Manuel Veth –
Dinamo Zagreb vs Benfica – Thursday, March 7, 17:55GMT/18:55CET – Stadion Maksimir, Zagreb, Croatia
It is hard to believe but this year’s European campaign is the longest in Dinamo Zagreb’s history. Founded in 1911 as 1.HŠK Gradanski, Dinamo Zagreb’s previously longest run was winning the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1967. That competition, however, was not sponsored by UEFA and also was played over just six rounds.
Against Benfica on Thursday Dinamo Zagreb will already play their sixth tie in this season’s European campaign, which started in the second qualification round of the UEFA Champions League. Dinamo were eventually eliminated from the Champions League in the qualification playoffs by Swiss side Young Boys.
What followed was an impressive campaign in the UEFA Europa League where Dinamo Zagreb were unbeaten against Fenerbahçe, Anderlecht and Spartak Trnava. They then eliminated Viktoria Plzen in the round of 32 to reach the round of 16. With that Dinamo Zagreb became one of just four clubs involved in this round of 16 who have never previously participated at this juncture of the UEFA Europa League; Slavia Praha, Eintracht Frankfurt and Rennes are the others.
Benfica, in the meantime, have plenty of experience at this stage of the competition. The Eagles have played more matches in the UEFA Europa League knockout phase than any other club and have a perfect record at this stage of the competition.
Crossing over from the Champions League Benfica are also on the up after they had a first half of the season to forget under previous head coach Rui Vitoria. Under Vitoria, Benfica failed to reach the next round of the UEFA Champions League and also significantly fell behind Porto in the league standings. As a result, Vitoria was fired in January and Benfica even approach Jose Mourinho to take over, but the former Manchester United bench boss declined.
Instead, Bruno Lage was put in charge, and under the 42-year-old’s guidance, Benfica have been somewhat resurgent. In domestic competitions, Benfica have won the last seven games, including a 10-0 hammering of CD Nacional, and thanks to a 2-1 victory over Porto are once again top of the table in the Primeira Liga.
In Europe, Benfica managed to eliminate Galatasaray in the round of 32 of the Europa League. Lage has managed to integrate young players like the exciting João Felix to install a new fighting spirit at Benfica that will now make them favourites in this round against Dinamo Zagreb.
Dinamo Zagreb vs Benfica – Players to look out for:
Dani Olmo #7 – Dinamo Zagreb
Dani Olmo is one of the most interesting players in Dinamo Zagreb’s squad. The 20-year-old Spanish midfielder joined Dinamo Zagreb from his youth club Barcelona in 2014. Since then he has enjoyed a fantastic development and with a transfer value of €6.5 million is the most valuable player of the Croatian HNL. Mostly used as an attacking midfielder in a 4-3-3 setup Olmo, in fact, has already caught the attention of several European top clubs, including his former side Barcelona. A winter transfer, however, fell through after Dinamo Zagreb asked for €25 million. Nonetheless, it will only be a question of time until Olmo becomes the latest super talent to leave Dinamo for a bigger European league.
João Félix #79 – Benfica
Dani Olmo is not going to be the only player that will catch the attention of scouts present at the Maksimir on Thursday. 19-year-old super talent João Félix has already been linked with the likes of Borussia Dortmund and Bayern München in recent months. The teenager operates as an attacking-midfielder/false nine in Bruno Lage’s 4-4-1-1 system and has already scored nine goals in 16 league games this season.
Dinamo Zagreb vs Benfica – Match Stats
- The clubs’ paths have crossed twice previously in UEFA competition, Benfica beating Dinamo 2-0 on aggregate (0-0 away, 2-0 home) in the 1980/81 European Cup Winners’ Cup first round and 2-0 at home again in a 2004/05 UEFA Cup group stage encounter.
- Dinamo have won three of their other four home fixtures against Portuguese opposition but lost the most recent, 0-2 against Porto in the 2012/13 UEFA Champions League group stage.
- Benfica’s only other encounters with Croatian opposition came in the 1994/95 UEFA Champions League group stage, when they drew 0-0 away to Hajduk Split and beat them 2-1 at home en route to qualifying for the quarter-finals.
- Benfica have played more matches in the UEFA Europa League knockout phase than any other club (34).
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: Dinamo Zagreb vs Benfica – 2-1
Dinamo Zagreb vs Benfica – Lineups
Livaković – Leovac, Perić, Théophile-Catherine, Stojanović – Olmo, Moro, Majer – Orsić, Andrić, Hajrović
Head Coach: Nenad Bjelica
Vlachodimos – Grimaldo, Dias, Ferro, Almeida – Rafa Silva, Samaris, Gabriel, Pizzi – João Félix – Seferović
Head Coach: Bruno Lage
Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and among others contributes to Forbes.com and Pro Soccer USA. He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which is available HERE. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth.