The Bad, The Ugly, & the Not So Good – Pre Season 14/15

 

2014-04-05231826_CA967162-B341-4FEB-88DD-FECB0766BF67$$738d42d9-134c-4fbe-a85a-da00e83fdc20$$991a39dd-8866-42c9-ac3a-7b8df3104c85$$odia_imagem_grande$$pt$$1When 1954 World Cup winning coach Sepp Herberger coined the phrase, “the ball is round”, he hardly

could have been aware of the chrysalis the phrase would take on over the consequent years. Some 60

years later, the phrase’s nucleus still remains the simplest and most compelling way to describe the sport’s

cruel yet submissive manner of being notoriously unpredictable, often in the most dramatic of ways.

 

12 months ago, Benfica’s pre-season for 2013/14 posed its fair share of questions. Incoming transfers

ranged from the obscure to the breathtaking. The team’s record was solid (5 wins, 2 draws, 2 defeats) but

several questions remained about the manager’s relationship to his players, who were still carrying the

mental scars of a virulent end to such a promising season not too long before that point.

 

10 months later, the Eagles reached every final of all competitions they were entered into (save for the

Champions League), and ended up wiping the floor with most of the league, claiming a domestic treble,

and posing little mercy over the resurgent Lions (Sporting) and the limping Dragons (Porto). Queue

pandemonium. Wave upon wave of positive energy, a symphony of 3 glorious trophy wins providing 3

times the charm to overshadow the bizarre backdrop of an 8th rendition of a bitter and ancient Hungarian

curse.

 

But as Herberger said – the ball is round. And it has turned all too fast for Benfica, relentlessly

accelerating its venomous side only for the Portuguese champions to lick their wounds in hope of rescuing

a season damned before an official match ball has been kicked.

 

Pre-Season Results Mean Nothing … Or Do They?

 

Weaker team or not, Benfica surely aren’t so bad at the game of football that an energy-conservative

Arsenal can find it so simple to subjugate the Eagles to a 5-1 defeat

 

Many fans will insist that pre-season is a bit like the stream of lazy journalistic “creativity” that emerges

during a transfer window. Many stories released puffing with hot air, easily sent collapsing to the ground

with the perfect tonic of the truth as a counter attack. Talking a lot and saying very little. Smoke with very

little fire. Hardly an indication of future prospects.

 

But it’s hard to be assured about pre-season 2014/15.

 

Weaker team or not, Benfica surely aren’t so bad at the game of football that an energy-conservative

Arsenal can find it so simple to subjugate the Eagles to a 5-1 defeat. There are many dynamics to explain

such results. The team’s tiredness from playing (and losing one of) two matches merely a day before in

Switzerland. The lack of first team ready players. The disruption caused by the rotation between players

within and across different pre-season matches.

 

And besides, what is pre-season but a period where results are irrelevant? It’s a segment of the season

dedicated to creating match fitness across the squad, both physically and mentally. Where new and

returning players illustrate their likely integration into the first team squad. Where confidence in the

upcoming season is formed not by actual performances, but by the promise of its potential.

 

All that, of course… is total bollocks. Context isn’t a friend when the team seems to be collapsing at the

seams.

 

2 wins and 6 defeats makes for sorry reading. The adeptos now lack the liquid confidence flowing in their

veins from the previous season. The players seem to share this feeling, too.

 

Deconstructing Benfica

 

He himself has found opportunity to qualify his own “divinity”, suggesting very tongue-in-cheek that being “Jesus” doesn’t

exactly counter in full the exit of 8 players from a treble winning squad.

 

The main driver behind all of the above, of course, is a whole new level of curse that makes Bela

Guttman’s promise seem compassionate by comparison. Benfica have had to deal with a hemorrhage of

players in the past, but often, even at their worst points, the Eagles have been fortuitous, even cynically

clairvoyant when having to replace quality like Javi Garcia and Axel Witsel at the 12th hour with Enzo

Perez and Nemanja Matic.

 

But the losses in this transfer window feel so much different. It’s a far cry to the period when Jorge

Jesus was lamented as the imperfect shepherd to a pack of talented wolves. Instead, he himself appears

a lamb caught in ironic crossfire to a clinical razing of the domestic champions. He himself has found

opportunity to qualify his own “divinity”, suggesting very tongue-in-cheek that being “Jesus” doesn’t

exactly counter in full the exit of 8 players from a treble winning squad.

 

Many of those players are hard to replace in their own right. Andre Gomes, a versatile midfielder who

represents valuable Portuguese talent as well. The failure of the club to tie up the solid left back Siqueira

despite his wanting to remain. A bizarrely modest fee for the excellent centre back, Garay. The rare and

exciting wonderkid Markovic, who arguably was always likely to leave, but did so perhaps a season earlier

than hoped. The crucial, title winning goals of young forward Rodrigo, who having finally shown shades

of his potential, fell captive to the clutches of super-agent Jorge Mendes and his strong ties to Valencia.

 

Arguably the most surprising and most damaging of the departures is that of goalkeeper Oblak, who was

instrumental in most of the 33 clean sheets that Benfica accrued over their treble winning campaign. His

shot stopping, excellent distribution and reliability did much to empower the superlative Benfica defence.

 

There have been other departures, of course – some of which still ironically make sense to the bigger

picture of the club’s fortunes (e.g. Oscar Cardozo) but ultimately, the team sits at a precipice. The notion

that the Eagles may lose further personnel in the much improved Nico Gaitan and the team’s most

valuable player in Enzo Perez won’t just cause a riot amongst the socios – it could well give cause to the

Liga Zon Sagres to begin wrapping the Liga trophy in Sporting green or Porto blue.

