Benfica turn their attentions to Liverpool
1 April ~ One league title in the past 15 years hasn't done much to expand Benfica's trophy room. Fruitless seasons have witnessed a long line of increasingly inept managers – 15 of them since 1995. Only Giovanni Trappatoni could leave with some integrity after Benfica stumbled to the title in 2005. The lack of continuity had left its mark on the club and success seemed as distant as ever, until the arrival of Jorge Jesus.
Benfica bucked their tendency to look abroad when they appointed Jesus in 2009. A manager since 1989, he had a playing career that's best described as average. He gained national attention last season, guiding Sporting Braga from the early stages of the Intertoto Cup into the group stage proper of the UEFA Cup. They were drawn into a tough group which included Milan, Wolfsburg, Portsmouth and Heerenveen but qualified for the next round.
Braga's fearless and intelligent football was what caught most people's attention, but not Harry Redknapp's, who accused Braga of diving after they beat Portsmouth 3-0. "We dived..." said Jesus, "into technical and tactical quality". Redknapp's lazy insult hurt Jesus and he launched a fierce attack on English managers who, "these days know nothing about European football [and] nothing about tactics". Braga would make the last 16 of the competition and were eventual winners of the Intertoto Cup.
Benfica fans watched enviously as their team was dumped out of the same competition, coming last in an easier group. Their manager, Quique Flores, was proving Spanish managers also knew nothing about tactics and his contract was terminated after a season. Jorge Jesus was the popular choice to succeed him and Benfica got their man. His impact was instant. Benfica won several pre-season tournaments and, after a nervy start in the league, they went on a run of victories which saw them score 28 goals in six games. Inheriting the players left by his predecessor, Jesus transformed a lazy and disorganised team into a dynamic unit, whose players switch positions constantly in midfield, defence and attack.
Underperforming Argentinians Pablo Aimar and Ángel di María finally began to justify their hype while newcomers Javi García, Ramires and Saviola were revelations. Perhaps Jesus's greatest achievement is the development of Portuguese players Fábio Coentrão and Carlos Martins. The former was a rarely used second-striker now playing at left-back and his good form means he should make Portugal's World Cup squad. The latter was a hopeless journeyman with discipline problems, who has improved so much he regularly starts in preference to Aimar.
After a 1-0 victory at the weekend over closest rivals Braga, the league title seems assured. Attentions are now focussed on the Europa League quarter-final against Liverpool. Harry Redknapp would be well advised to tune in for a refresher course on European football tactics. Stephen Burrows
You must be logged in to comment. Please register if you don't have an account yet.