Benfica’s victory over Santa Clara today, confirmed the 37th Primeira Liga title for the Lisbon giants. However, this season has not always been plain sailing, Próxima Jornada looks at the 2018/19 campaign and how they managed to wrestle the league title back from rivals FC Porto.
Turn back the clocks to Sunday November 11th, 2018. Benfica sit 5th in the Primeira Liga table and have just lost two consecutive games, one being a 2-0 away loss against Belenenses and a dismal 1-3 thrashing at the Luz to Moreirense. Their overall play at times seemed clunky and lacked fluidity, the team looked like they were playing almost out of rhythm, off-beat even. Even when Benfica were winning games, they weren’t playing particularly well. Benfiquistas and football fans in general could have been forgiven for thinking that this season, just like the last, was not going to be the one that would see Benfica crowned as champions. FC Porto were flying in 1st place and went in to most game-weeks with a healthy 4-point lead.
Fast forward into early January, Benfica have played 15 games, have been held to draws by Chaves and Lisbon rivals Sporting and have just suffered a 2-0 loss at the hands at Portimonense, it was at this moment the inevitable occurred, Rui Vitória was relieved of his duties. Benfica B manager Bruno Lage was brought in as head coach on a temporary basis, this was when the season began to change for Benfica.
Bruno’s first and most important task after taking charge was to improve performances and in turn begin consistently winning games. Many managers first thought when tasked with a job like this, would be to call on the experience of the senior Benfica players, hoping that their wily, old heads would respond to the crisis. Bruno however, a man shaped and moulded by youth football, looked to the vibrant youngsters to come in and compliment the experience of this Benfica side. He believed that the crop of youngsters from the B team he had nurtured in the past during his tenure as Benfica B manager, could provide the necessary spark needed to revitalize this tired-looking outfit and be the catalyst for a change in fortune. João Félix and Florentino Luís in particular, began to feature more and more as Benfica embarked on a 9-game winning streak, in which they scored 34 goals and conceded just 7. João Félix had started just two games when Lage took over. During this 9-game run, Félix started every single game, scoring 7 goals and getting 4 assists. Félix had repaid the faith shown to him by Lage through his blistering, dominating performances.
Florentino Luís, the 19-year-old central defensive midfielder had started every single game under Lage for Benfica B earlier in the season. After Lage became Benfica first team coach, Florentino only managed to play another 7 games for the B, it was clear that Lage saw Florentino as a member of his first team squad. In the last 7 games in the league, the most vital part of the season for Benfica, as they wrestled to and fro with Porto, Florentino started every single game, completing 90 minutes on all but one occasion. Lage saw in Luís someone that could cope with the pressures of a title battle and perform consistently at a high level, even at a tender 19 years of age.
Another key element for Benfica’s revival was the upturn in form of already established players. Lage instilled within these key squad members confidence and belief that no matter how much the season looked finished, it wasn’t. Since Lage was appointed, Rafa Silva has scored 13 goals and became an integral part of Benfica’s success. Supported in an attacking 3 by Félix and Seferovic, Rafa entered the best form of his life. Showcasing all of the talents which made Benfica purchase him from Braga in the first place.
Going into the derby with FC Porto, Benfica sat in 2nd place with their rivals atop of the league, a ‘six-pointer’. FC Porto struck first through Ádrian after 20 minutes and the game at this point became a real test of character. João Félix, the latest Seixal prodigy of Portuguese football, stood up and was counted. He equalized 6 minutes after Porto’s opener and finally Rafa Silva scored the all-important second. The game ended 1-2 and Benfica climbed to 1st in the league, since that day they have been league leaders ever since (barring games in hand).
Benfica knew what they had to do after assuming pole position, and that was to simply keep winning football matches. The Lisbon giants went on another 9-game winning-streak, similar to the one they embarked on at the beginning of Lage’s tenure. This run went right up until today, the final game of the season against Santa Clara, where victory or a draw was all that was needed to lift the Liga title. Benfica did not disappoint their supporters, beating Santa Clara by 4 goals to 1. Seferovic’s opener being the 100th goal Benfica have scored this season. Benfica ultimately deserved their 37th title, they managed to capitalize on Porto’s slip ups and refused to give up even when all hope seemed lost. Next season will be even more intriguing given the huge crop of young Seixal talent about to come to the fore. Lage, who was given the job on a permanent basis after the turnaround in form, will be looking forward to first the celebrations, and then the title defence next season.
Congratulations SL Benfica from Próxima Jornada!