Anyone who has perused the sports press in Portugal recently would be forgiven for thinking the winners of the Primeira Liga 2020/21 season had already been decided. The return of charismatic coach Jorge Jesus along with heavy investment in a raft of impressive new players brought to the Estádio da Luz, alongside the apparent inertia of FC Porto in terms of squad reinforcement, appear to point in one direction: Benfica being crowned Portuguese champions in May 2021.
But is it really so clear-cut that Benfica will reclaim the crown of Portugal’s best soccer team in the coming season?
The mid 1990s to the end of the first decade of the new millennium were the darkest years in Benfica’s history, with just one league win in 15 seasons. The club’s rebirth from 2010 onwards is largely down to one man - Jorge Jesus. The outspoken coach made Benfiquistas forget years of mediocrity on the pitch and never-ending crises off it, by creating an exciting, powerful and winning team.
JJ’s Benfica finally broke Porto’s seemingly unshakeable stranglehold on the domestic game, winning a total of 10 trophies in 6 seasons, including 3 league titles, which with a bit of luck could easily have been five out of his half a dozen years at the club.
So strong in fact were Benfica when JJ left in 2015, that many insist it was the foundations he had laid more than the work of his successors in the Benfica dugout that enabled the Eagles to continue their winning streak, claiming 5 championships in 6 seasons. That may sound too harsh on the jobs done by Rui Vitória and Bruno Lage, but one fact is indisputable: Benfica were incomparably stronger when Jorge Jesus left the club in relation to the pitiful state they were in when he arrived.
So much so that most Benfica fans are more than willing to forgive Jesus for the messy nature of his departure to cross-town rivals Sporting. And the coach’s reputation is arguably higher than it has ever been after an exceptional year in Brazil where he led Flamengo to the league and Copa Libertadores double, playing fabulous football along the way.
With Benfica president Luís Filipe Vieira desperate to win re-election in October, he went all out to get Jesus back and has been happy to bankroll the transfer demands of his returning coach. Benfica have spent big bringing in the likes of Everton Cebolinha, Jan Vertonghen, Gian-Luca Waldschmidt, Pedrinho and Gilberto. Although Uruguayan superstar Edinson Cavani appears out of reach, other reinforcements are expected at the Luz before the end of the transfer window.
Porto playing it cool
All the above has seen Benfica dominate the sports press even more than usual in recent weeks. News surrounding FC Porto’s next moves, in contrast, has been conspicuous by its absence. With the club still straightjacketed by UEFA’a financial fair play rules, the word is money must be generated through sales before the club can bring in new players.
On the one hand, Porto fans may be feeling frustrated as they see their bitter rivals from the capital seriously bolstering their squad. On the other hand, it cannot be forgotten that Porto are the reigning champions of Portugal, having finished five points clear at the top of the table and also beaten Benfica in the Portuguese Cup final.
Indeed, with Conceição having led Porto to the league title in two of his three seasons at the Estádio do Dragão, you can argue that Benfica being installed as such strong favourites is folly at best, disrespectful at worst.
Moreover, last season Porto left all their transfer dealings until the end of the window, and while the strategy backfired badly in Europe, with early elimination from the Champions League in the qualification stage after a shock defeat to Krasnodar, it worked out just fine in domestic play. Goalkeeper Marchesín, midfielder Matheus Uribe and winger Luis Díaz were all late recruits, and all three played crucial roles at different points during the campaign in what proved a highly successful double-winning season.
Therefore, if Porto manage to attract sizeable fees for some of their young gems, as has been reported in the press, it could pave the way for one or two important recruits, or at the very least ensure that the club can keep hold of their best players. Star defender Alex Telles, who when the season ended looked certain to depart, this weekend said he was all set to begin his fifth successive season at Porto.
FC Porto, a settled team, and a winning team, may not be making as many headlines as the expensively assembled side led by a media-magnet of a manager 300 kilometres to the south, but to suggest it is all over before it has even begun is just the sort of motivation that Porto usually thrive on.
by Tom Kundert