What’s gone wrong at Benfica?
In recent times a crisis at Sport Lisboa e Benfica might be represented by one of the cavalcade of fast food trailers outside the ground on the Avenida General Norton de Matos running out of mustard to squirt all over the bifanas.
What we have now at the Estádio da Luz has gone beyond a mere dearth of condiments.
The stark cries of “vergonha” (shame) in the crisp Swiss night sky over the St Jakob-Park on Wednesday night left little to the imagination. The 5,000+ travelling Benfica fans were split between loyalty to the badge and embarrassment at what was unfolding in front of their smarting eyes.
A 0-5 reverse to the modest heroes of Basel represented the club’s worst ever Champions League reverse and their second worst European venture after the cataclysmic cave-in at the Balaídos Stadium in Vigo in 1999 (0-7).
That game – a veritable disaster in all senses – came under the command of Jupp Heynckes, the ex and future Bayern manager, who had seemed to be the safest of safe appointments, but then what can you do when you are asked to deal with a two and half year legacy left by Graeme Souness?
Shock to the system for four-time champions
Putting Vigo into perspective was easier then, in a period dominated by FC Porto. What this week’s debacle has thrown up is a new scenario for Lisbon’s Eagles. They are four times champions, top of the pile and not used to having their noses rubbed in the dust these days.
To be frank, however, this has been looming “all season” – for what its nascent form is worth – and perhaps for a touch longer than that too. When Benfica squeezed luckily past newly promoted Portimonense in their 5th league game of the season, the crowd sighed and waited for top gear to be engaged. It was just a matter of time that the early hiccups went away.
But top gear never arrived and the hiccups have developed into whooping cough. Instead, with the exception of a brief awakening last weekend against Paços de Ferreira, the beast has lain dormant. A 2-1 home defeat to the otherwise supine CSKA Moscow, since battered to a pulp on their own patch by Manchester United, and an embarrassing defeat at Boavista after having taken the lead, have underlined how far off the pace the champions have slipped.
And now this.
In the immediate aftermath in Switzerland, manager Riui Vitória, looking as pale as the sheets that hang from every crumbling Alfama tenement, issued a bald excuse or two: “We made too many mistakes.” “We were not good enough.” “We won’t bury our heads in the sand.”
Only, in the circumstances, it all sounds a little, how shall we say, inadequate.
Vitória joined in August 2015 from Vitória de Guimarães, where his steady hand on the tiller had lifted the northern club to the level of serious challenger in a country where coming 4th is a triumph unless your name is Benfica, Sporting or Porto. The fact that the choice fell on Vitória and not a high visibility foreigner was down to the cold grip of economics.
Local men come relatively cheap, foreigners relatively expensive. On top of this, there is a stock of excellent Portuguese managers, who are well worth employing, witness the strides Monaco and Watford are making under progressive coaches Leonardo Jardim and Marco Silva.
Having swept through the likes of Graeme Souness (still fondly remembered by Sportinguistas for what he did to Benfica), Ronald Koeman and Geovanni Trapatoni in modern times, the board at the Estádio da Luz felt it was time for a different approach. Despite the strong historical link with foreign managers, from Bela Guttman, through John Mortimer and Jimmy Hagan to Sven Goran Eriksson, the need for cut price talent at the helm was paramount. The same, after all, had been happening on the pitch too.
After a grim start, when the opening fixtures delivered little of promise, Vitória found his grip. He has presided over two consecutive league triumphs, making it an unprecedented four in a row for Os Encarnados, as well as a Taça do Portugal, an unprecedented run of consecutive away league wins (beating Hagan’s long-standing record) and an impressive showing in the Champions League, where Bayern were taken to the limit by Benfica.
All talk of a lack of experience at the high table was, naturally enough, put to one side.
Gradually, though, through little fault of his own, Vitória has fallen foul of financial reality. All the transfer revenue, Champions League takings, gate receipts and commercial income has made little dent to Benfica’s enormous debt, an amount of money that raises an eyebrow or two across Europe, never mind domestically where the IMF-driven Portuguese economy is only just beginning to show signs of resuscitating itself. If Angela Merkel was afforded a look inside Benfica’s finance department, she would keel over.
Running with their luck a little, Benfica took advantage of the fact that, for the other two members of the Big Three, it was – if anything – even worse: Anything or anybody that Sporting sell, from William Carvalho to a slice of the club car park, the profit goes straight to the nice men in pinstriped suits at Banco Santander. By law. FC Porto are also paying for a transfer policy that has caught up with them. No longer able to pick the cream of South American talent for next to nothing, their own bandwagon has also lost a wheel.
With gradually diminishing returns, Benfica were able to hang on to Portuguese hegemony. As PortuGOAL editor and World Soccer correspondent Tom Kundert confirms, Benfica’s sell, sell, sell policy carried them some way, but now it is being found out: “It has worked because they have always been able to replace their best-performing departing players with players not too inferior in terms of talent, albeit often raw talent either from abroad (i.e. Enzo Perez, Witsel, Rodrigo) or from the youth ranks (Renato Sanches, Victor Lindelöf, Ederson). The problem is the supply line from abroad has dried up because of several factors (end of 3rd-party ownership, other clubs improving and expanding scouting networks, price of young South American talent prohibitive...) and the academy cannot produce gems year after year….”
So, things catch up on you. The world moves on.
Rivals making strides
To make things worse this season, just as Benfica’s star has waned, so Sporting and Porto seem to have got their respective acts together. Sergio Conceição’s return to Porto has motivated a similarly average squad to above average deeds. It is a case of an above-average manager dealing well with a below average squad.
Having lost captain Adrien Silva to Limboland, Sporting have also prospered with the stealth signing of Bruno Fernandes from Sampdoria (an incredible €8.5m snip) joining established talent such as William and Gelson Martins in a sprightly looking set-up. Add the experience of Fabio Coentrão at the back, the guile of Jérémy Mathieu and you can see why Sporting are upwardly mobile.
Vitoria though is being asked to plug gaps the width of the Tejo with a simple bit of Portuguese cork. This summer alone Benfica have shipped out Ederson, Nelson Semedo and Victor Lindelof, all to top level Champions League competitors, the first two good enough to go straight into the respective first teams. This underlines the level of quality lost. Benfica, still big enough and strong enough to carry some kind of fight to domestic scuffles, are clearly a diminished force away from the undemanding scrutiny of the likes of Tondela and Moreirense.
Up front Vitória must make do without Mitroglou, offloaded to Marseille for a bargain €15m and replaced at a small profit by the so-far uninspiring Seferovic. For goals, Vitória’s title-winning sides have largely relied on Jonas, still a scoring revelation at 33, but with a loud clock ticking in the background.
A Bola, acerbic in its condemnation of the no-show in Switzerland described the Brazilian’s position in Basel as “trying to be one less in midfield”. Another quote had it that the “maestro is not a piano carrier”, possibly a nod to famous Liverpool manager Bill Shankly’s oft-quoted view that a team needs eight of those (piano carriers) and “three to play the damn thing”. Unfortunately for Vitória, Benfica’s piano is stuck on his foot and the music is off-key.
Vitória’s future could well be decided quickly. Patience is a virtue often missing in football, after all. With a trip to Marítimo this weekend and back-to-back ties with a perky-looking Manchester United in Europe, the coach may not make it to Christmas. Carlo Ancelotti and Claudio Ranieri can vouch for how rapidly a title-winning coach’s star can wane.
For Vitória it will leave a bitter taste in the mouth if his employers now decide he cannot cut the mustard.
By Simon Curtis