Arthur Cabral the unlikely hero as Benfica stay in Europe thanks to stoppage time goal
Benfica came into their final Champions League group amid deafening noise surrounding poor performances and dropped points this season, with coach Roger Schmidt and Brazilian striker Artur Cabral the preferred targets for the ire shown by the Lisbon club’s fan base.
Salzburg 1-3 Benfica
There was something poetic, therefore, in the moment when Schmidt turned to Cabral as a late substitute and the Brazilian jumped off the bench to score with a superbly executed back-heel in time added on to give Benfica a 3-1 victory and snatch a Europa League spot away from Salzburg.
Truth be told, it was no more than Benfica deserved after dominating the match and creating chances galore.
Needing to win by a two-goal margin to leapfrog their opponents, Rafa Silva was his usual profligate self for most of the game but scored with an excellent strike, while Ángel Di María put in arguably his best performance since he returned to Benfica, terrorising the Austrian defence all night, scoring the opener direct from a corner and assisting Rafa.
Ahead of this matchday 6 Group D encounter, outsiders could have been forgiven for having the impression it was simply a tussle between two teams who had endured disappointing campaigns in the Champions League and were trying to stay in Europe.
While that was the overriding objective of both clubs, for Benfica the match took on enormous importance given the instability caused by an underwhelming season thus far.
A disastrous Champions League effort had piled the pressure on Roger Schmidt, whose increasingly fractious relationship with the local press and Benfica fans came to a head in Saturday’s home draw against Farense, when several water bottles and other items were thrown in the direction of the German when he made a second-half substitution, taking off crowd favourite João Neves.
The Eagles equalised but could not force a winner and the 1-1 draw was the second match in the row where Benfica had dropped points, slipping down to third place in the standings as a result.
In the post-match press conference a visibly emotional Schmidt hit back at the boo-boys, inviting Benfica fans who did not support the team to “stay at home”. In a separate incident later that night, striker Artur Cabral, who has endured a torrid start to his Benfica career, scoring just 3 goals in 17 matches, was widely lambasted for giving the finger to Benfica fans who were jeering him as he left the stadium car park.
The day after, Sunday, president Rui Costa came out in defence of Schmidt and also apologised to Benfica fans for Cabral’s “inappropriate” gesture.
This was the turbulent backdrop to Benfica’s do-or-die match against Salzburg in terms of their European aspirations this season, and the crunch Primeira Liga encounter away at Braga on Sunday. The two games could be season-defining.
Part one has been passed with flying colours, and the alleviation of the tension, even if temporary, was clearly transmitted in the wild celebrations among Benfica’s players and coaching staff at the final whistle in the Red Bull Arena. A beaming Schmidt did not play down the significance of tonight’s result.
“Special week” – Schmidt
“It was a very special week for everyone, and also for Arthur Cabral. We know what it’s like. He came to Benfica with a lot of motivation and it took him a long time to score his first goal. It was very important to score a goal like today’s, very important for the team and for Benfica. He was the perfect player to score the winning goal.
“It was an important game for both teams. If we didn’t succeed we’d be out of Europe. We played well, created chances in the first half, scored two goals. In the second half we had two chances to increase the lead. Then, out of nowhere, they scored to make it 2-1.
“We needed a lot of patience and mentality, because we created a lot of moments to score. We didn’t succeed. We believed until the end and scored in a fantastic attacking moment. We deserved this goal and to be in the Europa League.”