It’s the 29th August, 2004. There’s a new head at the Benfica table, in the form of Italian tactician Giovanni Trapattoni. After a flying start at the Municipal de Aveiro with a brace from the not-so-prolific Norwegian Azar Karadas and defensive midfielder Petit, Benfica make heavy weather of their victory over Beira Mar, eventually finishing 3-2 winners.
It turns out to be an intriguing season. Tactical efficiency tries to placate entertainment. By season end, a decade long wait casting coveting glances up north is ended as the Eagles finally soar to the summit of the table, winning their first championship in the Luis Filipe Vieira era.
Benfica don’t win an opening Liga match for TEN years after this.
Benfica’s transitions haven’t always been serene. Every season under Jorge Jesus has seen the team’s European exploits and excellent reputation for recruitment make it Monopoly fodder for richer clubs.
If there’s one thing Benfica (and Porto, to be fair) are used to, it’s having to constantly manage the weight of expectations of winning titles and maintaining a ridiculously high standard of winning while dealing with sometimes minor, sometimes excessive changes to their squads. The extent of transfer raiding that’s occurred with the two rivals in the past few years may as well be comparable to Portugal’s largest exports, such is the nature of the transfer fees that we’ve seen spent. From Di Maria to Falcao, James Rodriguez to Coentrao, and more recently Matic and Markovic, there’s no lack of cheques for the impatient hands of agents like Jorge Mendes to accept.
Benfica’s transitions haven’t always been serene. Every season under Jorge Jesus has seen the team’s European exploits and excellent reputation for recruitment make it Monopoly fodder for richer clubs. Every transition was met with good, bad and ugly intake of players. But it’s hard to find as damaging a summer as this past one. Between injuries, loans, and transfers since January, an entire XI has become unavailable: Oblak; Silvio, Garay, Siqueira; Fejsa, Matic, Amorim, Andre Gomes; Rodrigo, Cardozo, Markovic.
Back to the future … Part II
Cast your minds back again.
It’s the 5th October, 2009. Jorge Jesus has practically declared himself Chief Football Entertainment Officer, with the signings of Ramires and Javi Garcia empowering a loose 4132 formation that liberates the elegance and goals within Aimar, Di Maria, Saviola and Cardozo. They leave the Mata Real 3-1 winners, having won 6 games in a row, 4 of them away from home, including demolitions of Vitória Setúbal (8-1), Belenenses (4-0) and Leixões (5-0).
Benfica’s first 8 Liga matches that season? 22 points from 24, their best since Jupp Heynckes’ first season in charge in 1999/00 when the team secured 20 points of the back of 6 wins. The team obliges the trend and ministers to Benfica hearts with a 32nd title win, restraining the 5 year gap since the last one was sealed.
Benfica are still to reproduce such a start, but have come close 3 times – 2011/12. 2012/13 and 2014/15. This season has also seen a better start than the title winning sides of 2004/05 and last season…
A False Start?
Many may point to dropped points at Braga and at home to Sporting this season as poor results (and truthfully they are), yet Benfica beat both of them in the start of 2010/11, and we all know how that season finished.
Since 2000, Benfica’s best start came in that awesome season when the magical talents of Aimar conducted the orchestra that oozed goals and entertainment. Under Jorge Jesus, Benfica have seldom started poorly. Only the anti-climactic 2010/11 season produced a ratio of less than 2 points per game. Surprisingly, last season’s title winning team produced the second worse start under JJ’s tenure.
There’s some context to this, of course. Sometimes the fixtures are kind to you. From 2001/01, Benfica didn’t fail to face Porto in their first 8 league games until 2007/08. Those 7 matches against Porto produced just 4 points over that period for Benfica. By comparison, Jorge Jesus’ first 8 league opponents in his Benfica career didn’t include Porto, Sporting or Braga. But a kind schedule doesn’t absolve expectations – all the better that Benfica picked up more points as you would expect.
There’s one other irony – many may point to dropped points at Braga and at home to Sporting this season as poor results (and truthfully they are), yet Benfica beat both of them in the start of 2010/11, and we all know how that season finished.
What’s curious about these statistics is that many Benfiquistas (me included) held substantial reservations for the team’s prospects this season. After all, the loss of a full XI of starting players and players offering critical depth isn’t ideal, and even though Benfica has had to rebuild several times during the past few seasons, this rebuild feels more extensive, more dramatic, and initially more absurd.
The financial crisis with BES seemingly forcing Benfica to commence what appeared to be a fire sale, including the controversial deals involving Rodrigo and Andre Gomes. The frustrating loans of semi established Ivan Cavaleiro and the highly promising Bernardo Silva, with massive question marks over the latter’s long term future at the club. Then there’s the transfer cloud that seems to have perched itself over Enzo Pérez, Nico Gaitán and Eduardo Salvio.
