Connect to share and comment
LISBON (Reuters) - Benfica coach Jorge Jesus' early season gamble of including a large contingent of forwards competing for a first-team start may just prove decisive as they close in on an elusive treble of Europa League, championship and cup.
Jesus lauded his wide range of options after Benfica grabbed a hard-fought 1-1 draw at Newcastle United on Thursday to set up a Europa League semi-final clash against Turkish side Fenerbahce.
The coach highlighted the influence of speedy 22-year-old Spaniard Rodrigo, who came off the bench to set up Eduardo Salvio's late equaliser.
"Some players ended the match in (physical) difficulty, at least Salvio did," Jesus told journalists.
"Rodrigo came in very strongly. Our secret (weapon) is to have 19 or 20 good players. When some can't play, others step in."
The twice European champions are undefeated in 36 matches in all competitions, top the Portuguese championship by four points from Porto with five matches to go and are one game away from the Cup final.
"We want to get to the final. But we have some very tough league games in between," Jesus said.
Back when the season started, he was criticised for picking an unbalanced squad with too many forwards and lacking combative edge after the departures of top midfielders Javi Garcia and Axel Witsel.
Instead, midfield duo of Nemanja Matic and Argentine Enzo Perez have excelled and the coach's rotation scheme for wingers and forwards has helped Benfica keep intensity levels high.
Benfica have nine forwards - including wingers, strikers and attacking midfielders - in their 21-man squad.
They will hope their free-scoring attacking trio of Oscar Cardozo, Rodrigo and Lima, who have scored over 60 goals between them this season, stay sharp against Fenerbahce to avoid a repeat of their disappointing playoff defeat to compatriots Braga at the same stage of the competition in 2011.
(Reporting by Daniel Alvarenga)