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Champions League PREVIEW: AS Monaco vs SL Benfica (22/10/14)

Having followed up their 0-0 draw against Zenit St Petersburg with a pair of positive performances in Ligue 1 – drawing 1-1 away at PSG before overcoming an in-form Evian side 2-0 at the weekend – Monaco’s season is gradually starting to look rather positive. In what has been a particularly impressive start to life back in Europe, Monaco currently sit atop Group C with four points from their first two fixtures and Portuguese champions Benfica seem set for a tough encounter.

In terms of past results, Monaco have an indifferent record against Portuguese sides having won two and lost two of five previous encounters, but history should matter little in what is a first encounter between these two teams. Furthermore, the away side will hold few surprises for coach Leonardo Jardim, who is well-versed in battling the Eagles having narrowly lost out to them in the race for the Portuguese title while in charge of fierce rivals Sporting.

For their part, meanwhile, Benfica have been electric in the Primeira Liga so far this season having won six of their first seven matches to take an early four-point lead at the top. With an impressive 19 goals scored at this point, their flowing attacking football should provide this match with an intriguing clash of styles as they come up against a miserly defence that has conceded just two goals in its last seven games.

Ultimately, after reaching the final of the Europa League for the second successive campaign last season, eventually losing 4-2 on penalties to Sevilla, Benfica will be hoping to make good progress in Europe’s premier competition this time around and desperately need a positive result here in Monaco.

Squad Selection and Tactics

With a couple of players returning from injury, Monaco’s coach almost has a full squad to choose from. Despite reports that they were set to miss out, Jardim told the press that Dimitar Berbatov and Geoffrey Kondogbia could well return to face Benfica in what would be a timely boost for the Principality side. Anthony Martial remains a doubt having been extremely lively coming off the bench in recent weeks but Lacina Traore made his first appearance of the season on Saturday and could play a part as Monaco stick to their trusted 4-2-3-1.

For Benfica, meanwhile, with a much-changed side sealing a 3-2 victory over second-tier SC Covilha in the Portuguese cup third round on Saturday, Jorge Jesus was able to rest several key players ahead of this crucial match. There are still a few small niggles within the squad including second-choice goalkeeper Julio Cesar, Ola John and Jardel but no major fitness complaints. Tactically, while Benfica have often used a more traditional 4-4-2 formation this season, travelling away in Europe could well see Jesus match Monaco’s 4-2-3-1 to provide added solidity in the centre of the park, with Talisca dropping back into the number 10 spot.

Danger Men

Joao Moutinho (Monaco) – Since scoring the winner against Bayer Leverkusen on matchday one, Moutinho has been in fine form. Along with Ricardo Carvalho, he was decisive in both attack and defence at the weekend – converting an early penalty before clearing off the line brilliantly when the match was still in the balance – and the chance to come up against an old enemy from his time spent playing in his homeland may just add that extra bit of verve to his performance.

Talisca (Benfica) – While a number of players have impressed in Benfica’s dominant early league run, with goals shared throughout the side, attacking midfielder Talisca has been a leading light. The exciting 20-year-old has six goals in seven league appearances so far this campaign and has thrust himself into the first team picture after making just one appearance last season. While he has been unable to impress in the two Champions League group matches to date, a rest at the weekend could be just what the youngster needed to be at his peak against Monaco.

Prediction

Monaco’s tight defence has been perfectly suited to Champions League action so far and Leonardo Jardim knows all about facing Benfica from his time spent coaching in Portugal. Both Zenit and Leverkusen’s free-scoring attackers stumbled when up against Les Rouges et Blancs and it could be a similar story here for the away side. Benfica desperately need a good result but, while they may have freshness on their side, breaching Monaco’s home fortress will provide a particularly stern test.

Prediction: Monaco 1-0 Benfica

J.L.

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