In Focus: Magic Mario out to make history for Benfica
Benfica gave themselves a 2-0 advantage over Club Brugge in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie courtesy of strikes from Joao Mario and David Neres.
Mario's strike was his fourth consecutive goal in the competition and he could equal Portuguese icon Eusebio's long-standing record should he net for a fifth time this evening.
We turn the spotlight on the Portuguese midfielder ahead of tonight's second leg.
The story so far
At 30 years old, Mario is at the peak of his powers in the Primeira Liga and is showing no signs of slowing down.
On top of his 19 goal contributions in the league this season, the midfield maestro has also scored five times in the Champions League.
Three of those strikes came against Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus as the Portuguese giants remarkably topped their group, knocking the Old Lady out of the competition entirely.
The 55-cap international has scored just 48 times in 12 seasons of professional football but a remarkable 19 of those have been netted this term.
He has shown a keen eye for goal and as his side's designated penalty taker, was able to extend his continental scoring run to four matches in Belgium a few weeks ago.
In fact, three of his four strikes in as many games have come from 12 yards and the spot-kick specialist will not mind taking another one if it means he is able to equal the great Eusebio on home turf.
Making a name
Benfica have been known to produce an exceptional amount of talent through their academy — but Mario is proving that they can buy smart too.
His transfer from Inter Milan did not cost the club a penny in terms of a fee and his impact on the pitch has already repaid the investment sanctioned by the Benfica board.
Although he possesses no hint of explosive pace or flashy dribbling, Mario has gone on record to thank his boss Roger Schmidt for playing him in his preferred position as a wide midfielder.
His inverted position allows the Eagles to dominate the ball, which was evident against Brugge when they had 55% possession and limited Scott Parker's men to just a solitary shot on target.
While the No20 may have entered his thirties, he is still capable of dictating the play and boasts an 88% pass completion rate in the Champions League — 118 of which have been played in the final third.
Age may not necessarily be on his side but Mario's outstanding reading of the game makes him a threat.
A level head
Mario has experience at a number of top-flight sides including Sporting, Inter and West Ham but he is undoubtedly playing his best football at his current club.
It is not uncommon for a player to get better with age and the 5ft 8in anchorman is following a similar path to Manchester United star Casemiro.
Mario has been able to thrive in a more attacking role in his later years, which has seen a massive upward trend in the number of goals he has scored.
He was deployed in a more central position in Milan and tasked with breaking the play up — this suited him at the time as he was able to act as a workhorse in the middle of the park.
But as he has matured, the Porto-born ace has shifted into a wide playmaker and is primarily utilised on the flanks in his homeland.
His strengths allow him to drive into the final third, while his good decision-making has helped the Eagles to the top spot in the Primeira Liga with an eight-point cushion over Porto in second.
Only three players have scored more times than Mario in the Champions League this season — Vinicius Junior, Kylian Mbappe and Mohamed Salah.
The seasoned professional is competing with Europe's very best attackers despite playing for a team that would struggle to reach the heights of Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool.
His five goals have came from just six shots and he has also been handy in helping his team-mates get in on the action too.
Only Ivan Persic and Mehdi Taremi have created more big chances than the former Inter star, who has proven to be a real nuisance at the top end of the pitch.
His hunger to win the ball back has been evident, too.
Mario has won possession in the final third nine times in Europe this season, which has contributed to Benfica becoming the fifth-highest scorers in the competition.
With the 37-time domestic league champions in the driving seat in Portugal's top flight, a deep Champions League run will now be high on their priority list.