A fine second-half Carlos Tevez effort ultimately proved not enough to earn Juventus what would have been a deserved share of the spoils from tonight’s Europa League semi-final first leg in Lisbon, after Lima came off the bench to break Bianconeri hearts with a late winner for Benfica.
An overall tense and closely fought tactical battle between the league leaders of their respective countries quickly tipped in the hosts’ favour when Ezequiel Garay headed home on two minutes, yet the Bianconeri’s spirited response, particularly after the break, earned them a richly deserved route back into proceedings.
This came in the form of the returning Tevez, whose fancy footwork enabled him to glide past opposition bodies in the box before nonchalantly steering the ball past Artur on 73 minutes.
Yet despite looking good value to go on and win the encounter at that point, Antonio Conte’s men saw Benfica’s counter-attacking threat come to the fore six minutes from time, substitute Lima stealing into the box to rifle past Gigi Buffon.
While the numerical advantage may lie with Jorge Jesus’ men, the Bianconeri’s commendable showing in testing conditions - and crucial away goal - will give them plenty of heart when approaching the decisive second leg next Thursday at Juventus Stadium.
Jesus’ opposite number Conte had defined the challenge of overcoming the recently crowned Portuguese champions as a “steep hill to climb” during his pre-match press conference, and his words appeared more resonant than ever after his men found themselves trailing with just two minutes on the clock.
In an assured start to the game by the hosts, Miralem Sulejmani’s precisely delivered corner from the left-hand side worked its way to Garay, who rose highest to plant a header between an outstretched Buffon and the far post.
The Bianconeri, featuring five changes from Saturday’s win over Bologna, looked to raise their heads and conjure an instant response but the more they pushed forward, the more they risked being struck by Benfica’s threat on the break.
This was witnessed when the hosts quickly worked the ball from right to left on 11 minutes, with Sulejmani skewing his shot wide of the target from a promising position on the edge of the box.
Things got brighter for Conte’s men as they edged back into the affair with increased amounts of possession and the outlet of Paul Pogba on the right-hand side, but clear-cut changes remained in short supply, a low long-range strike from the returning Tevez comfortably gathered by Artur representing their best opportunity to restore parity in the first half an hour.
As the opening 45 minutes wore on, the Argentine remained the Bianconeri’s brightest prospect in the final third and almost fashioned a chance out of nothing when he showed Luisao a clean pair of heels and burst into the box with intent, only for Artur to read the situation to perfection with a well-timed dash from his line.
Juventus began the second period the better of the two sides, setting up camp in Benfica’s half and seeking to find a way beyond their backline with quick passing and movement. Probing deeper into enemy territory were Claudio Marchisio and Pogba, who were unfortunate not to see their neat combination come off when the Frenchman’s close-range header drew a diving stop from Artur on 53 minutes.
Electing to freshen up his attack just past the midway point of the second half, Conte introduced Sebastian Giovinco in place of Mirko Vucinic. It was, however, the striker who remained on the pitch who brought the Bianconeri level on 73 minutes, deftly evading a last-ditch sliding challenge with some fancy footwork before tucking the ball under the goalkeeper to end his five-year European goalscoring drought in real style.
It appeared Juventus were on course to emerge from the Estadio da Luz with a creditable draw but a rapid exchange of passes on the edge of the area and subsequent dummy from Ivan Cavaleiro created an opening for Lima, who blasted a right-footed shot into the top corner to restore the hosts’ lead on 84 minutes.
Two almost became three moments later when Lazar Markovic sent a fierce shot fizzing inches past the post with Buffon at full stretch. Undeterred, Juventus went straight down the other end and only the heroics of Artur prevented Marchisio from fashioning an instant equaliser from point-blank range in the dying embers.
After three minutes of added time, Cuneyt Cakir’s whistle brought down the curtain on an absorbing affair which, on tonight’s viewing, means there’s still plenty to play for when both sides resume hostilities in seven days’ time.