As the floodlights went out at the Estádio da Mata Real on Friday night, the only brightness came from a flare that had been tossed on to the pitch. Supporters in attendance could be forgiven for thinking that, rather than purchase tickets for the match between Paços de Ferreira and Benfica, they’d inadvertently stumbled upon a pagan ritual.
Fortunately, it wasn’t long before the ground was fully illuminated once more. Yet for a little while the feeling remained, particularly among the Benfica players, that if they were to return to Lisbon with a precious win, a sacrifice would be necessary. That became apparent almost immediately after the re-start when the visitors conceded a goal and went behind, just as they had done away to Academica a week earlier in Coimbra.
Blushes were spared by new signing Lima. The top scorer in the Primeira Liga with Braga last season managed to get Benfica back on level terms barely a minute after Paços had taken the lead. He then found a deserved winner mid-way through the second half to take his side top of the table, a position they’d hold on to on goal difference after rivals Porto drew 2-2 at Rio Ave.
Still, question marks remain about Benfica. If it weren’t for the last gasp heroics of goalkeeper Artur, who made a magnificent reaction save from Paços striker Cicero in stoppage time, not to mention the relief he felt on seeing a wicked shot from substitute Caetano then go wide, Benfica might have drawn too.
It promises to be an interesting year for coach Jorge Jesus and his team. After reaching the Europa League semi-final in 2011 and the Champions League quarter-final in 2012, there was a definite sense that Benfica, one of the continent’s greatest and most historic clubs, were a force once more, commanding respect, not only for what they’d done in the past, but also for who they were in the present.
Since then, it might be said, Benfica have been a victim of their own success and their largesse too. On transfer deadline day, Javi Garcia was sold to Manchester City for £15.8m. The window then shut for most of Europe. But not all of it. On September 4, Axel Witsel was also traded to Zenit St. Petersburg for £32m.
While undeniably painful, both players’ departures were necessary.
Benfica’s accounts, released earlier this month, showed that the club’s liabilities are a perilous £338.9m. Even the windfalls that have come from their repeated qualification for the Champions League and the ability to buy-low and sell-high with great consistency in the transfer market—making substantial profits on the deals that saw Ángel di María and Fábio Coentrão move to Real Madrid, and David Luiz and Ramires go to Chelsea—they have still not been able to make a significant enough dint in their debts.
President Luís Filipe Vieira has had to admit: “Benfica are going to have to continue to sell players and to reduce its wage bill.”
Fans have generally been quite accepting of the economic reality. It mirrors that of Portugal as a whole. But what hasn’t gone down well is how, in contrast to other years when replacements have been more or less ready and waiting to step into the boots of sold stars, there appears to have been no succession planning to allow for the sales of Garcia and Witsel. Instead, a hole has been left in Benfica’s midfield and the balance that each player brought to a team predisposed to throw everyone forward threatened to disappear with them.
“[Garcia and Witsel] are two extremely influential players, they lost,” said former Sporting Lisbon and Braga coach Domingos Paciencia. “Only the future will tell if they will be able to maintain the same quality and results.”
For now, Benfica have managed to cope. Nemanja Matic, the only player still in the squad with experience as a trinco or holding player, has anchored the midfield in place of Garcia, while Enzo Perez has also shown signs of encouragement, at least enough to earn a call up to Argentina’s squad for World Cup qualifiers against Uruguay and Chile, even if he is arguably less well-rounded than Witsel in his position.
“Since [Garcia and Witsel] left the team’s response has been positive,” Jesus claimed, “especially Perez.”
The fact remains, however, irrespective of Benfica’s still unbeaten status, that they have a soft centre, a frailty that has perhaps been exacerbated also by the suspension of centre-back Luisão for 11 matches after he was punished for pushing over a referee in a pre-season friendly with Fortuna Düsseldorf.
They have been behind in three of their six matches this season, always, it must be said, rallying to get a result, but, to some, it indicates a lack of control and, although it has yet and may not be a problem in Portugal where, such is Benfica’s quality in forward areas Jesus’s ‘we’ll score one more than you’ philosophy often prevails, it is likely to be a different story when they encounter Europe’s elite.
A lot will be learned in that regard on Tuesday evening when Benfica entertain Barcelona at the Estádio da Luz for one of the continent’s most illustrious fixtures. It calls to mind the 1961 European Cup final between the two sides—a come-from-behind 3-2 win for the Lisbon-based club—and another series of group stage matches in 1992 when Cruyff’s Dream Team, featuring Pep Guardiola, overcame Sven Goran Eriksson and a young Manuel Rui Costa en route to the final of the competition.
Curiously, Benfica have not tasted victory over Spanish opposition in 30 years. Had Garcia and Witsel still been at the club, they might have been in a position to lift that curse. Now, Benfiquistas are not so sure.