"The best two teams left in the competition" according to Jorge Jesus, SL Benfica and Juventus square up in Lisbon with both coaches predicting a tight encounter.
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Jorge Jesus is looking forward to a meeting "between the best two teams left in the competition" as mutual respect dominated the thoughts of SL Benfica and Juventus on the eve of their UEFA Europa League semi-final.
Jesus was as effusive in his praise of "the unique" Andrea Pirlo, Juventus's tactical excellence and Antonio Conte's brilliance as his Italian counterpart had been of him and Benfica moments earlier during Wednesday's press conferences. Both, too, were united by a sense that there will be little to choose between teams sharing similar characteristics. "Nothing will be decided tomorrow," said Jesus.
The Portuguese elaborated: "It will be decided in the away match and we are prepared for a hard duel. Juve are tactically strong, playing a system that is not very common outside of Italy. But, apart from the setup, both sides are similar in terms of playing philosophy." So, too, in their strength at home. Jesus's squad, who have lost Sílvio and Eduardo Salvio to season-ending injuries while Ljubomir Fejsa and Nicolás Gaitán are out, go into the first leg unbeaten in 12 European encounters in Lisbon.
Eusébio scored in both games the only previous time these sides met in a major semi-final, helping the Eagles to a 3-0 aggregate victory and a place in the 1967/68 European Champion Clubs' Cup showpiece. Antonio Conte will prefer to reflect on their other encounter, playing both legs as Giovanni Trapattoni's charges overturned a first-leg defeat to eliminate Benfica in the quarter-finals en route to winning the 1992/93 UEFA Cup.
"I won the competition as player, but now my life is as coach and I think that me and Jorge Jesus are on a level going into this tie," he said. "I have lots of respect for Benfica and what Jesus has done with the club. They've consolidated last year's progress with the league title. Benfica's title win is an important achievement for them. We still need to get there and have to focus on both competitions."
Indeed, while Benfica claimed their 33rd Portuguese league title on 20 April, Juve are not quite over the line in Serie A, where they are eight points clear of AS Roma with four games remaining. "It's a tiring but exciting period for all concerned with Juventus. We're in the running for the title and the Europa League final. We know we have to come through 180 minutes against a strong side first, though."
The Bianconeri will be without injured pair Arturo Vidal and Simone Pepe, while Carlos Tévez faces a late fitness test. Yet with a final on home turf on offer next month, Conte would not have it any other way. Comparing the competition to Serie A, he said: "They have the sweat, hard work and the importance of luck in common, but there are 38 games in the league – we can lose here and recover there. In Europe there is no margin for error."