Three weeks ago, Benfica was unbeaten in all competitions and had a five-point lead on top of the Portuguese Liga. Following their loss in Russia to Zenit St. Petersburg in the UEFA Champions League, they lost, then drew their following two fixtures in the league. Their manager Jorge Jesus will be hoping that his team was simply caught looking ahead, and not falling out of form.
On Friday, they take on bitter rivals FC Porto, who are also their main rivals for the title. The Dragons got off to a poor start this season after the departures of Andre Villas-Boas and Radamel Falcao, but are now very much in a position to contend for a repeat title in the Liga. Though Vitor Pereira's job security still isn't excellent, he's done a fair bit of learning on the job and the club's January signings are already paying dividends.
Marc Janko is likely to start up top for Porto, and his presence has allowed Hulk to move back to his preferred right forward spot. The return of Lucho Gonzalez has been a massive boost to the club, and the Benfica defense will have their hands full with his through balls. Unfortunately for the Dragons, another one of their January signings will not be able to play. Right back Danilo is out injured, and will be replaced in the team by Maicon, who will move to right back from his preferred central defense position.
Benfica got a big boost with the news that defensive midfielder Javi Garcia would be able to return for the derby. Nemanja Matic is having a respectable season for Benfica, but they have not looked as good in the middle during their recent matches without Garcia. He's likely to partner Axel Witsel in a double pivot, with playmaker Pablo Aimar in front of them.
One of the big stories headed into the game is the potential fatigue of both teams' stars. Because Benfica is playing Zenit in Champions League next week, this match was moved to Friday to give them extra time to prepare for that game. This means that a number of players will be playing in a massive derby just three days after they played for their countries on international duty. Some players, such as Porto's James Rodriguez, had to travel across the Atlantic to play for their countries. Brazil and Argentina were kind enough to play in Switzerland, minimizing travel problems for the players who represent those nations.
If Porto determine that Rodriguez is not fit enough to start, they run into some problems. Sebastian Varela is out injured, so Djalma may have to play on the left. The club sold one of last season's key impact substitutes on the wing, Cristian Rodriguez, at the end of the transfer window.
Though Rodriguez and others may be tired, only one of the players representing either team picked up any sort of an injury while on international duty. Ezequiel Garay twisted his ankle while playing for Argentina and is not 100 percent certain to start the match. If he is not able to play, it's likely that Jardel will take his place and partner Luisao in the center of Benfica's defense.
Projected Benfica Lineup (4-2-3-1): Artur; Emerson, Luisao, Jardel, Pereira; Garcia, Witsel; Nolito, Aimar, Gaitan; Cardozo
Projected FC Porto Lineup (4-3-3): Helton; Pereira, Otamendi, Rolando, Maicon; Fernando, Moutinho, Lucho; Djalma, Janko, Hulk
Benfica vs. FC Porto kicks off at 3:15 p.m. ET, 8:15 p.m. local time from Estadio da Luz in Lisbon. You can find the game on ESPN3 in the United States.