Last season's beaten finalists SL Benfica took a significant step towards another UEFA Europa League semi-final after a 1-0 first-leg victory at AZ Alkmaar.
AZ started as underdogs but dominated the first half, creating a number of good chances and enjoying the majority of possession. Steven Berghuis's powerful long-range shooting twice forced Artur into making crucial saves. However, Benfica immediately changed the complexion of the quarter-final tie after the break when Eduardo Salvio volleyed in from a rebound on 48 minutes. Thereafter, they looked the more likely side to score, and despite failing to do so they must now be clear favourites to claim a place in the last four.
AZ were fastest out of the blocks and Roy Beerens flashed a shot narrowly wide from the edge of the box after five minutes. Dick Advocaat's team dominated possession and Beerens next turned provider, releasing Aron Jóhannsson behind the visitors' defence only for Artur to block his low strike with an outstretched leg. The Benfica keeper made an excellent diving stop to prevent Berghuis's left-footed effort from rocketing into the top right corner, and the Lisbon side had to wait until just before half-time for their first serious attempts on goal, Guilherme Siqueira and Rodrigo both missing the target.
It was all change after the restart, though. Within two minutes the ball broke to Óscar Cardozo on the edge of the area and although Esteban parried his shot, Salvio was on hand to expertly hook in the rebound. Cardozo had an opportunity to bury AZ but screwed his low drive wide, and while Viktor Elm was then presented with a glorious chance to restore parity, he headed tamely into Artur's arms. As play swung from end to end Rodrigo poked Ezequiel Garay's header high over the bar from a couple of metres.
Benfica were playing with much greater cohesion and after a fine flowing move down the left the ball broke to Rodrigo, whose drilled effort whistled past Esteban's left-hand post. AZ never managed to re-establish the fluency they showed in the first half, and only a fine double save from Esteban, repelling substitute Lima and then André Gomes, avoided further damage. Even so, they now require a major upset in Lisbon if their European odyssey is to continue beyond 10 April.
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