Benfica 2-0 Anderlecht: van den Brom’s selection backfires

Anderlecht were taught a harsh Champions League lesson as they went down 2-0 away to Benfica in their opening group stage game. Goals from Filip Djuricic (on his Champions League debut) and Luisao sent Paarswit home and they can have no complaints after a showing that would have seen struggle in Lokeren, never mind in Lisbon.

John van den Brom decided to make two changes from the side that blew KV Mechelen away at the weekend. Demy De Zeeuw came in to form a three-man midfield with Milivojevic and Kljestan with Frank Acheampong sacrificed while Silvio Proto was restored to the Anderlecht goal. Matiás Suárez and Massimo Bruno were named either side of Mitrovic and Fabrice N’Sakala retained his spot ahead of the under fire Olivier Deschacht.

Filip Djuricic gives Benfica an early lead after Silvio Proto's blunder.

Filip Djuricic gives Benfica an early lead after Silvio Proto’s blunder.

It couldn’t have begun any worse for the Belgian champions as Benfica broke the deadlock after just three minutes. Enzo Pérez played a one-two before firing off what should have been an innocuous shot for Proto as it was straight at the Anderlecht number one. However, he inexplicably spilled the ball and Filip Djuricic was alert enough to pounce and ruthlessly punish les Mauve et Blanc. Though the goal arrived early on in proceedings, the tone of Anderlecht being unable to play in their opponent’s half had already been set.  Proto is normally one of the most consistent players for Sporting and it was most unfortunate that he let both himself and the team down on the big occasion. It’s worth recalling that his deputy Thomas Kaminski is a very impressive young goalkeeper who cannot be held back forever but that is not to suggest that Proto should be hung, drawn and quartered.

Benfica played according to the old adage that you start defending from the front. Their front players did an excellent job of pressing the Anderlecht centrebacks, preventing them from initiating attacks from the back. This also had the knock-on effect of starving Anderlecht of control in midfield with Proto often the only passing option, not that the trio of De Zeeuw, Kljestan and Milivojevic should get off scot-free.

N'Sakala's showing was one of the few positives for Anderlecht. (Photo: RSC Anderlecht)

N’Sakala’s showing was one of the few positives for Anderlecht. (Photo: RSC Anderlecht)

The home side doubled their lead on the half hour. Anderlecht failed to clear a corner upfield and when the ball was headed back in, Gillet missed his header and Luisao was in. The veteran centreback controlled the ball on his chest and then swept the ball beyond Proto.  Anderlecht are used to defenders landing knock-out blows with finishes any forward would be proud of. After all, Philippe Mexes’ strike at the Constant Vandenstock last season was voted the best goal in the Champions League last season.

Anderlecht were outdone in midfield. Benfica are not world beaters but nor did they have to be this evening. Particularly impressive was just how easy their midfielders and forwards found it to beat their man, which meant they came out on top in congested areas and opened up the space to expose the Anderlecht backline. Lucas Biglia copped a lot of (unjust) criticism during his seven years in Brussels but that was often down to the fact the players in the Benelux are often judged against impossibly high standards with many fans obsessed with the question of whether a player can reach the very top. His experience in midfield and ability to bring a semblance of control was hugely missed. Perhaps he did stay too long at the club as that’s made him more difficult to replace and Milivojevic could not feasibly have been expected to slot in and facilitate a seamless transition.

Lucas Biglia [left] has left a huge hole in Anderlecht's midfield. [RTBF]

Lucas Biglia [left] has left a huge hole in Anderlecht’s midfield. [RTBF]

The spotlight will understandably be on De Zeeuw as most observers had wanted Frank Acheampong to get the nod to signal a more attacking and fearless approach. I have often come to De Zeeuw’s defence but his performance tonight was nothing short of desperate. He was laboured in possession, frequently gave the ball away and to top it off, conceded a number of needless free kicks. As the elder statesman of the midfield, he set an example for Milivojevic to do anything but follow. Kljestan will never have the guile to open up a team of this quality though at least his effort and persistence cannot be questioned.  To suggest De Zeeuw was only hauled off at the break due to his booking is nonsense and ignores the fact that his selection backfired on van den Brom, who ironically saw his side handed the defeat he must have feared beforehand when he selected his starting eleven.

At least the Dutch coach did not stubbornly persist with his error and introduced Acheampong after 45 minutes. The Ghanaian has been in superb form and his entrance undoubtedly gave Anderlecht a lift. He buzzes across the pitch and plays with the right attitude, not to mention his electric pace and willingness to take players on. Van den Brom will bear the brunt of the criticism due to his selection but it is worth pointing out that the starting eleven need not necessarily dictate the team’s intentions for the entirety of the ninety minutes. With the midfield lacking in the requisite quality and the defence not even among the best domestically this season, it did send out the wrong message no to focus on the side’s main strengths.

However, Anderlecht are already behind the eight ball after the first game. There was some improvement in the second 45 but by then Benfica could afford to ease off the accelerator and they were able to resist Anderlecht, meaning Gillet’s apocalyptic warning about a hammering did not ring true. Bruno still needs to show more composure on the flank but two positives were the displays of newcomers Mbemba and N’Sakala. Neither were pencilled in before the campaign but both acquitted themselves well in trying circumstances. Mbemba is clearly no Nuytinck in terms of his build up play and as I said earlier, that did create problems but he was solid defensively. N’Sakala combines well with Acheampong and with Deschacht in the twilight of his career, he could be the catalyst for the veteran playing a lesser role.  Mechelen, beaten 5-0 at the weekend, are no Benfica. That goes without saying. The problem is, neither were Anderlecht tonight.

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