With five first-choice defenders and his No1 goalkeeper missing, Rui Vitória’s options for Benfica’s back line were limited to say the least.
It was a test of his coaching mettle and the Portuguese handled it perfectly. He deployed Andreas Samaris at centre-back and the Greek international was a colossus in St Petersburg, blunting Zenit’s vaunted attack sufficiently to help the Eagles into the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals.
It was something of a baptism of fire for the 26-year-old, who had never before played in central defence in a competitive fixture. He passed his examination with flying colours. “Sometimes in training I play as a central defender, but training has nothing to do with the game; much more so when the game is in the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds.”
Samaris says his side showed in Wednesday’s first half that they wanted to “beat Zenit” and were not content to play for the 0-0 draw which would have sent them through after winning the Lisbon first leg 1-0. The second 45 minutes was a different story, with the Russian team pouring forward in search of an elusive goal.
“I felt good, comfortable, and the most important thing is that my team won,” Samaris added. “My aim was that the team did not concede a goal – they did, but we won and so I feel very relaxed.”
Samaris, more at home in the heart of midfield, showed wonderful tactical awareness throughout. He also expertly marshalled an inexperienced rearguard, including central defensive colleague, 21-year-old Victor Lindelöf, and goalkeeper Ederson on his competition debut.
“All the players are ready to play for the team and in any position. One of the key things this year is we have players who can play in every position and we showed this in the best way possible here.”
Benfica were exceptionally resilient and proved that they can triumph in adversity, which augurs well for the remainder of the tournament. Also, there was a willingness to play for the collective good rather than the individual.
“Our players sent a message out to the whole of Europe that we will play for our team in whatever way we are needed,” Samaris concluded.