Benfica shows strength going into Champions League quarters
When Benfica started its Champions League campaign in the third qualifying round in August, few expected the Portuguese team to make much of a run in Europe's top club competition.
It was coming off a poor season by the club's standards, and expectations were low.
But round after round, Benfica kept battling, advancing and showing improvement under new coach Roger Schmidt.
Now the traditional club is in great form and is seen by many as one of the teams to beat in Europe entering the decisive stages of the Champions League. Come the draw for the last eight next week, Benfica will not be considered one of the softer opponents.
That hasn't been the case recently, as until last season it had not reached the round of 16 since 2016-17.
It surprised this time with an unbeaten run to win a difficult group that included powerhouses Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus. It routed Club Brugge 5-1 on Tuesday for its biggest Champions League home win, advancing to the quarterfinals 7-1 on aggregate.
"At this stage of the Champions League there are always good opponents, we have to respect everyone," Schmidt said. "But playing this way, with this focus, motivation and defending well, we will try our best to reach the semifinals."
It would be the first time Benfica qualified for the semifinals since 1990, when it eventually lost the final to AC Milan. Last season, Benfica was eliminated by eventual runner-up Liverpool in the last eight.
"We had a lot of respect for Brugge, now we are already focused on the next round," said striker Gonçalo Ramos, who scored twice in the team's rout on Tuesday. "No matter who is our next opponent, we will keep playing the same way."
The 21-year-old Ramos has been one of the top players for Benfica this season along with Rafa Silva and João Mário, who also scored a goal each on Tuesday at the Stadium of Light.
They have been linking up well with Gonçalo Guedes, who arrived in the winter transfer window from Wolverhampton.
Chiquinho and Florentino have been doing the hard work in the first line of defense, with young defender Antonio Silva and veterans Nicolás Otamendi and Álex Grimaldo thriving behind them.
Benfica has lost only once in 42 matches this season and is unbeaten in its 19 homes games. It is unbeaten in its last 13 matches in all competitions, with 11 wins. It now has the most prolific attack in the Champions League this season with 23 goals, one more than Napoli and two more than defending champion Real Madrid. It comfortably leads the Portuguese league, eight points ahead of rival Porto.
"The team has been working hard and things have been going well for us," Silva said.
Twice a European champion in the early 1960s, Benfica had last made it to the last eight in consecutive seasons in 1968 and 1969.
It will find out its next opponent in the draw on March 17. Chances are, though, Benfica's players aren't too worried about which rival it will face next.