The previous window was a particularly big one for our squad. A few of our most talented players had moved on and the first-team was beginning to move into a phase of transition, but I remained confident. I was confident in the players, the club and in my ability as a Manager. This would be a testing year for my squad, with no immediate starting XI in my head it would be a welcome chance for some of the young guns to try and get their foot in the door, as well as the old guard having to keep on their toes to get the minutes on the pitch, despite their established reputation.
I myself was a subject of job speculation over the Summer with a few post-World Cup sackings resulting in interest from Croatia and France respectively. France had a nightmare campaign and failed to make it past the group stage, and while the project would be an interesting one, I had to turn down the offer. I have to focus on Benfica 100%.
In terms of objectives I don’t really have any for the coming year as I’m usually somebody who buckles under pressure. With that said, I’m simply hoping to see us be much more competitive in all of the domestic competitions, and hopefully make it past the first knockout stage of the UEFA Champions League. Touchwood.
The season started off in the perfect way, four straight clean sheets and four straight victories before what came as a shock defeat at the Estádio da Luz against fierce rivals Sporting Lisbon. We very much dominated the possession and carved out a few well worked opportunities despite missing a few big names, but it was ultimately two early goals from our Lisbon counterparts that sealed the tie, a disappointing defeat but one we immediately bounced back from with three consecutive clean sheets. The slight “rut” in terms of lacking clean sheets came after our newly appointed Captain Julio Palomeque suffered a broken foot on Colombian duty meaning he missed the next 3-4 months of the season. This caused uncertainty at the back especially with Samir still looking to force his way out of the club, resulting in us conceding a couple of goals over that period of time. Luckily for me our attacking unit are superior to the majority of the league, if not everybody in the league, and were able to find the net more times than our opponents which kept the points ticking over nicely.
The results so far up to this point unsurprisingly leave us at the summit of the table, 5 points ahead of 2015/16 Champions Porto who trail us with a game in hand. While our league form has been almost perfect up until this point, we really have struggled to score goals, more precisely our strikers have struggled. Luka Jovic and Zé Gomes have struggled for consistency throughout the season and Duvan Zapata who scored over 20 goals last season has really struggled to get out of the blocks at all this season.
Another key absence throughout the months has been Eduardo Salvio who has suffered from multiple injuries since July and has not yet put a solid run of games together, a major miss for any team considering how important he was last season, but coming back to the table I’m delighted with our position so far. Our 3rd Christmas in a row at the top of the table.
The Champions League will always be the biggest trophy in European Football, and it will also be the ultimate goal here at Benfica, it has been since 1962! During my reign I’ve taken the club to the heights of the Semi-Finals where we fell at the feet of English side Arsenal Football Club, and I’ve also seen us regress by only reaching the first-knockout stage the following year, and that’s not going to be acceptable this year. The board are expecting the Quarter-Finals.
Ever since I took over at Benfica one thing has remained a constant. We always win our Champions League group. We once again saw off the challenge of Atlético to finish top of the group on 12 points from our 6 matches, with defeats coming against Atlético and PAOK respectively. I must say I’m surprised to see Shakhtar awarded the wooden spoon in this group, but nonetheless I’m delighted to progress.
A breakdown of our results here shows the strong start we enjoyed with victories against Atléti, Shakhtar and PAOK before taking a large dip in form, but having already amassed 9 points at that stage, qualification was already likely and we sealed it with a home victory against the Ukrainians.
A.C. Milan await us in the next stage and with the flashbacks of last years disappointment, we feel more motivated than ever and frankly, Milan should be afraid. We’re hungry.
While it once again isn’t seen as important by the board, I feel obliged to show how we’ve been getting on in the Taca de Portugal. A trophy we were pipped to in the Final last year, I was determined for the lads to reclaim the honour this year, and while there’s still a long way to go, its been a positive start.
Three games, three clean-sheets, and with a 6th round draw against Segunda side Oliveirense I would have to favour our chances of reaching the Semi-Finals. In all honesty we have to be regarded as the favourites and have to ward off the complacency as we rotate through the fixtures. Standard set-up of utilising the youth and so far with positive results.
Transfers and Youth
Originally I hadn’t planned to be very active in the market, but the lack of goalscoring from our strikers has really given me no choice but to invest in some quality, as it likely is one of our weakest areas on paper. Rui Costa left me a report on my desk on the back of our fixture against Gil Vicente, alongside my local newspaper of course. “Messi Claims ballon d’Or” it read in huge stenciled writing, hardly a surprise.
However, what I was surprised to see was that former Atlético man Luciano Vietto was placed on the transfer list by Tottenham Hotspur for €17m, despite having only moved to New White Hart Lane for €24.5m from Liverpool in the Summer. Luciano was a player I’d been watching for many years and a player who up until now had been plastered with a very high price-tag, but not anymore. His career has taken a dip since leaving Madrid, but Lisbon is the perfect place for him to revive his career. I pushed the paperwork through with Daniel Levy and before you know it, Luciano was a Benfica player.
While some of his attributes have struggled to develop, he’s very good in and around the box and that’s something we’ve been lacking since Calleri’s move to Munich. I have full faith in Luciano and I’m looking forward to working with him.
Two other incoming signings are both from our favourite Mediterranean country; Spain. First up is Carles Alena, the Barcelona prodigy has been making waves in recent seasons with his performances for the B side, but having broken into the main squad he has failed to knuckle down a place on the pitch. His frustrations led to him being placed on the transfer list where we immediately snapped him up for a relatively small fee of €10.75m. A player who is technically astute, I’m sure Carlés will fit into the squad alongside, or working under Renato Sanches.
Finally, attacking full-back Javier Prieto joins from Sporting Gijon B for a transfer fee of €1.4m, having rejected the chance to sign for Milan, Liverpool, Borussia Dortmund and many other top top teams. While Prieto is very much an undeveloped, raw piece of talent he will fit nicely into our B side where he will be guaranteed minutes on the pitch working under some of the finest youth coaches in European Football. It’ll sure be interesting to see how he develops over the next couple of years, but the fact he chose us over some of the biggest sides in the World really shows the waves we’re making here at Benfica.
The thing I’m most excited for next is the annual youth intake, the facilities and recruitment here at Benfica are fantastic and I’,m really hoping to develop some of the finest Portuguese, and generally finest Footballers of the coming generation. Over the recent years I’ve slowly and gradually added to the B side while focusing on the players met through the intake, especially with the likes of Julio Palomeque (c), Mustafa Mané and Miguel Mastriani already easing their way into the first-team squad.
You can see by this image that we possess some players already with some real potential in the squad. Paulo Wilson, Saúl Moreno and Joao Valente have all come through our own academy and have great potential of one day making the first-team alongside many other promising talents such as Arsic, Avdijaj and Zé Gomes. The B side is certainly something I’m looking to invest more money into and I’m hoping our next youth intake will help to churn our some more world class potential.
Following the turn of the new year, here is a look at the squad going into the second half of the season. Plenty of ability, plenty of potential and plenty of hope.
Thanks for reading.