As the former Eagles return to the Estadio da Luz with Zenit, Axel Witsel told UEFA.com he had "an incredible year" at Benfica, while Ezequiel Garay "made a lot of friends".
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Midfielder Axel Witsel was a Benfica player from 2011–12, defender Ezequiel Garay from 2011–14. Team-mates once more since Garay joined Witsel at Zenit in 2014, they are facing their old side in the UEFA Champions League round of 16 – with Witsel back at the Estádio da Luz for a second time having featured in a 2-0 away win in the 2014/15 group stage. As UEFA.com discovers, both players have a lingering affection for the Eagles.
UEFA.com: Do you have good memories of Benfica?
Axel Witsel: After leaving Standard [Liège], it was the best team I could have played for. They made my name all over the whole world, because Benfica are a great club. It was an incredible year. I was in the starting XI right away. The only regret is that I didn't manage to win the Portuguese title.
Ezequiel Garay: They treated me very well from the first moment I arrived, the club and the fans. I was very happy there and made a lot of friends. It's always very nice to see those friends again – some of my old team-mates over there haven't left. I still have very warm memories of Benfica and my time there.
UEFA.com: Ezequiel, you played in the 2013 and 2014 UEFA Europa League finals with Benfica; what do you remember about them?
Garay: It was wonderful to get so far in a European competition, but it's sad that we didn't win either final. But the campaigns were very good – reaching finals in consecutive years is not easy.
UEFA.com: The two of you met at Benfica and are now team-mates; how would you describe each other?
Witsel: I think his main quality as a centre-back is his calmness. He never gets flustered. He has played for clubs like Real Madrid and, for me, Garay is one of the best defenders in the world.
Garay: Axel has developed into a great player. Now I am in my second year with him, I can enjoy the many qualities he has that make him an important player.
UEFA.com: How was the transition from Benfica to Zenit?
Witsel: It wasn't easy – I mean the weather. It's very cold here, it's a lot warmer in Portugal. So it wasn't easy for the first year and a half. But I think I adapted quite well to Russia and to Zenit, and today I am happy to be here.
Garay: The only hard thing is the cold, those very low temperatures. Winning the title in my very first year – something Zenit hadn't done for a while – was very important.
UEFA.com: How does it feel to be going back to the Da Luz?
Witsel: It will be a tough game, completely different from two years ago – that was a Champions League group stage match, now it's the round of 16. The stadium will be full and I expect a good welcome from the Benfica fans. It will be our first competitive game of 2016 so we know it will be tough physically. We need to be ready and remember that there is a second leg in Saint Petersburg.
Garay: I experienced a lot of nice things in Portugal so it's very special to go back. We are facing a team with very good players. They're going through a good spell but at the same time we know we have a strong squad. It'll be a very nice tie to play in and we hope to get a good result too.