By Joe Wright
But even in the darkness of last May, there was light at the end of the tunnel. “I cannot explain how we lost because everything we needed to do, we did,” said goalkeeper Artur after their 2-1 defeat in Amsterdam. “This is a group with a lot of merit. We made this stage of the competition deservedly and we showed the world what Benfica are about. We showed that Benfica are now ready to start winning.”
Twelve months on, they are. And in style. Their 33rd league title is sown up, and vengeance over Porto has been delivered in icy-cool fashion following victories in the semi-finals of both domestic cups. As they prepare to take a 2-1 first-leg lead to Turin in Thursday’s last-four second leg with Juventus, history is once more theirs for the taking.
Benfica's remarkable season
|4||Defeats in all competitions|
|6||Wins in Europa League|
|13||Weeks as league leaders|
|32||Goals conceded in 51 games|
|95||Goals scored in 51 games|
|80.3||Win percentage this season|
It’s a remarkable transformation by coach Jorge Jesus. Last summer, his future was subject to intense speculation after Benfica’s collapse, but the Estadio da Luz hierarchy looked beyond the tears of Oscar Cardozo and Co. in Amsterdam and foresaw the chance of redemption. Ignoring grumblings of discontent in Lisbon, president Luis Felipe Vieira backed Jesus’ vision for the season to come and handed him a two-year contract extension. Not many club owners would be so bold; even fewer coaches would be allowed such a second chance.
It was a gamble worth taking. Jesus plundered the transfer market, bringing in a total of 15 players at a cost of just less than €33 – a hugely impressive feat in itself – while, crucially, the core of the side was held together, with veteran Pablo Aimar the only high-profile departure. The average age of the incoming players was less than 22; they were hungry to impress and with huge scope for development. Perfect for a side with a point to prove.
Six of the new signings were Serbian, and two have emerged as leading lights this term: Miralem Sulejmani, who arrived on a free from Ajax, and Lazar Markovic, a €10m steal from Partizan. Scouted by Chelsea and several other top clubs, Markovic was persuaded by compatriot Nemanja Matic to move to Lisbon, and his attacking understanding alongside Sulejmani, Nicolas Gaitan, Toto Salvo and Rodrigo has been too much for almost every side this season. Seven goals, no assists and a key pass every other 90 minutes may seem average stats at best in more than 25 appearances, but Markovic’s direct style has been a vital part of the lightning-fast transitional play which has seen Benfica beat Tottenham, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain and Porto (three times) this term.
Behind an already-fearsome attack, Jesus side are now far more controlled. Matic’s January move to Chelsea was a blow, but Ruben Amorim, Ljubomir Fesa and young Andre Gomes have all deputised impressively in the axis of midfield. The imposing central defensive partnership of Ezequiel Garay and Luisao has never looked stronger, while the loan signing of left-back Guilherme Siquiera from Granada has proven a masterstroke after Lorenzo Melgarejo’s departure.
In a stronger unit, the dependency on individuals has diminished. Cardozo – top scorer with 33 goals last season – may only have managed 11 strikes to date this term, but among 16 different goalscorers across all competitions his reduced rate has barely been noticed. Lima - whose winner against Juventus was his 21st of the season - has taken up Cardozo’s mantle with aplomb, while Rodrigo (17 goals) has been a willing accomplice.
Mentally, they are a different animal. Gone is the pervading sense of entitlement to success which preceded last year’s collapse, replaced by a simple conviction that complacency is not an option. Since the opening day defeat to Maritimo, Benfica have not lost a league game, and have been top since beating Porto 2-0 in January. When they switched off with the tie almost over against Spurs to fall 2-1 down at home, they had to respond. They did. "We knew what awaited us was a hard game but we showed that we were prepared for any eventuality,” said Garay after a late Lima penalty maintained their remarkable unbeaten home run, now standing at 17 months. "I was never worried when we were losing 2-1, because even if they made it 3-1 it would only have gone to extra-time," added Jesus. Belief? You bet.
Benfica still have a huge task ahead of them if they are to overcome favourites Juventus to reach the Europa League final and at last bring an end to Bela Guttman’s curse by winning their first European title in 50 years. Crucially, they're not yet looking too far ahead. “We will go to Turin as a united team to try to go through with humility. We have the quality and the ability to achieve that,” says Lima. The incredible celebrations in Lisbon after their league title triumph, the fortitude required to beat Porto on penalties last week, have been embraced, treasured, and now left behind. It’s all about the next step.
“All that was missing was a small detail here or there," rued Artur after last May. "I am sure our luck will soon change and something good will happen to us.” The doubts have been banished, humility and unwavering belief embraced, and the Eagles have soared back onto their perch in sensational style. On to Turin they go. The march down the road to redemption continues.