Without a win in three games, SL Benfica have a massive week in prospect, with Tuesday's UEFA Champions League round of 16 decider against FC Zenit St Petersburg coming hot on the heels of Friday's top-of-the-table clash with FC Porto.
The Eagles had gone into the first leg of the Zenit tie on a run of 11 victories in all competitions but suffered a 3-2 defeat in Russia – only their second loss of the season, following a Portuguese Cup elimination by CS Marítimo in December. It was swiftly followed by a third reverse, 1-0 at Vitória SC on 20 February, with last Saturday's 0-0 draw at A. Académica de Coimbra representing scant improvement for Jorge Jesus's side.
Porto have pounced on these lapses, erasing a five-point deficit at the Portuguese Liga summit to lead Benfica on goal average. Benfica can nonetheless cling to some stirring statistics as they prepare for Friday’s Lisbon showdown – they are unbeaten in 17 home games this term, having won all ten Liga fixtures. In Europe, meanwhile, they have lost only one of their last 19 matches at the Estádio Sport Lisboa e Benfica, with 15 victories registered.
Perhaps that is why midfielder Pablo Aimar has faith in Benfica's ability to put a sticky patch behind them. "Of course I think we can beat Porto," said the 32-year-old Argentinian playmaker, fresh from being named Benfica's player of 2010/11 at the club's annual gala on Tuesday, when they celebrated their 108th anniversary. "I believe that with the support of our fans we are going to play a great match and win."
With nine league games to go after Porto's visit, coach Jorge Jesus is eager to play down the significance of Friday's encounter, though he cannot deny it has the look of a make-or-break week. "It is not a title decider," said the 57-year-old. "
We know that these two matches are very important. They are taking place in the space of just a few days, but the team are ready and we are used to these scenarios. We have great belief that we can beat Porto."
One side at least will be happy and, in the event of a draw, third-ranked SC Braga – only three points off the pace – will be ecstatic. Jorge Jesus rates the Minho outfit, whom he left to join Benfica in 2009, noting: "Benfica and Porto will have to bear in mind that Braga can make a move for top spot." Porto boss Vítor Pereira does not disagree: "Braga have proved on the pitch they are real title contenders."
It will be an important game for whoever wins, but there is still a long way to go," said Porto midfielder Lucho González, who rejoined in January the team where he spent four glittering seasons before a move to Olympique de Marseille. The 31-year-old's team-mates Silvestre Varela, Danilo and Eliaquim Mangala are injured, yet the pace-setting Dragons are feeling positive. "Now it's all down to us," he said.
©UEFA.com 1998-2016. All rights reserved.