What can we take from Benfica's 10-0 victory?
Benfica’s 10-0 win dominated headlines, not just in Portugal but around the world as news of the Primeira Liga’s biggest scale of victory since 1964 spread across social media.
It was greeted with shock, amusement and even disdain by different members of the general population, a victory like this a rare occurrence that always makes people sit up and take note.
But one common theme that arose was calling into question both the quality and competitiveness of the Portuguese top flight, something that Benfica themselves admitted was “unfortunate.”
The digital publication News Benfica continued, saying that “Pizzi and (manager) Bruno Lage had comforting words for the Nacional players at the end of the game, and recalled that the team have qualities. Fair play and respect for the opponent are values that should never be lost.”
“It is unfortunate to use yesterday's result and Nacional’s performance to try and introduce the idea that there is a lack of competitiveness in Portuguese football when, in reality, there is currently no league in Europe that has only 2 points separating 1st and 3rd place (which is the case in Portugal).”
On the one side, though, you can understand why there is this suggestion that there is a lack of competitiveness in the Portuguese top flight, perhaps even more so this year than in years gone by.
Indeed, for the first time ever, the top four in the league, the last four in the Taca da Liga, and the final four in the Taca de Portugal are all made up of the same four sides, with Porto, Benfica, Braga and Sporting leading the way in the Primeira Liga - in 1st to 4th respectively - being the last teams standing in both of Portugal’s domestic cup competitions too.
Not only this, but Sporting in 4th are currently 7 points clear of 5th-placed Moreirense, Braga in 3rd a further 7 points above them. It means that Moreirense, the so-called “Best of the Rest” right now in Portuguese football, are only 1 point closer to Braga than they are to the relegation zone. That gap between the top four and the rest of the league is only likely to grow even further by the end of the season.
In fact, just last season, Braga, who finished 4th place at the end of the campaign, amassed a total of 75 points overall, a gargantuan 24 points more than Rio Ave who occupied the place just below them in the table. By comparison, Rio Ave were then themselves only 21 points above last-placed Estoril, meaning they were actually 3 points closer to relegation than they were to the team just above them in the table.
Perhaps more extraordinarily, the top four last season had goal differences of +64, +58, +39 and +45 respectively. Every other side in the league, meanwhile, had a negative goal difference, the next best differential being Rio Ave with -2.
Such a gap is truly startling, and is indicative of Portuguese football today and the true dominance the Big Four in the league preside over the other sides in the country.
That said, having a group of clubs that are well above the chasing pack is not at all uncommon in top-level football today. In the English Premier League last campaign, for example, 6th placed Arsenal finished 14 points above Everton in 8th, the year before the gap being even larger (23). In France, PSG currently lead the way by 10 points with 2 games in hand, while the season before that, 4th placed Marseille finished a huge 19 points above 5th placed Rennes.
Even in Spain, the dominance of the top 3 or 4 teams is overwhelming, the top 4 last season finishing at least 12 points clear of Villarreal in 5th. Runaway winners in Europe’s best and most illustrious leagues is therefore far from uncommon.
Additionally, and intriguingly, Benfica’s 10-0 victory over relegation-threatened Nacional came on the same day as Manchester City defeated Champions League perennials and 2017 English Premier League champions Chelsea 6-0; a scoreline that was equally, or even more, shocking than Benfica’s monstrous win.
However, the integrity and competitiveness of the English top flight has not been called into question despite the fact that City’s comfortable victory was secured against one of the Premier League’s leading clubs, a side that for the past decade have been one of the leading contenders to lift the English title.
Why, then, should the Benfica result be interpreted as a weakness in the Portuguese League, or a lack of competitiveness? It should be further emphasised that this is the first time since 1964 that a Portuguese side has won a match by 10 goals - the first time since 1965 that a side has reached double-digits in a single Primeira Liga game (when Benfica beat Seixal 11-3).
Such a result is therefore a rarity in a league where narrow victories are becoming increasingly common amongst the top teams in the league, with the lesser sides in the division defending more resolutely and showing more tactical prowess than they have done in recent years.
Indeed, while the top four sides in the league are running away with it, well above the chasing pack, the likes of Porto, Benfica, Braga and Sporting are frequently made to work incredibly hard for their results. Porto, for example, the reigning champions and current leaders, have earned an impressive 16 league victories this season in just 21 matches, but 7 of those were won by just a single goal. They were also held to draws against both Guimaraes and Moreirense.
Benfica, meanwhile, have dropped 11 points against Chaves, Belenenses, Moreirense and Portimonense alone, while Sporting have won only 7 of their 13 games by more than a single goal, dropping 11 points against sides outside of the top 4.
If victories like Benfica’s became commonplace, and defending like Nacional’s at the weekend became a weekly occurrence, such statements calling into question the competitiveness and ability of the Portuguese league would be fair.
But, those who watch the Portuguese league regularly know that neither of those things are common in the Portuguese top flight, and we should give credit to Benfica for their lethal attacking play and their ability to capitalise on Nacional’s particularly uncharacteristic abysmal defending.
Some, however, even suggested that Benfica thumping Nacional in such an embarrassing manner was a lack of fair play, an unsportsmanlike victory that unnecessarily humiliated Nacional, the players and the fans, the result settled long before the full time whistle.
Of course, those people are, rightly, in the minority, and it should also be said that it is opposition fans that are mainly making such audacious claims. Battling until the full-time whistle, showing nothing but respect for your opposition throughout the full 90 minutes and constantly looking to score is the best and only way to show your opponents as much respect as possible, instead of patronisingly taking your foot off the gas just because the result is a foregone conclusion. Sport can be painful, especially if you lose, but the only way a side knows how to play is to put in full effort until the final whistle blows. And that’s exactly what Benfica did.
Manager Bruno Lage, above all, deserves a great deal of recognition, the work he has done with Benfica since taking over from Rui Vitoria incredibly impressive, and he has the side playing some terrific football as well. This 10-0 victory is vindication of his work in turning around' Benfica’s fortunes - and the side no doubt go into their Europa League clash with Galatasaray full of confidence.