A Brit abroad unwittingly offending the locals is hardly a new scenario, but you had to feel a little sorry for Alan Pardew before and after Newcastle’s Europa League quarter-final first leg at Benfica last week.
When the Toon boss had spoken fondly of both his side’s opponents and Lisbon itself pre-game, he described Benfica as a team that “would finish between 8th and 10th in the English Premier League.”
Pardew was trying to be nice, so he may have been shocked by the venom of the reaction in Portugal’s sporting press – and from his opposite number, Jorge Jesus. “We knocked out Manchester United last season (from the Champions League),” Jesus replied in his own press conference before the match. “Are they fighting it out for 10th place in England?”
There is little doubt that there was some wilful misunderstanding and nuancing from both Jesus and the media, but the coach is not one to miss an opportunity to stock up on motivational fuel.
His job is all about that, guiding a multi-talented team of internationals through a league season where they barely dare drop a point.
This campaign has seen Benfica and Porto neck-and-neck at the top of the Liga summit. The capital club have recently opened up a four-point lead after Porto drew two matches, but both sides remain unbeaten in the championship this season – and indeed since spring 2012.
This situation, coupled with Benfica’s rich history, always meant Pardew’s intended compliment was never going to be taken as such.
The oft-quoted figure is that seven out of ten Portuguese people support Benfica, a legacy from their European Cup exploits of the 1960s when Eusébio, Mário Coluna and company made those red shirts iconic.
It’s a club with an unremitting expectation of victory, something that has been restored in the years since the charismatic Jesus’ arrival on the bench in 2009.
Browbeaten by Porto’s serial successes at home and on the continent, Benfica needed to recover their own culture of daring – and winning – football. Jesus has forged his team in the desired mould, with some style.
The lungs looked to have been torn out of his team with this season barely underway, when the midfield fulcrum of Javi García and Axel Witsel were sold.
Instead, after a quick tactical reshuffle, former Chelsea player Nemanja Matic has stepped into the breach and had an astounding season, which has earned him a big new contract and admiring glances from Europe’s finest.
His simultaneously brave and technically adept way of playing makes the fans at the Estádio da Luz adore him. Matic’s current confidence was clear in his fine goal from outside the area, which clinched Sunday’s win at Olhanense.
That spirit that Benfica fans demand – a heady blend of talent and motivation – is what makes the second leg at St James’s Park such an enticing prospect in front of a sell-out crowd.
Benfica won’t park the bus to protect their lead. They can’t. Their culture and pride won’t allow them to. However well-meaning Pardew’s intentions were, Benfica want to show him how wrong he was one more time.
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Read more from our European football expert Andy Brassell