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In a season that promised so much, SL Benfica have hit a sticky patch at just the wrong time, but captain Luisão insists the belief forged over the course of a long campaign puts his side in good shape for the UEFA Europa League final against Chelsea FC.
Up until the semi-final first leg at Fenerbahçe SK on 25 April, Benfica had lost only twice all season – and both those reverses came in the UEFA Champions League group stage. Although they recovered from defeat in Istanbul with a memorable 3-1 comeback in Lisbon, they have since seen their four-point Liga lead vanish and FC Porto's last-minute winner against the Eagles on Saturday helped them leapfrog Benfica into pole position with one game remaining.
Nevertheless, Luisão is adamant that, with a major European final to play, Benfica are ready and raring to go. "We trust the work we do and since we finished that [Porto] game we have been concentrating on this big final," the centre-back said. "So we have no concern about a game that is in the past – we're looking forward, not back."
The skipper's message is that the Benfica squad will not crumble after a couple of bad results, because the rest of the campaign has been so positive – both on and off the field of play. "There's been a real atmosphere in the squad all season and I'm proud to be part of it," the Brazilian international added. "We've grown and whenever anyone arrives at the club they soon realise what it means to wear the Benfica shirt."
The history of Benfica and the chance to create a new legacy is an inspiration for Luisão. "What I want is the best for Benfica," continued a player who has served the club for ten years since arriving from Cruzeiro EC. "Benfica deserve this, we've grown in recent years. As captain, [I say] we're representing not just the players and their families but everyone who works at this club. We can make history for an important club like Benfica."
Luisão will come up against old friends when he takes on Chelsea, with David Luiz and Ramires each having moved to Stamford Bridge from Benfica. All three have also played for Brazil, and Luisão said he is "a big fan of Ramires" while his former centre-half partner Luiz "has grown a lot in recent times". Another familiar face in Amsterdam this week is Eusébio, who flew over with the Eagles. "His presence means a lot," explained the 32-year-old. "He is a reference point at Benfica and to share moments with him is important to the team."
The defender may be an old hand at these occasions but team-mate Ola John, still just 20, is also playing it cool as he approaches the biggest game of his career back in his home country. "The final is extra special but I don't think that means I'll be extra nervous," the Netherlands forward said. "Excited but not nervous – I've played big games before." Luisão will hope for something big from all his side as Benfica chase a first European trophy in 51 years.
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