A few weeks prior, I attended a press conference about this very match where ex-Panathinaikos player Ioannis Samaras and the Consulate General of Greece both spoke about hosting an event where the spectacle and quality of the teams on display would be appreciated by both sets of fans with a high degree of respect and sportsmanship.
And then, the game. Both sides fielded strong lineups, and I will outline them here. Panathinaikos were without star players Kostas Katsouranis, Giorgos Karagounis, Djibril Cisse, and Giourkas Seitaridis amongst others. Panathinaikos’ XI is as follows: GK: Karnezis DEF: Kante, Sarriegi, Melissis, Bjarsmyr MID: Dimoutsos, Marinos, Simao FWD: Leto, Rukavina, Cleyton
Panathinaikos’ Sebastian Leto absolutely ran the show for his side today, with any and every chance Panathinaikos had coming through his ability to run at the Benfica and play passes behind the defense to his teammates.
Benfica’s XI is without Angel Di Maria, Oscar Cardozo, Pablo Aimar and Fabio Coentrao. Despite this, they fielded a lineup of: GK: Moreira DEF: Peixoto, Luis Filipe, David Luiz, Sidnei, Faria MID: Airton, Amorim, Menezes FWD: Kardec, Oliveira
Benfica’s bench was quite impressive, with players like Javier Saviola, Javi Garcia, Nuno Gomes and Weldon, who were all introduced as the game progressed.
The stadium itself filled quickly with fans, almost all of whom were Benfica supporters. They came in droves, filling BMO Field almost by themselves, and made their team feel absolutely at home early on. Before kickoff, both teams paraded their League Championship trophy around the ground. Panathinaikos were jeered and booed by the overwhelming Benfica support, but when Nuno Gomes hoisted Benfica’s trophy high, it was met by Mexican waves and chants all around.
And then the game began. Benfica kept the play in Panathinaikos’ half of the pitch, and drove forward time and again but lacked the punch to break through the Greek backline. Fifteen minutes in, Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus made his first change. It was Javier Saviola for defender Luis Filipe, a bold move in hindsight. Sebastian Leto, who was much more free to roam now that Benfica had reduced their defensive numbers, time and again found himself behind enemy lines cutting the ball back for any Greek to prod past Benfica goalkeeper Moreira, but none were so lucky.
Leto’s rapier-like runs were beginning to cause panic in the Portuguese ranks, and the crowd was beginning to notice it as well. Benfica responded very harshly, getting very physical with Leto and Dimoutsos, who were time and again carving through the Benfica defense. David Luiz, who seemed an absolute fan favourite by the amount of cheers he received each and every time he found himself on the ball, was first to be booked. A few strong challenges on Leto saw the Brazilian center-half cautioned just 28 minutes into the match. This was not received well by the Benfica supporters, who constantly booed the referees from then on. Things heated up on the field as well, with Leto again causing panic in Benfica’s ranks, and this time Airton received a caution. Leto and Dimoutsos were constantly squaring up to the Benfica defenders, who were playing very aggressively despite the match being billed as a friendly.
Just before halftime, David Luiz stamped on Dimoutsos after the Greek won the ball with a slide-tackle on the Brazilian, and received his second yellow card and a sending off. The Benfica faithful were going ballistic; they shook the stadium with anger and booed as their team were completely losing their heads in an exhibition match. Minutes later, Dimoutsos was hacked down by Amorim just as the halftime whistle was blown, and a brawl like I’ve never seen at a football match before broke out on the field. Airton and Leto went head-to-head and actually threw punches; Menezes and Simao were involved in a pushing match; Rui Costa, who is part of the coaching staff of Benfica, actually came off the bench and onto the field and got right into it with Kante; all hell had absolutely broken loose. Finally, police entered the field of play and calmed down what was now a mob instead of two teams, and everyone went back to their dressing rooms for halftime.
The second half was much less eventful and much more calm. Nuno Gomes, Javi Garcia, and Weldon were all introduced for Benfica, which pleased the crowd and calmed the game down. The exhibition that the Consulate General of Greece spoke of having finally took place, which saw Dimoutsos rattle the crossbar from a Sebastian Leto setpiece, and a Dimoutsos goal disallowed for offside after a wicked through-pass from Sebastian Leto.
Ten-man Benfica held Panathinaikos to a nil-nil draw, which was still as exciting an exhibition as you’ll ever see. Next season’s Champions League could see the two playing eachother, so let’s hope we see a game as enthralling and dramatic as this one was in Europe’s premier competition next season.