Thu, Apr 24, 2014 - Page 18 News List

Buoyant SL Benfica set for Juventus showdown


Juventus midfielder Claudio Marchisio, right, celebrates with teammate Arturo Vidal after scoring against Olympique Lyonnais in their UEFA Europa League quarter-final at Juventus Stadium in Turin, Italy, on April 10.

Photo: AFP

Having shaken off the hangover from their title celebrations on Sunday, Portuguese champions SL Benfica host Juventus in the first leg of their Europa League semi-final today.

The Eagles have been driven this season by the bitter memory of 12 months ago, when they found themselves on the verge of winning a treble of Portuguese league and Cup and Europa League, only to miss out on all three trophies in an agonizing two weeks.

Jorge Jesus’ side beat SC Olhanense 2-0 in front of almost 64,000 fans at the Estadio da Luz on Sunday to open up an unassailable seven-point lead with two games remaining in the Portuguese top flight and secure their 33rd title.

“This was our main objective and we are all delighted,” Jesus said on Sunday as thousands of fans gathered to celebrate and welcome the team in their open-top bus at Marques de Pombal Square in the center of Lisbon.

Now, though, Benfica have a possible quadruple in their sights.

Having lost just once in 35 games, they are through to the Taca de Portugal final, in which they play Rio Ave next month, and they face Porto in the semi-finals of the Taca da Liga this weekend.

European success may be the hardest to achieve for a club who have lost all seven continental final appearances since winning their second European Cup back in 1961-1962, but it would be a fitting way to pay tribute to 1960s greats Mario Coluna and Eusebio, who died earlier this year.

Standing in their way are a Juve side who are motivated by the prospect of reaching a final that will be played in their own stadium in Turin.

Juve are on the brink of retaining their Serie A title — they could be crowned champions this weekend — but success in Europe is also hugely important for a club whose last continental trophy was the UEFA Champions League in 1995-1996.

“Many players in this team have never won a European competition and Juventus haven’t won a trophy in Europe for so many years,” midfielder Claudio Marchisio told UEFA’s Web site. “When you reach this stage of the competition motivation can make the difference. So even if we’re coming to the end of the season and our legs are beginning to feel heavy, the trophy can give you that energy to give that bit extra.”

It remains to be seen whether key duo Arturo Vidal and Carlos Tevez will feature after both were left on the bench at the weekend in the win over Bologna due to fitness problems.

Benfica are without the injured Eduardo Salvio and Silvio, while Nico Gaitan is a doubt after picking up a knock in the weekend win over Olhanense, while Ljubomir Fejsa is also struggling.

The winners will face Spanish opposition in the final itself, with La Liga rivals Sevilla and Valencia facing off in the other semi-final.

Sevilla, who beat city neighbors Real Betis Balompie in the round-of-16, before eliminating Porto in the quarter-finals, are at home in the first leg and their recent form should make them favorites.

They have won 12 of their past 15 matches in all competitions, form that means they remain in the running to qualify for next season’s UEFA Champions League and coach Unai Emery can look forward to coming up against his former club.

Emery spent four years in charge of Valencia until 2012, leading them to three third-placed finishes in La Liga.

Since his departure in 2012, Valencia have struggled and they look unlikely to qualify for Europe next season via the domestic league, so the pressure is on coach Juan Antonio Pizzi.

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