SL Benfica may be the most illustrious name left in this year's UEFA Cup but they will need an upturn in fortunes against Spanish sides if they are to see off RCD Espanyol and reach the semi-finals.
The Portuguese club were crowned champions of Europe in 1961 and 1962, and achieved both triumphs at the expense of heavyweight teams from across the border. First, they beat FC Barcelona 3-2 in Berne before a 5-3 victory against Real Madrid CF in Amsterdam the following year. The two titles remain the Lisbon giants' finest hour but, more recently, things have not gone so well.
Benfica have not won in their last eight matches against Spanish opposition, including their heaviest defeat in UEFA competition history, a 7-0 reverse at RC Celta de Vigo in the 1999 UEFA Cup third round. Their record is not great either in terms of away games, Benfica having played in Spain seven times and prevailed just once. Taking that further, two trips to Barcelona and Espanyol's old rivals from Camp Nou both finished in Benfica losses, most recently in last season's UEFA Champions League quarter-finals when they went down 2-0.
If his club have struggled, Fernando Santos can point to a personal success against Espanyol, as the Benfica coach overcame them in the 2000/01 UEFA Cup third round while in charge of FC Porto – the only previous time the Spanish team have met Portuguese foes. "We had a very good first leg and won 2-0. In the second leg we controlled the [goalless] match, but I think it will be different this time." Although he believes "there were two or three sides more difficult than Espanyol" in the draw, he has concerns about the "tremendous attacking duo" of Raúl Tamudo and Walter Pandiani.
As in their 4-3 aggregate win against Paris Saint-Germain FC in the last 16, Benfica will play the second leg on 12 April at home, a week after they go to Catalonia. According to Ernesto Valverde, the Espanyol coach, this will give the Portuguese outfit the edge. "Against us is the fact we will play the second leg away and yesterday, for example, only Sevilla [FC] got through playing away," he said. "In any case, despite such complications, it will be a great and enjoyable quarter-final."
Espanyol's 4-0 home romp against Maccabi Haifa FC, after a creditable if uninspiring stalemate in Israel, is what took them through to this stage, yet Valverde knows that this time his men will have to do the business in both legs. "We have to play two good games to get through, because one isn't enough." With either AZ Alkmaar or Werder Bremen lined up as semi-final rivals for the winners of this Iberian duel, such a formula for success will no doubt be required again.
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