SL Benfica came back from three goals down to maintain their hopes of reaching this season's UEFA Cup final as they lost 3-2 to RCD Espanyol in the first leg of their quarter-final. Raúl Tamudo, Albert Riera and Walter Pandiani looked to have given the Barcelona club an unassailable lead but two strikes in the space of three second-half minutes from Nuno Gomes and captain Simão gave the visitors two priceless away goals going into next week's return in Lisbon.
The home side settled quickly on a pitch slickened by heavy daytime rain and within two minutes Iván de la Peña fired just wide after the Benfica defence had failed to clear Pablo Zabaleta's cross. De la Peña did his best to open up the Benfica rearguard with an array of deft incisions but when the breakthrough came on 15 minutes, it was another hero of the Espanyol faithful who inflicted the damage. The Lisbon outfit dithered in possession from their own throw-in, allowing Luis García to play in Tamudo and the striker sidestepped David Luiz before lifting his shot coolly over the advancing Quim.
The Portuguese team responded with a series of set-pieces but failed to make any genuine chances and were punished just after the half-hour when Espanyol doubled their advantage. Once again skipper Tamudo was involved, linking with García down the right before dinking a cross over to Riera. The midfielder's left-footed shot was probably going in anyway but Nélson removed any doubt by heading the ball into his own net. Benfica coach Fernando Santos reacted by introducing Rui Costa for João Coimbra and, three minutes from half-time, home keeper Gorka Iraizoz was called into action for the first time from a Nuno Gomes header and then a long-range attempt by Petit.
Pandiani adds third
Benfica came out looking for a goal yet the home side still seemed the more dangerous with Francisco Rufete and the outstanding Riera offering a constant outlet down the flanks. With a healthy cushion, Espanyol coach Ernesto Valverde felt confident enough to sacrifice Tamudo for the tournament's top scorer Pandiani on 53 minutes. It proved an inspired choice as within five minutes the Uruguayan had taken his UEFA Cup tally to ten, rising above the Benfica back line to head in another excellent Riera centre.
The Primera División club appeared to be heading for Lisbon with a comfortable lead but the complexion of the tie changed completely shortly after the hour. Nuno Gomes reduced the deficit with a tap-in on 63 minutes after substitute Fabrizio Miccoli had beaten the offside trap and two minutes later Simão, cutting into the box from the left, struck Benfica's second with a shot that deflected off Daniel Jarque and into the net. Miccoli then missed a chance to seal the fightback when he blazed across the face of the goal while Quim ensured there would be no further scoring at the other end by thwarting Pandiani.