Revived Benfica pose real threat

‘JESUS seeks fourth victory over dragon’ is one of those headlines which most journalists can only dream of — except in Portugal, where the dragon is the symbol of Porto and Jorge Jesus is manager of Benfica.

On Saturday night the heavyweights warmed up for Champions League match day two with the Portuguese version of El Clasico.

In the event, Jesus had to be content with a draw. But 2-2 is rather better than 0-5, which was the scoreline last season, and their performances so far suggest Benfica could turn out to be one of several dark horses in Europe, as well as genuine title contenders at home.

Unbeaten in 16 matches since they lost a friendly to Dijon, their league campaign has taken off with three victories against sides who beat them at the start of last season. To come back twice in the dragon’s den, as they did on Saturday, is also unusual.

Benfica went on to win the title when Giovanni Trapattoni’s team secured a point against Porto six years ago. So expectations have rocketed and they will be looking to match Manchester United at the top of their group between now and November 22 when they travel to Old Trafford.

Expectations at Porto are also high, although the team hasn’t yet performed with the intensity and flair they showed last season when winning the treble. They are looking for a win in St Petersburg, although Luciano Spalletti’s Zenit team are top of the table and won 4-0 at the weekend.

The Champions League group stage often promises upsets and then fails to deliver. The favourites can be accident-prone early on and then play catch-up in the third game. Group B seems like that this year. Lille have been dropping points carelessly, while Inter seemed capable of losing to anyone following their shock home defeat against Trabzonspor and then at Novara in Serie A.

However, Gian Piero Gasperini has now been replaced by Claudio Ranieri and Inter were a little more like themselves in their win at Bologna, although it took two late goals to make sure.

“It was too much of an experiment,” declared Inter owner Massimo Moratti after firing the unlucky Gasperini. Some mightargue that appointing Ranieri is tempting fate as well, especially after those uncomfortable six months with Rafa Benitez in the Inter hot seat, but at least Claudio has a good record as a firefighter — if not as a winner.

In the past Ranieri has rescued both Fiorentina and Valencia (the first time he was there anyway) and saved Parma from relegation. At Roma he came very close to halting Inter’s charge for the treble when Jose Mourinho was in charge two seasons ago.

CSKA’s optimism was dampened when they lost the Moscow derby 4-0 against Dinamo two weeks ago but they, like Zenit, are under no pressure in the league.

Russian clubs are playing an 18-month tournament to bring their league in line with most other countries. They kicked off last March and are close to the end of phase one, after which they split into two groups with just the top eight teams competing for the title. Both Zenit and CSKA have already qualified for this second stage.

Trabzonspor are also in an unusual position: playing in a tournament after having already been knocked out. They took Fenerbahce’s place after they were disqualified. With nothing to lose they may feel more free to attack after managing just one shot against Inter.

Several matches tonight and tomorrow could go either way but the most difficult to call is probably Marseille-Dortmund.

Marseille have had a dreadful start to their domestic season — one win in eight games. They were bottom of the league until they beat newly-promoted Evian last week. Close to a second win against Valenciennes at the weekend they conceded an equaliser two minutes into stoppage time.

Dortmund went one better — or rather worse — against Hannover, losing 2-1 after conceding twice in the final three minutes.

They did beat Mainz on Saturday, but only thanks to a last-minute goal from their Polish defender Lukas Piszczek.

A draw would suit Arsenal nicely.

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