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Buoyant Benfica set for Juve showdown

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23 Apr 2014 00:31:55

Buoyant Benfica set for Juve showdown

Having shaken off the hangover from their title celebrations on Sunday, Portuguese champions Benfica host Juventus in the first leg of their Europa League semi-final on Thursday.

The Eagles have been driven this season by the bitter memory of 12 months ago, when they found themselves on the verge of winning a treble of Portuguese league and Cup and Europa League, only to miss out on all three trophies in an agonising two weeks.

Jorge Jesus' side beat Olhanense 2-0 in front of almost 64,000 fans at the Estadio da Luz on Sunday to open up an unassailable seven-point lead with two games remaining in the Portuguese top flight and secure their 33rd league title.

"This was our main objective and we are all delighted," said Jesus on Sunday as thousands of fans gathered to celebrate and welcome the team in their open-top bus at Marques de Pombal square in the centre of Lisbon.

Now, though, Benfica have a possible quadruple in their sights.

Having lost just once in 35 games, they are through to the Portuguese Cup final, in which they will play Rio Ave next month, and they face Porto in the semi-finals of the League Cup this weekend.

European success may be the hardest to achieve for a club who have lost all seven continental final appearances since winning their second European Cup back in 1962.

But it would be a fitting way to pay tribute to 1960s greats Mario Coluna and Eusebio, who died earlier this year.

Standing in their way are a Juve side who are motivated by the prospect of reaching a final that will be played in their own stadium in Turin.

Juve are on the brink of retaining their Serie A title - they could be crowned champions this weekend - but success in Europe is also hugely important for a club whose last continental trophy was the Champions League in 1996.

"Many players in this team have never won a European competition and Juventus haven't won a trophy in Europe for so many years," midfielder Claudio Marchisio told UEFA.com.

"When you reach this stage of the competition motivation can make the difference. So even if we're coming to the end of the season and our legs are beginning to feel heavy, the trophy can give you that energy to give that bit extra."

It remains to be seen whether key duo Arturo Vidal and Carlos Tevez will feature after both were left on the bench in the weekend win against Bologna after respective fitness problems.

Benfica are without the injured Eduardo Salvio and Silvio, while Nico Gaitan is a doubt after picking up a knock in the weekend win against Olhanense and Ljubomir Fejsa is also struggling.

- Spanish opposition awaits -

The winner will face Spanish opposition in the final itself, with La Liga rivals Sevilla and Valencia facing off in the other last-four tie.

Sevilla, who beat city neighbours Betis in the last 16 before eliminating Porto in the quarter-finals, will be at home in the first leg and their recent form should make them favourites.

They have won 12 of their last 15 matches in all competitions, form that means they remain in the running to qualify for next season's Champions League, and coach Unai Emery can look forward to coming up against his former club.

Emery spent four years in charge of Valencia until 2012, leading them to three third-place finishes in La Liga and a Europa League semi-final.

Since his departure in 2012, Valencia have struggled and they look unlikely to qualify for Europe next season via their domestic league, so the pressure is on current coach Juan Antonio Pizzi.

"It will be a great tie. We know each other well, but you can't say either side is the favourite," insisted Sevilla's Argentinian defender Federico Fazio.

Both clubs enjoyed success in the UEFA Cup in the last decade, with Valencia lifting the trophy in 2004 before Sevilla won it in 2006 and 2007.

Fixtures (kick-offs 1905GMT)

At Lisbon

Benfica (POR) v Juventus (ITA)

At Seville, Spain

Sevilla (ESP) v Valencia (ESP)

Second legs to be played next Thursday, May 1


AFP

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