As reigning Portuguese champions, Benfica were an ideal pick from the top seeds in the group draw back in August. One of two teams in Lisbon and the country’s most successful, United have frequently faced them, most recently in 2011 as well as the victorious European Cup final against Eusébio and co. in 1968. Portugal is actual United’s 5th most visited country but until now it was one that had eluded me.
After missing this seasons first group game in Moscow I was itching to get away. Lisbon’s a great city and a place I’ve visited with friends in the past, so the prospect of a mid-20 degree trip in October was certainly appealing. Even with two wins from two so far in the Champions League it was still going to be important to come away with a result, both to carry on our impressive start to the season but also to help ease any fixture pressure around Christmas.
Travelling to Lisbon
We booked our flights in the hours after the group draw in August, managing to go direct from Manchester for £125. Prices just after the draw were around 100 quid so we didn’t do badly with the initial rush that follows any fixture announcement. Thankfully we were with Portuguese airline TAP which meant we managed to avoid the subsequent issues with Ryanair and Monarch that affected some travelling reds plans. Our flight did however have to deal with the force of storm Ophelia which slowed the journey down a little, but we still made it in around 3 hours.
Somehow TAP managed to overbook their flights though, on both legs. A bit of a bizarre policy given it’s hardly a regular commuting route but it meant a few reds were faced with delays on the way over. Heading home we were actually offered €600 compensation to give up our seats and take another flight the next day – with a free hotel too! As tempting as it was, 4 days in Lisbon was enough for my body to cope with and work doesn’t wait either. Much like Lufthansa, TAP keep topping you up with wine during the flight – until they run out that is. Portuguese flights are limited as to how much alcohol they can have and serve on board (we were told) and with half the plane United fans this quickly went.
With Lisbon airport situated just a few miles north of the city it makes for an easy transfer. Our accommodation, the cheap but reasonable 2 star Crescent Rooms hotel, was only 3 miles and an easy €10 taxi journey. This too was in a good location, close to the main metro line and just 5 stops from the city centre.
The City of Lisbon
I’ve only visited Lisbon once before on a non-footballing trip with friends. There’s so much to see and countless quirky bars and food places and so a second visit was definitely worthwhile. During the first visit I’d travelled further up the river Tagus to find a beach and also took a trip up to Sintra to see the castle, but for the few days we were there this time we stayed fairly central.
This kept us close to some of Lisbon’s most famous sights; the famous seafront square Praça do Comércio with it’s statue of our manager’s namesake King José and the impressive cathedral, both buzzing with tourists. Drinking around the main street leading off the square wasn’t too cheap, around €4 for a pint of the renowned Super Bock – lethal for a session in the sun at over 5%. Winding in between the old trams which ran between the main sights it wasn’t hard to find somewhere selling the city’s famous custard tarts (pasteis de nata) or a glass of port, whilst the Time Out indoor market was another top place to sit and eat great food.
Lisbon is a hilly city and walking between anywhere usually means negotiating an incline, but the metro is efficient and fairly cheap, a €6 pass for 24 hours or 9 if you want to use the ferry across the river. This was definitely worth it to get to see some of the sights I’d missed last time round.
Christ the King
At over 100m tall, the statue of Christ the King is visible across the river from most of Lisbon in the neighbouring city of Almada. It’s an easy place to access with a bus right to the top of the hill where you’re greeted with amazing views back across to Lisbon and of the 25 de Abril bridge; this too is quite imposing, similar in style to the Golden Gate bridge in California.
The statue was heavily influenced by Rio’s Christ the Redeemer and is impressive up close, especially with a €5 trip in a lift up to the top. The views from up here were great, taking in all of the Lisbon coastline as well as views of the Atlantic out to the west. It’s a spiritual place too, with a statue of Mary at the base as well as some simplistic stations of the cross.
Stopping on this side of the river was also well worth it for lunch. Unsurprisingly there was a lot of fresh fish on offer, a whole platter for two people for just €30 and washed down with a €6 litre jug of white wine. The booze was a bargain compared to pints for the same price back across at Bairro Alto as well as pricier glasses of 10 year old Port.
A short walk away from the main square by the seafront was another large square, Rossio. This was the area where most United fans congregated on match day, partly due to it being close to our ticket collection point (and the smallest ticket ever), but with pints for €3 it was easy decision to hang around. Reds packed out the small side streets off this square, keeping entertained by booting a ball around the crowd with flags on display all over. There was no trouble all day and by comparison to recent trips a small police presence. We found ourselves with some of the old boys most of the day too, so the songs had a very 70’s feel to them.
The Benfica ground, the Estádio da Luz, was around 10 stops on the metro out of the city. It’s an impressive stadium, not too dissimilar to the Emirates and apparently once voted the most beautiful in Europe. Despite this the home fans were nothing special, we weren’t treated to anything like the usual tifo display on the continent. The 65k capacity was only 57k full and we heard very little noise from them all game.
That was likely down to the game being fairly poor, neither team really offering much. Our end was in good voice after a day on the Super Bock; 2,600 travelled despite an allocation of 3,200, some reds having to miss out due to various airline issues. Situated in the top tier behind a load of netting again, we were right behind the goal that Rashford eventually whipped a clever free kick into. Very little else happened, aside from a late red card for Benfica and our standard 30 minute post-match lock in.
That makes it 3 wins from 3 games in the Champions League, a perfect start. As ever the 90 minutes of football was far from the highlight of the trip, it’s hard to compete when the rest of it is set in the backdrop of a stunning city like Lisbon. Perfect when the sun’s out and there’s blue sky, and still not bad in torrential rain which we got each evening. It wasn’t quite as cheap as I’d remembered, but no doubt impacted by Brexit and the continuing poor value of the Pound.
Next up we’re in Switzerland which might just be a little pricier for food and drink, whilst the mid-November weather will certainly be a fraction colder. By the time we’re there we’ll hopefully have already qualified for the knockouts, so we can start thinking about which of the biggest teams we’ll likely face and prove ourselves against in February.
Total travel costs: £135
Miles travelled: 2,254
Accommodation: £30/night (twin room – £15pp)
Match ticket: £40 (€45)
Average cost of pint: £3.60 (€4)
United allocation: 2,600
Result: S.L. Benfica 0: United 1
Match played 18/10/17