 

Hope Springs the Eagles…(Or So We Hope!)

 

Yes, it’s a weaker squad than last season – but we knew that already. The other truth of it is that it’s still

a squad whose experience and talent composition likely surpasses the other 15 teams in the Liga Zon Sagres.

 

At the risk of sounding nauseatingly optimistic and naïve, despite the departures, whether for financial

reasons or otherwise, and the club’s clear deficiency in a cohesive strategic direction for its recruitment

and squad strategy, there is still a dearth of talent available in Benfica red. The squad faces a tormenting

examination of their depth and character, but there are several reasons to still take stock of positive

affirmations for the season ahead.

 

For starters, there is the hope, as so clearly indicated by Jorge Jesus, that once the absurd, financially

motivated slaughter of the squad ceases, the team addresses its 3 key weaknesses; goalkeeper, defensive

midfield and centre forward. The quality of Artur leaves something to be desired and even though several

conceded goals during pre-season have much to do with players in front of him (especially defensive

midfield and right back), a keeper lacking in confidence can quickly infect his back 4 with agitation.

 

The remaining quality of defenders, with the respectful exception of Luis Felipe, isn’t that poor. Maxi,

Luisao and Silvio (who doesn’t seem to have left – yet…) were fantastic last season. In Andre Almeida

and Jardel, Benfica have versatile players who aren’t unaccustomed to the system and strategy. The

only debate is Luisao’s first choice partner, a post which could be filled by Cesar, or the strong physical

presence of Argentine Lisandro Lopez. Loris Benito looks a decent signing at left back too.

 

In midfield, while the injury prone defensive midfielder Fejsa recovers, it’s hoped that Benfica will

address the gap in defensive midfield, where the only other options appear to be Ruben Amorim or Andre

Almeida. Talisca looks a very talented (and trigger happy) prospect, but the slightly deeper box-to-box

role that Jorge Jesus is forcing upon him will mean that he’ll take some to acclimatize, and assuming Enzo

Perez departs, it makes the signing of midfield cover crucial. Nico Gaitan’s possible departure could be

well tempered by the better decision making and more matured play of Ola John but with Cavaleiro’s

departure on loan, Benfica seem light on quality options off the bench on the flank.

 

Up front, the only remaining issue remains to bring in a proper Rodrigo replacement. The sale of

Cardozo, while a sad event, closes a much needed chapter to allow the club to bring in another source of

goals. Derley’s pre-season impressions aren’t particularly overwhelming, so the need to find more goals

will be critical to give Lima more support and less pressure to carry the goal-scoring weight.

 

Yes, it’s a weaker squad than last season – but we knew that already. The other truth of it is that it’s still

a squad whose experience and talent composition likely surpasses the other 15 teams in the Liga Zon Sagres.

Meaning that a respectable 3rd place and the maintaining of a Champions League spot is still a pertinent minimum objective for Jorge Jesus.

It may not need to stop there, either.

 

Even for their retention of key players William Carvalho, Adrien Silva and others, Sporting haven’t

strengthened much. Their bench is still relatively thin, and they have the benefit – or curse – of a new and

highly regarded manager, who while widely considered as a prodigious talent, has to prove his path will

follow that of Leonardo Jardim rather than Paulo Fonseca. Benfica has more depth and more experience

than Sporting in most of Sporting’s respects and their continuity with Jorge Jesus could end up again a

positive dynamic as it was last season.

 

Only Porto look the obviously better squad. Their likely first choice XI looks an immensely talented one,

but they still have risks to face – the talents of Danilo, Diego Reyes, Alex Sandro and Jackson Martinez

are all heavily envied elsewhere on the continent. Few ready-made replacements exist in these positions.

With several new players and a new manager, the now-likely title favourites may need some time to settle.

 

After all, there’s something to be said about momentum, and mental fortitude. Much of that in the Eagles

was characterized by the tremendous leadership of Luisao, and perhaps this season needs to be defined by

more gritty displays of defence grinding than spectacular goal scoring exhibitions.

 

Perhaps the situation could even offer favourable expectations upon the Eagles. As defending Liga champions,

the pressure would have been immense for them to repeat the feat. With the squad substantially

weakened, the sentiment surrounding the team’s prospects may naturally diminish. Jorge

Jesus’ entertaining, hubristic rhetoric has already been tempered slightly by the lingering mood of past

and possible player departures. To have the pressure applied to Sporting and Porto, both with new

managers and several players who have not tasted league victory could offer an advantage to Benfica.

 

After all, there’s something to be said about momentum, and mental fortitude. Much of that in the Eagles

was characterized by the tremendous leadership of Luisao, and perhaps this season needs to be defined by

more gritty displays of defence grinding than spectacular goal scoring exhibitions.

 

If somehow, Benfica can recruit and retain the right players to maintain the strong defensive shape from

last season, continue to execute effective defensive transitions, and even, on occasion, sit deeper inviting

opponents forward to create spaces for quick attacking transitions to exploit, they could well get the most

out of a limited quality of squad in the campaign ahead. Maybe a title challenge is beyond them. But

disaster isn’t likely. Yet.

 

Either that, or keep Enzo Perez and Nico Gaitan. I suppose that couldn’t hurt either, could it…

 

Follow Marco on Twitter – @Footy_MarcoL

Spread the WordTweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on TumblrShare on RedditDigg thisShare on StumbleUponShare on Google+Email this to someone

Author: Marco Lopes

Share This Post On

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *