On November 5th last year, I stood patiently inside a Merseyside Press Room, awaiting the arrival of a man who had just masterminded his second comprehensive victory over Premier League opponents in less than three weeks. And comprehensive it most certainly was. Benfica absolutely pummelled Everton for 90 minutes that night, dominating possession from the first minute, they were unlucky to only win by two goals.
When we took our first look at Benfica before their season began back in August, I have to admit, I knew little of Jorge Jesus - but as soon as he marched into the Goodison Park press room that night, I knew Benfica had appointed the right man. He didn’t have an air of authority about him as much as one of the dogged obstinance you might expect to find on the face of a totalitarian leader in Communist Russia. It was a look that urged the gentleman standing next to me to turn and proclaim, “Jesus, he looks intense!” I don’t think the pun was intended – but hats off to that man if it was.
Jesus went on to reveal the game plan he had implemented to perfection earlier that evening, dropping classy Pablo Aimar in favour of a more rigid central midfield of Ramires and Javi Garcia; both sitting deep with wide men either side of them, while Oscar Cardozo and Javier Saviola took turns dropping deep into the space Aimar would usually fill. Jesus admitted: “I came here looking for one point.” After an hour of total Benfica dominance, Jesus introduced little Pablo, and Benfica instantly took the lead through Saviola. “Aimar changed the game” said Jesus, and he did. By the time Cardozo added the second 15 minutes before the end, the game was already over.
What was so important about that night is, not only was it Benfica’s biggest test of the season so far, but they came into the game off the back of their first league defeat, suffered at the hands of Jesus’ previous club Braga. It was the first time his side had failed to score a goal in domestic football, ended in a huge dust-up and was against the team who appeared to be their biggest rivals for the Portuguese Liga. With Sporting going through what their fans may call a transitional period and Porto, as ever, introducing numerous replacements for the star players they lost the previous summer, that 2-0 defeat to Braga was a huge blow for Jesus’ disciples. Since that night at Goodison though, As Águias (The Eagles) have been flying.
They’ve already scored 5 goals or more in a single match on no less than five occasions this season and Paraguayan forward Oscar Cardozo is leading Portugal’s scoring charts with 15 goals in 16 games, his striker partner Javier Saviola already has nine. Ramires has settled instantly, forming a formidable partnership with Javi Garcia in the middle of the park and most notably, Angel di Maria (the club's prize possession) seems to finally be maturing into the talent many seem to think he already is.
Joint top of the Portuguese league, losing just once in seventeen outings, they’ve scored a staggering 47 goals, with just ten conceded; they cruised through their Europa League group winning five of their six games, including that comprehensive 7-0 aggregate double over Everton, while conceding just three goals; their prize possession is reported to have just turned down a mega-lucrative transfer to free-spending Manchester City; the fans are happy, the manager’s happy, the players are happy; all-in-all, it hasn’t been a bad few months for Benfica, whose first eleven includes EIGHT South Americans.
Benfica face struggling German outfit Hertha BSC in the next round of the Europa league and with Hertha currently propping up the Bundesliga table with just two wins in 20 league games, The Eagles look set to soar past a struggling Die Alte Dame (The Old Lady). Those odds of 20/1 you could have got on Benfica lifting the Europa crown five months ago have been cut to as low as 11/1 by some bookmakers.
We’re just about half way through the season now and with the transfer window slammed shut, Benfica not only managed to hold on to every single one of their major assets, but actually added another South American in Alan Kardec (wonderfully named after the French spiritualist whose ideas of achieving enlightenment through communication with the souls of the dead went down quite well in Brazil) and while Jesus insists that the “second half of the season is won only with sacrifice and humility,” Benfica will be telling themselves… so far so good.