From the home of Mourinho, Ronaldo and Xavier
Team Name: SL BenficaNickname: The Eagles
The third of Portugal's Os Tres Grandes (The Big Three, or for our purposes, The Usual Suspects) is SL Benfica, perhaps the biggest club in Portugal with 171,000 paying members and a trophy cabinet that includes two European Cups and 31 domestic leagues.
That golden era of continental dominance may today be nothing more than a bittersweet memory, but Benfica will retain their permanent seat in the elite group that challenges for domestic honours.
Everton fans looking for information about Benfica – both sides are in Europa League Group I, along with AEK Athens and Belarusians BATE Borisov – will find a comparison close to home... just across Stanley Park, in fact.
Broadly speaking, Benfica are Portugal's Liverpool.
Both teams have legions of fans (not just in their home city), a rich history (including European Cup wins) and are routinely regarded as title contenders – despite a distinct lack of silverware in recent seasons.
Benfica still hold the record number of league titles (31) but have only topped the final table once in the last 16 years – and that win, in 2005, came with a points total so low that it wouldn't have even made second place in any previous campaign.
Meanwhile, FC Porto have chipped away at their pre-eminence, winning 11 titles in the same 16-year period, including six of the last seven league titles.
Does that sound like a certain rivalry from north-west England?
Eusebio in 1962, when Benfica retained the European Cup
Aware of the weight of history and expectation, Benfica usually set unrealistic targets that are bound to frustrate their supporters.
That puts an insurmountable pressure on players to perform, and it's not uncommon to witness many changes in the summer.
Last year Benfica finished third in the league – a big let-down. Fired by fourth-place failure (and thus UEFA Cup limbo) in 2007/08, the club had bought the likes of David Suazo, José Antonio Reyes and Pablo Aimar.
Everyone expected the club to at least finish in the top two, and thus qualify for the Champions League. But after a good start everything went down the drain. Once again.
For the third year in a row, the club has invested a significant amount of money to strengthen the squad.
Among its higher-profile signings are Ramires (€7.5m from Cruzeiro), Javi Garcia (€7m from Real Madrid) and Javier Saviola (€5m, also from Real Madrid).
The efforts to put Benfica back where they think they belong are understandable, but there's a risk.
In Portugal, football is hardly a sustainable activity; it's very difficult to make a profit without a player trade surplus.
Making hefty investments without the support of a solid organisational structure and a carefully thought-out business plan usually means you're borrowing against future revenues... the footballing version of Russian roulette.
This may be a refrain heard every summer, but Benfica's squad should challenge for domestic honours and advance to the later stages of European competition (this year, the Europa League).
Defence is the manager’s biggest headache, although it has improved since last year.
Left-back José Shaffer, signed this summer from Racing Club in his Argentinian homeland, has shown flashes of promise; capable of supporting the attack and delivering pinpoint crosses, he’s still a bit raw and needs to improve his marking.
Shaffer's arrival means Brazilian David Luiz, who filled in at left-back last season, can now move to his best position – centre-back.
Luiz has tons of potential and if well nurtured he will go far. Fellow Brazilian Sidnei, just 20 years old, is also a talented centre-back and enjoyable to watch.
However, their compatriot and fellow centre-back Luisão doesn’t deserve as much praise as he gets. He'll have one great game, then one strewn with errors that would make a Sunday League player blush.
Nevertheless, the 6ft 4in 27-year-old will play, since he’s one of the senior players at the club.
What? No silverware? The 2009 Amsterdam Tournament winners
Two years ago, no one would have guessed that Maxi Pereira would become a vital piece in Benfica’s backline.
Signed as a right-sided midfielder who could play in the middle if required, he played in both positions in his first season and didn’t make an impact.
Last year, however, he was converted to right-back – and today he’s probably the best in the league. He’s even more important considering Benfica lack a second right-back.
There are a lot of options in midfield. Spaniard Javi Garcia is a defensive midfielder in the Kostas Katsouranis style (that's a compliment). Strong and with good positioning, Garcia is still young and can only get better.
Signed in the summer, Brazil international Ramires is expected to be a fixture – despite an uninspiring start (apart from the crucial goal at Vitória Guimarães) which could be because he's not adapted to the league yet.
Pablo Aimar will be the creative spark in the midfield and the Argentinian’s class will be vital to the club, provided he remains injury-free.
Among the important squad players striving for a regular place are Carlos Martins, Hassan Yebda and Ruben Amorim – especially the latter, who took his game to a new level after arriving from CF Belenenses.
