By Patrick Hart at the Estádio da Luz
SL Benfica and Internazionale FC will resume hostilities at the San Siro in a fortnight's time on level terms, after an exciting first leg of this UEFA Cup fourth-round tie ended goalless in Lisbon.
The SuperLiga club went into this match seeking to continue the feelgood factor in Portuguese football following FC Porto's UEFA Champions League defeat of Manchester United FC earlier in the week. However, an outstanding display by Inter's Italian international goalkeeper Francesco Toldo denied Benfica the victory they will feel their attacking efforts deserved.
The first half certainly belonged to José Antonio Camacho's side, who had already made history by becoming the first Benfica team in ten years to reach the fourth round of a UEFA club competition. With Portuguese internationals Petit and Tiago controlling the centre of the park, Benfica's ball players, Zlatko Zahovic and Simão Sabrosa, were able to exert their influence, aided by the willing centre-forward Tomislav Šokota.
The warning signs were there for Inter when a brilliant move involving Sabrosa, Šokota and the overlapping left-back Armando ended with the latter player breaking on to Sabrosa's pass and running clear on goal before firing a shot which Toldo saved with his legs.
On the eve of this meeting of two European giants – their only previous encounter being Inter's victory in the 1964/65 European Champion Clubs' Cup final - the Spanish trainer had asked the Benfica fans to get right behind his players. The 64,569 home supporters were fulfilling their part of the bargain, and so were the team. On the half-hour, Armando's superb break down the left nearly got the reward it deserved, as the recipient of his pass, Šokota, cut inside his marker before chipping just over Toldo's goal.
Zaccheroni let out another sigh of relief on 39 minutes when defender Ricardo Rocha was unable to scramble the ball over Toldo's line in a goalmouth melee. With the statistics showing 12 Benfica shots at goal to Inter's four, the Nerazzurri coach had reason to welcome the interval break. The Italian team could only boast half-chances for Alvaro Recoba, Giorgios Karagounis and Obafemi Martins.
Inter clearly needed a restorative result from a competition which offers their only hope of silverware this season. However, the second period began much like the first. After Šokota had been upended by Iván Córdoba, Sabrosa struck a free-kick into the defensive wall. Then Zahovic shot narrowly wide from Geovanni's half-cleared cross. In response, Zaccheroni brought on Okan Buruk in midfield and Julio Cruz in attack to provide the physical presence which Christian Vieri's suspension had denied him.
Still the hosts pushed forward, with the clever promptings of Sabrosa and Zahovic always threatening to undo the Inter defence. A moment's hesitation by the Benfica right-back Miguel allowed Cruz to break dangerously into the home area, but it was otherwise a red tide that swept forward. Only Zahovic's first touch was awry when he darted on to Šokota's clever through-pass on 65 minutes.
Even the introduction of winger João Pereira was a positive move. It was the 18-year-old who won the free-kick from which Cristiano headed agonisingly wide on 75 minutes. Benfica's frustration was then complete with Toldo's double save from Petit's long-range drive and Šokota's follow-up with two minutes remaining.