BRUGGE, Belgium (AP)Benfica remains a dangerous attacking team despite losing Enzo Fernandez to Chelsea.
Joao Mario scored from the penalty spot and substitute David Neres added a second goal with two minutes left Wednesday as Benfica took a step toward the Champions League quarterfinals with a 2-0 victory over Club Brugge in the first leg of their last 16 tie.
Benfica players’ superior technical skills were on display throughout the evening and they made the most of nearly every possession to create danger. They could have left the Flanders city with even more room to breathe, but a bit of clumsiness up front cost them extra goals.
Joao Mario put the visitors in the lead after 51 minutes and Neres made the most of a defensive error to make it 2-0 with a low finish.
”When you play the first leg of a tie away from home and win, it’s a very good first step,” Benfica coach Roger Schmidt said.
Benfica is now unbeaten in its last eight games in the Champions League, with five wins and three draws. The victory over the Belgian champions marked the first time since the 2005-06 season that the Lisbon club has won three games in a row in the European competition.
Brugge coach Scott Parker had included six players with a defensive profile in his starting XI, including the experienced Denis Odoi to add a calm presence in midfield.
Odoi, however, was booked after just nine minutes for a reckless tackle, and his starting role did not prevent Benfica from creating the first chance. Brugge’s slack defending gave Nicolas Otamendi too much space in the box from a corner and Goncalo Ramos followed up with a header from close range that was stopped by goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
Brugge did not panic and tried to respond with an aggressive pressing. The hosts were dangerous on the break and built confidence with a series of fine attacking moves.
That was not enough to destabilize Benfica, though, and after 20 minutes the Portuguese team was in control.
Schmidt’s players, however, wasted many good chances. First from close range, as Fredrik Aursnes missed the target after a good build-up and Antonio Silva headed the ball over the bar in the 26th. Rafa Silva then came close near the half-hour mark when he connected with a lofted ball in the back of Brugge defenders, hitting the post.
Brugge thought it took the lead from a set piece in the 45th minute when Odoi’s header took a deflection and went in, but the goal was disallowed for an offside position.
Benfica finally broke the deadlock after defender Jack Hendry fouled Ramos in the box. Joao Mario took the kick and found the net despite Mignolet’s effort to get his hands to the ball, which hit the bar before going in.
”To be honest, I got lucky but it’s part of football,” said Joao Mario, who has 17 goals so far this season in all competitions.
The hosts’ reaction was not strong enough and the two-time European champions controlled the remainder of the game without getting threatened. Neres stole the ball from Bjorn Meijer in the closing stages and broke away to score from inside the box.
Brugge, after qualifying from a tough group that included Porto, Bayer Leverkusen and Atletico Madrid, has won just one of its past 11 matches in all competitions.
Brugge will travel to Lisbon for the return leg on March 7.
”This kind of game is decided on details. As soon as you make a mistake, you pay for it,” Brugge defender Clinton Mata said. ”We must not throw everything away, we must remain positive, everything is possible in soccer.”
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