TALENTSPOTTER BLOG: One to watch - Angel di Maria
Manager Jorge Jesus revealed he likes to have five forwards at his disposal, and the board granted him that wish.
Paraguayan Óscar Cardozo, who scored 40 goals over the last two seasons, is a favourite: slow, but if properly fed, almost certain to score with an amazing left foot that can score from anywhere (except from the penalty spot...).
Cardozo: in the zone again
Cardozo's partner will initially be Javier Saviola, signed in the summer from Real Madrid for €5m. The diminutive Argentinian has started well and will hope to end the underachieving wandering that has marked his recent career.
However, don't be surprised if the Little Rabbit finds his place under threat from Brazilian youngster Keirrison.
Signed from Palmeiras this summer by Barcelona for €14m, and immediately loaned out to Benfica, the 20-year-old finished the 2008 season as the youngest-ever top scorer in the Brazilian league.
Extra strength in depth in added by 33-year-old veteran Nuno Gomes and Weldon, a 29-year-old Brazilian who signed in the summer after an impressive loan spell with Belenenses.
Meanwhile, injury-plagued Angolan striker Mantorras will be there to fire up Benfica’s faithful in the final minutes.
Probable starting XI: Quim; Maxi Pereira, Luisão, David Luiz, Shaffer; Javi Garcia, Ramires, Pablo Aimar; Di Maria, Saviola, Cardozo.
The coach: Jorge Jesus
With Quique Sanchez Flores having lasted barely a year in the hotseat, Jorge Jesus moved to Benfica after a solid season with SC Braga.
The seasoned coach has managed several mid-ranking clubs with relative success, but it remains to be seen whether he can become a big-time player.
Apparently unfazed by such challenge, he invited extra pressure by claiming his team would play twice as well as last year’s. Jesus may talk the talk, but can he walk the walk?
One to watch: Pablo Aimar
It seems ages ago that Europe watched Pablo Aimar oozing class in a Valencia shirt.
The Argentinian may be past his best – he turns 30 in November – but his vision, silky touches and creativity can make the difference at Benfica.
Last season he played as a supporting striker, which didn't fully suit a player who needs to have the ball to dictate his team’s movements – the maestro in Benfica’s orchestra.
Jesus seems to agree, declaring Pablito is better suited for a deeper role.
If the Eagles are to enjoy an above-average season, they’ll need a fully-fit and in-form Aimar – something that would be welcomed by Benfica supporters – and football in general.
FourFourTwo.com: More to read...
The Usual Suspects part one: PortoThe Usual Suspects part two: Sporting
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"He’s even more important considering Benfica lack a second right-back."
What about Patric? Did Benfica loan him out?
this to be benfica's year? maybe?
ramires is a quality addition - watched him in confederations cup and he held brazil together in the middle.
keirrison should hit twenty goals no problem, but its not so much about who benfica have bought as much as who Porto have lost;
without lopez or rodriguez, they look decidedly less threatening. falcao is unproven at this level.
sporting? saw them against fiorentina, they dont look like champions to me.
benfica for the title i reckons..
Yes, Patric was loaned out to Cruzeiro. Shame Jesus didn't fancy him, because Benfica could really use another right-back.
@Long Live Zola
Two things about your post:
1) Keirrison is not a starter at the moment and unless he really impresses in the domestic cups or some non-critical games, he'll have a tough time breaking into the starting XI. Why? Oscar Cardozo's goalscoring record and Javier Saviola's link-up with the Paraguayan. I'd like to see him more though.
2)FC Porto lost Lisandro Lopez and Lucho Gonzalez (not Cristian Rodriguez). The forward's replacement, Radamel Falcao, already scored 3 goals and Belluschi seems to be a talented lad. More than that, it's the ability to incorporate new players and inject them a winning mentality that makes Porto a special club.
So, even though Benfica have a good chance to clinch the title, I'd say FC Porto are still the favourites.
To all the fellows who read this article I just wanted to point out that the person who wrote this article is clearly a fan of a rival in Portugal. Everyone and their donkey know that Benfica is, by very, very far, the biggest Club in Portugal in every way and one of the most well known Clubs in the World and this Portuguese guy goes ahead and writes:"(...)perhaps the biggest club in Portugal(...)"; the rest of the article also gives him away. It is well known how FC Porto managed to get to the top of Portuguese Football and sports had nothing to do with it; in Italy they would have been banned to the regionals. Benfica is a sleeping Giant; recognized by FIFA and recently by the IFFHS as one of the top 10 clubs of the XX century. Rivals in Portugal all hate Benfica, more than they love their own club, but jealousy is what moves them and that is not a respectful motive.
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