Losing semi-finalists two seasons ago, SL Benfica have gone one step further in this year's UEFA Europa League – but what is their secret?
Jorge Jesus's side have slotted back into this competition like an old pair of slippers, reaching the Amsterdam denouement with only one defeat in eight fixtures. While the six goals of striker Óscar Cardozo have been particularly important, attacking midfielder Eduardo Salvio has also played a key role. Such is the Argentinian international's affinity with the UEFA Europa League, he is in line to lift the trophy for a third time in the tournament's four editions.
Cardozo, though, has been the Eagles' match winner, noticeably coming off the bench to score twice at FC Girondins de Bordeaux in the last 16 second leg. "Cardozo was decisive in that game," coach Jesus said. "He is a very cool player in the area." This particular contribution came after Cardozo also found the net to help his team to a 3-1 aggregate triumph over Bayer 04 Leverkusen in the round of 32.
"Óscar is a very strong player inside the area and, in my opinion, one of the best players in Europe inside the box," added Jesus of the 29-year-old Paraguay front man. "He is a player who is above average in terms of keeping composure and inside the area he has the intelligence of a world-class player. That's the reason he makes the difference at certain moments. Sometimes things seem to be difficult but it is easy for him. For that reason he is a goalscorer and a feared player when teams give him space inside the area."
Cardozo was once more on target in the quarter-finals, rounding off the scoring as Benfica beat Newcastle United FC 3-1 in Lisbon. The return match in England proved a tougher assignment, yet team-mate Salvio – twice a UEFA Europa League winner with Club Atlético de Madrid – was on hand to rubber-stamp Benfica's progress with a late effort at St James' Park. Salvio, still only 22, made his competition-record 33rd appearance in the semi-final second-leg victory over Fenerbahçe SK.
His move from Atlético was sealed last August, with Salvio "happy and thankful" to have signed a five-year deal after Benfica agreed an undisclosed fee. It has so far proved a blissful marriage, with the forward forcing himself into Jesus's side on a regular basis. The Eagles coach will hope Salvio's UEFA Europa League pedigree makes him even more worthwhile on 15 May.
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