Welcome back! I’m really excited to get this series going and after reviewing the squad it’s now time to look at how the team performed! Can Brazilian Ronaldo build a Benfica team full of youngsters?
As I mentioned in the previous post the primary or perhaps the only goal of the first season is to keep Ronaldo at his post. A league title will most likely be enough, but what will happen if that can’t be achieved? FC Porto, who won the league last season, will be a tough nut to crack and there are a couple of other decent sides in the league as well. Will it mean automatic sacking of Ronaldo or can a decent Champions League run make up for a missed league title?
Considering the relatively low expectations of only reaching the group stage of the Champions League there is hopefully a bit of wiggle room. A league finish in the top 3 earning a Champions League spot next season coupled with a promotion from the Champions League group stage might be enough to please the board and give Ronaldo the chance to carry on towards his long-term goal of achieving European domination. So, with that in mind let’s head into the first season to see how it went!
Let’s start with a few teasers by going through the cup results. The board basically had no expectations of the club winning any of the two Portuguese cups this season, making them a chance to give the younger players a bit of match experience. Thanks to the varied quality of Portuguese clubs the youngsters managed to survive longer than anyone could expect.
In Taça de Portugal the run ended in a 6th run defeat against powerhouse and fierce rivals FC Porto.
In the League Cup the tables were turned as FC Porto were defeated in the semi final, leaving only Vitoria Guimarães in the way of winning the cup title.
In the final the Brazilian striker Welthon played a key role for the opposition. He scored two goals in the first half with their only two shots on goal, looking to be destined for a hero role. Benfica came back however after two goals by João Felix and when Welthon got himself sent off in the 63rd minute Benfica looked set for the cup title. However, as often is the case with younger players, they crumbled under the pressure and Vitoria Guimarães won the final on penalties after a 2-2 result at full time. A bit disappointing but hopefully a valuable lesson learned for the players.
The Champions League
As mentioned above, the board’s expectation was for the team to survive the qualifying rounds and earn a place in the group stage.
That was achieved surprisingly easy and the team continued throughout the group stage to overperform against far more experienced and renowned opposition.
The players impressed pundits all over the world with solid results and a first place finish in the group. Sure, this wasn’t the toughest of groups and form declined a bit towards the end, but still an impressive result!
The award for their hard work was the toughest possible, FC Barcelona in the first knock-out round.
After a tight goalless first leg at Camp Nou, the impossible task of advancing to the next round didn’t seem all that impossible anymore ahead of the second leg. Despite being the better team at home both chance and possession-wise Benfica didn’t manage to score, which is what football is all about. Two goals from the feet of Leo Messi saw Barcelona advance to the 2nd knockout round, but the Benfica players could still feel more than proud of their performance in the Champions League.
Going into the league season with a squad where only five players had any experience of first-team football no one really knew what to expect. Perhaps a shaky start. Probably a lot of inconsistency. Hopefully a top 3 finish. Some fans dreamt of an immediate league title while most of them shook their heads in disbelief, fearing that this crazy experiment would backfire and make the team miss European football altogether next year.
Benfica started the season in tremendous form and pretty early broke away from the pack together with fierce rivals FC Porto, making it a two horse race. After a couple of shaky performances, including a loss away to Porto it became more or less a one-horse race with Porto 8 points ahead. Players and fans alike started to get used to the thought of a second place finish when it all started to turn around. A solid performance at home to Porto made the gap 5 points and things didn’t feel all that impossible anymore.
And then it hit them.
FC Porto went head first straight into the famous wall. Being spread too thinly focusing both on the league title race and a Champions League quarter final they started to crumble. Four straight losses meant that they were out of the Champions League and neck to neck with Benfica going into the final three games of the league. A sloppy draw by Benfica gave Porto a two points lead and put them back in the driver’s seat for the final game.
Strangely Benfica’s final game (a win) was played the day before Porto’s so going into the final game, Porto knew that a win would make them pass their rivals and win the title, while a draw or loss would see the trophy slip out of their hands and into the hands of Benfica right at the very end. The upside of the games being played on different days was the fact that manager Ronaldo could be there in person to watch the final agonizing game. Portimonense looked the better team from the start and created a couple of half chances. Out of the blue Porto of course countered and scored, looking set to defend their title. Portimonense kept being the better team though, creating chance after chance. In the 60th minute they equalised after a real screamer. This didn’t spark any last minute chase from Porto as Portimonense looked closer to the win. The game ended 1-1 after a gloriously uneventful final 10 minutes, making young Benfica the unlikely Portuguese champions in Ronaldo’s first season at the helm!
On a side note we find Sporting in a very disappointing 16th place, which means that they will get relegated for the first time in their history. What a shocker!
With the title in the bag, let’s start focusing on the future. First, let’s look at this season’s youth intake.
With money to spare and a decent reputation, it is not that hard to find good youngsters, even the occasional wonderkid, to buy from other clubs. However, it is nowhere near as satisfying as nurturing a player from your own youth intake and developing him from exciting prospect to world-class player. So are there any potential superstars in this intake? Well, let’s take a look at the most promising players.
Some would call the intake fantastic and others merely decent. I feel that it falls somewhere in between. Three players with 4,5-5 star potential is good and all, but with the world-class facilities of Benfica I would have hoped for at least one player to stand out enough to make me a bit dizzy.
The three players mentioned above may very well turn out to be excellent players, but the one player that really stood out was found at Portuguese club Varzim.
Ronaldo and his staff, true to their newly adopted aggressive scouting and signing strategy, offered pretty much all the Portuguese newgens arriving in-game on intake day a chance to come on a trial to Benfica. The hopes of finding hidden gems at other clubs where certainly not put to shame as one player really stood out. Mateus Imbamba from Varzim looks more like the finished product than a 15-year-old boy. His Passing, Crossing, Technique and First Touch are all above 10, making him suitable for the IF role out on the left. Nice mentals for a 15-year-old paints a picture of an exceptional talent. However, what stands out the most is his physical ability. Acceleration of 16 and Pace of 15 makes him hard to catch. And if the opposition gets up close and personal he can use his Agility, Balance and Strength to come away with the ball. He can even outjump most opponents with a Jumping Reach of 13. This player will be very exciting to follow in the next couple of seasons and I have the feeling we’ve got a potential superstar on our hands!
Following the league title quite a few of the players got a bit of extra recognition. Tiago Dantas won Portuguese U21 Player of the Year while Gedson Fernandes won both Portuguese Young Player of the Year and Player of the Year. Bisseck, Alvaro, Pinto, João Felix, Fernandes and Trincao made it into the Team of the Year. 6 out of 11 is more than decent, especially considering their young age.
The future certainly looks bright for Benfica. A league win with a squad with an average age of 18.7 is an amazing achievement, but as you know winning the league is not enough. It’s European glory we’re after. Next season will probably be way too soon, but in a few years our wonderkids have hopefully improved enough to challenge for a European cup title! It is certainly a challenge to mold the young individuals into a team good enough to compete with the big dogs of European football, but Ronaldo is more than willing to give it a shot!
Thanks for reading another excellent post by Mikaelinho. You can follow him on Twitter here:
- Twitter: @mikaelinhofm