (Nov. 11).
Chelsea have won back-to-back games in all competitions for the first time since October 2022, a four-game win streak spanning Oct. 1-16.
Chelsea’s Kai Havertz has converted all 15 of his career penalty kicks taken (11-of-11 at club level), excluding PK shootouts.
Chelsea’s Raheem Sterling now has 27 career UEFA Champions League goals, which puts him three shy of Wayne Rooney’s record for the most by an Englishman.
Giovanni Reyna entered as substitute for Dortmund in fifth minute for injured Julian Brandt and led his team with two chances created and earned two fouls in attacking third.