True, the form in Europe is poor – but the sad irony is that compared to the years after, 2014/15 is arguably Benfica’s most competitive Champions League draw that they’ve had to contend with. They were a better team than Olympiakos in 2013/14, Celtic in 2012/13. It’s a cruel twist that arguably the weakest squad of Jorge Jesus’ tenure has been forced to try and navigate the toughest group they’ve faced since sharing space with Schalke and Lyon.
However, performing well in the Champions League (or even the Europa League) feels hollow. The rumours of Enzo’s departure are so animated that if Benfica were to implausibly land in the Champions League final in Berlin, the Argentine would likely still leave Lisbon, with Gaitán trailing behind. It’s the most extensive transition of Benfica in the Jorge Jesus era, and ironically, there’s a lot of reasons to be happy with its initial signs.
A Title Winning Team in Transition?
Perhaps that focus, combined with a team that still has shades of defensive solidity, creativity and even goals, could just yet win the title on the back of the club’s best start in 6 years.
The reality is that Benfica aren’t the only ones experiencing a transition like this. The capitulation of Porto under Paulo Fonseca last season didn’t deter them from making some good signings, but these players all need to establish themselves, as does new coach Julen Lopetegui.
Sporting did well to retain their key talent William Carvalho, and to secure another promising manager after Leonardo Jardim in Marco Silva as their new coach. The transition may be less disruptive since there were very few changes in personnel, but Silva, like Lopetegui, will take time to put across his ideas. They’re also both very young teams (average age – Porto 24.7, Sporting 24.4, compared to Benfica at 26.3).
That leaves Benfica, who fundamentally have started their transition with the benefit of continuity in leadership (Jorge Jesus, Luisao, Maxi), and the ability to bring talented youngsters in alongside more experience by comparison to the other two teams. Jorge Jesus has already started to blood in the new players into their new positions for the foreseeable future. Anderson Talisca has played both as a support striker (his ideal role) and as the “8”, likely replacing Enzo Pérez once he leaves. Ola John’s excellent decision making has been leveraged well particularly in creative respects out wide (so a likely ready-made replacement for Nico Gaitán). Lisandro Lopez has finally started taking the left center back role vacated for him by Garay. Players like Pizzi are already experiencing the “shift” in position that Jorge Jesus is known for. The manager also likes his versatile players, and Andre Almeida already looks like a suitable defensive midfielder in the absence of Fejsa, Amorim and Samaris. There’s the usual intriguing young talents with considerable promise like João Teixeira, Bryan Cristante and recently, Gonçalo Guedes. Most of these youngsters still get to learn from their senior counterparts.
For all the concerns about the departures and the quality of the depth of the signings, the reality is that Benfica still have a team more than capable of navigating the Liga charge this season. Perhaps a lack of European distraction will ensure a focus. Benfica aren’t blessed with the finances to sustain the squad to win the Champions League, but many other clubs have that problem too. The key objective is to be part of the European dance, and winning the Liga or finishing 2nd ensures that. Ending a European run in a knockout round or even as Europa League finalists (because, you know, Bela Guttmann) doesn’t give Benfica a Champions League spot the following season.
And perhaps that focus, combined with a team that still has shades of defensive solidity, creativity and even goals, could just yet win the title on the back of the club’s best start in 6 years. It’s a competitive league, but there’s no outright favourite at the moment. Porto could win the title and so could Sporting – but they are also in transition. They have their own set of intrinsic weaknesses, but it remains to be seen if those weaknesses are less significant than those of Benfica, and until then, I’m willing to keep the optimism that perhaps, this team, even in transition, could well produce another Liga win.
Back to the Future … Part III?
Cast your minds back one more time.
It’s the 14th May, 1984. A young Sven Goran Eriksson has just seen his Benfica team conclude a magnificent season. Once again, like in 1982/83, the Eagles have won the Liga title, with the 2-0 win away to Portimonense a suitable and clinical way to close season 1983/84 and give way to the Portuguese misadventures in Euro 1984. The win is capped rather fittingly by goals from Shéu, and the legendary Nené. It’s a special team that’s produced these back to back titles, supported by the prolific goalscoring of Nené, “o Pequeno Genial” Fernando Chalana, and other fantastic players of that generation including keeper Manuel Bento, left back Álvaro, and midfielders Diamantino Miranda and Carlos Manuel.
It’s been nearly 30 years since that day.
Maybe, just maybe… it’s time for another back-to-back title charge. Transition or not, it’s still Benfica, and they still like winning, don’t they?
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