This was another painful reminder to Tim Sherwood of just how brutal life can feel among the elite. Benfica did not provoke in Tottenham Hotspur the same capitulation as that endured on their visit to Chelsea on Saturday but they still stamped such authority on this last-16 tie to render the task of mounting a recovery in next week's return in Portugal feeling something akin to an impossible job.
By the end the loss had left the home manager frayed round the edges, his temper riled by Jorge Jesus's eccentric antics at his side. The pair had squabbled from the initial exchanges but, as Luisão belted in the visitors' third off the crossbar after Hugo Lloris had pushed away an effort from Ezequiel Garay, composure drained entirely. The Benfica coach celebrated by holding three fingers aloft, later suggesting mystifyingly that he had been signifying "Luisão, No3" despite his centre-half wearing the No4 shirt. Sherwood snapped at the sight and, while the fourth official attempted to intervene, the pair threatened to square up.
Jesus eventually ended up pushing away members of his coaching staff who had leapt up to have their own say while the home manager continued to vent his spleen. "I thought his team were very good and showed a lot of class. It's just a shame … [their manager did not]," said Sherwood. "In the first two minutes he was going over to the fourth official saying I was stepping in his box. He doesn't mind himself, does he, to be fair. Waving goodbye like that [with three fingers]? It lacks class. Why would anyone do that? He's got a good side, of course he has but [he is] not for me, thank you. I have no intention of speaking to him."
The pair declined to shake hands on the final whistle, though Jesus seemed rather amused by all the fuss as he conducted his own post-match duties. The benches were too close together, he argued, before conjuring his cryptic explanation for his three-fingered salute. Did that gesture not constitute a lack of respect? "If Sherwood felt like that, that's his problem," he said. The Portuguese had been banned for 30 days and fined towards the end of last year after fighting with policemen as he attempted to extricate a Benfica fan who had invaded the pitch towards the end of a victory at Guimarães. Jesus has previous.
The spat will make the touchline an intriguing sideshow in Lisbon, though Spurs will do well to make much of an impression on the tie. This was an evening when quality told, the home side's industry and endeavour in evidence after the late disintegration across the capital – with its angry subsequent inquests from management and players – but their efforts were eclipsed by the underlying excellence of last season's beaten finalists.
Benfica were too streetwise for their hosts. They were smartly organised when out of possession, forever keeping the Premier League team at arm's length, then cut swathes on the counterattack. Given their quality in open play there was an irony that two of their goals came from set pieces, and therein lay proper cause for Sherwood's frustration.
His back-line appears diminished these days, with Lloris's judgment when sprinting from his goalline rather skewed, and confidence brittle in a patched-up defence in front of the Frenchman. Jan Vertonghen's form has drained, while both full-backs can appear uncertain. That is not a happy combination and Spurs conceded from Benfica's first sight of goal, opened up ruthlessly by Rúben Amorim's pass through the middle for Rodrigo, ghosting in behind Kyle Naughton and inside Vertonghen, to collect at pace. The Spaniard's first touch was assured, the former Bolton loanee opening up his body to curl a left-footed shot gloriously across Lloris and into the corner. Jesus performed a little jig of delight on the spot.
Benfica's class was not a surprise. This was a 19th win in 21 unbeaten games stretching back to Bonfire Night, the team carrying all before them domestically and expecting to prevail in every outing at present. "They were better than us, weren't they," said Sherwood. "It's a blow. I've no problem with the attitude or desire. That's what I'd questioned, and what I'd asked for. It's just we have to hold our hands up and say they're a class above." Even so, there was an ease to Luisão's amble away from Younès Kaboul to meet Amorim's corner just before the hour-mark. The Brazilian man-mountain should never go ignored at a set piece.
Only when Christian Eriksen hauled himself out of his toils on the left flank to convert a fine free-kick from distance did hope briefly flare, but that respite was short lived. Spurs had created very little, a snatched effort from Adebayor aside, and felt fragile throughout.
Kyle Walker hobbled away before the end with a recurrence of a groin complaint, Sandro was also withdrawn after feeling his hamstring and Adebayor sustained a knock on an ankle. All three will be doubtful for Sunday's derby against Arsenal, even if Mousa Dembélé may be available again. This is a team in need of a fillip, with Luisão's second effectively killing off their chances in this tie. The return leg feels daunting. The hope is a meeting with bitter rivals this weekend has their juices flowing again.