Surely, this wasn’t in the script.
After all, wasn’t it a horrible summer for the Águias? Mere weeks after celebrating the first ever Portuguese domestic treble in history, the raid which had been feared for over 12 months before that finally took its full effect.
The likes of Carlos Martins and Urreta ended their contracts with little fanfare and tears. Some players had understandably served their time and were eager to continue their adventures with higher paychecks (Garay, Cardozo). Some left for massive fees indicative of the promise of their potential (Andre Gomes, Rodrigo, Markovic). Some left in circumstances laced with some regret (Siqueira, Oblak).
The most recent of these, Enzo Perez, was as bizarre as it was disappointing. The brilliant Argentine, converted from winger to a box to box midfielder through the chameleon-like powers of Jorge Jesus, didn’t get the presumed hero’s goodbye he deserved… at least, that’s until it became clear he asked to have his final appearance cut short by a half, and many Benfiquistas weren’t exactly thrilled by such a motion.
Under-promise and Over-deliver
And yet, despite losing all this talent, Benfica, weakened for the most part in squad compared to last season’s excellent balanced cast, still occupy the summit of the Liga, flirting impatiently with the idea of back to back Campeonatos for the first time since the early 80s.
To suggest this is an accident, is of course, unfair. Benfica didn’t buy the quality that they lost, and their performance in a very difficult group in Europe was hardly memorable, but the team’s investments have been like a bitter fragrance turned sweet to the more patient fans. Yes, Samaris started very poorly. Eliseu showed defensive inconsistency to compensate for the attacking value he added. Lima lacked finishing. Fejsa and Amorim have barely seen a blade of grass.
But the team’s transfers have turned out to be in some cases inspired, and in other cases, solid, even if unspectacular. The Julio Cesar signed is more akin to the dominant experienced player at Inter than the man licking seven wounds at the World Cup. Samaris’ displays in the last couple of games have been reliable and effective, an indication of his development. Talisca’s goals won crucial points in the first few matches of the season. Jonas has been prolific in all competitions, showing a fluid, experienced foil to the consistently improving Lima.
There will be claims that Sporting are underachieving and Porto possibly rebuilding too much too soon, but no less credit for title wins has been afforded to Porto when they’ve won titles in a season when the Eagles have failed to soar.
The facts speak very clearly about this season’s Benfica. Their Liga performance thus far is the best that Jorge Jesus has ever presided over.
In most respects, no matter how you look at it, Benfica’s current squad has certainly delivered on the requirements. Jorge Jesus and his troops aren’t paying lip service to the idea of chasing back-to-back title glory, even though this team is delivering better Liga numbers than even the star studded team of 2012/13 that was pipped by Porto’s Kelvin in May of that season.
It may well still collapse, of course. Benfica weren’t able to avoid having their weaknesses exploited intelligently and incisively on two occasions by Sporting Braga, who certainly have done their reputation no harm in recent months. Porto have quietly maintained their form, and while their talent pool lacks the experience of players like Nico Gaitan, Salvio, Maxi Pereira and Luisao, Benfica know only too well about making sure to keep a healthy distance between themselves and the Dragões.
In the meantime, the players have certainly played a substantial part. There may be concerns now for once, as the key creative force, Nico Gaitan, spends some time on the injury table, but Ola John’s performance against Maritimo will have hardly done any damage to his claim as a more than suitable replacement. The season may have been tainted by the disappointment of European endeavours, but nonetheless, significant credit needs to go ultimately, to Jorge Jesus.
Whatever doubts there have been about him in the past, he has an opportunity to emulate Sven Goran Eriksson in winning back to back titles. And if he does, even if he may harbour personal ambition to earn a European trophy, he deserves a special place in Benfica’s managerial round table amongst the many greats that have lifted trophies at the Luz.
by Marco Lopes (for more from Marco follow him on Twitter @Footy_MarcoL)