'Axeman' enjoying clean break in Lisbon
Axel Witsel was driven out of Belgium after horror tackle but has now rebuilt his career
And Nigel de Jong thought he had it bad. After the Standard Liège midfielder Axel Witsel launched into an infamous tackle on Anderlecht's Marcin Wasilewski that looks worse the more you see it, he faced public opprobrium which peaked with an appearance ahead of the serial killer Marc Dutroux on a list of his country's most unsavoury people. One of Witsel's team-mates, Steven Defour, received death threats for attempting to defend the tackle, which saw Wasilewski, a Polish defender, sustain a double fracture of his leg, and the club's sponsors demanded an explanation. It was only after substantial lobbying that Liège got his 11-game ban reduced to eight.
Witsel appeared, three years ago, to be a fatally flawed individual. That impression was confirmed when, having returned to the side, he was dismissed for a tackle on another Anderlecht player, the defender Roland Juhasz, who complained that "the traces of his studs are in my thigh". But having escaped the Belgian hothouse for Benfica last summer, the 23-year-old midfielder heads into tonight's Champions League quarter-final against Chelsea as an entirely rehabilitated player who is being talked of in Portugal as the man most likely to make it to the Premier League or La Liga some time soon.
There were always signs in Belgium that Witsel – at his best operating as a No 10, though making the best of things in a more removed No 8 role for his Benfica manager, Jorge Jesus, because of Pablo Aimar's immovable status in the position behind the striker – had talent. It was simply obscured by his shocking liberality when it came to studs-up challenges. Witsel was awarded Belgium's golden shoe, a prize he initially refused to take because of his treatment by the media. His shyness off the field, however, led some serious writers to take issue with the "axeman" characterisation which his forename makes so easy.
"He would lead with the elbow on occasion," one Belgian observer said yesterday. "But you still wouldn't say he was violent. One day he was our future jewel, the next he was considered a demon."
In Portugal, those acts of wild misconduct are entirely forgotten. The racing certainty to clinch the top scorer award is Hulk, Porto's Brazilian striker, but Witsel has provided a more subtle influence on his side's season. His appearances behind the striker when Aimar has been injured have shown Jesus what he is losing by deploying him further back, though Witsel has driven through from midfield in a way which leads in his adoptive nation to comparisons with Roy Keane. There is no hard evidence that rumours of interest from Manchester United have any substance, but he is certainly the type of player Sir Alex Ferguson could use.
While Witsel's contribution behind Aimar – who returns after suspension tonight – is something Jesus can bank on, the manager has far bigger preoccupations this evening; bigger, in fact, than the challenge of Chelsea.
The club's chances of winning the Portuguese title are slipping, despite the club president, Luis Filipe Vieira, stating that it was imperative this season after summer spending on Witsel, Brazilian Bruno Cesar and the defender Ezequiel Garay was matched by not allowing Nicolas Gaitan and Oscar Cardozo to be sold. Jesus is highly likely to lose his job if the title goes elsewhere and even as Chelsea flew in the pressure was cranking up. Braga went into a Monday-night fixture with Academica knowing they could continue their own extraordinary story by going top of the table. Their run-in makes them very strong contenders.
Jesus, who led Braga before landing his first big management role, at Estadio da Luz in 2009, has always seemed confident about meeting Chelsea. Asked before the quarter-final draw whom he would like, he named them immediately. If this match had come early last month, when Benfica were seven points clear of the rest of the Portuguese Liga, Roberto Di Matteo might have had something to fear.
Yet Jesus's side have won two league games in their last five and Porto and then Braga have reeled them in. The injury and subsequent struggle for form of Javi Garcia has been a significant factor. Gaitan, persistently linked to United by sources in Portugal, has not recaptured the dazzling form he showed in the 1-1 draw against Ferguson's side in September.
Benfica's confidence going forward is not matched by a solid back line – so expect them to score and to concede what could be a valuable away goal for Chelsea. Jesus's insistence that Emerson, rather than the Spanish international Joan Capdevila, should start baffles some in Portugal, who see the Brazilian as a weak link. The Argentinian Garay's knee injury will keep him out of the defence tonight.
Only a place in the Munich Champions League final is likely to save Jesus's job if the domestic title is lost – and few are booking flights to Germany. All told, this European hurdle should hold fewer fears for Chelsea than their last.
But Witsel is one man who can look to it with a clear head. He has a deep appreciation of Chelsea from years following the progress Nicolas Anelka, a hero of his whose "bird" goal celebration he has been inclined to use. Free as a bird now, Witsel has travelled a long way in three years.
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