x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Europa League: Benfica's belief in Jesus is paying off

Jesus will complete a fourth consecutive season in charge next month, a longer reign than any other coach since the 1950s.

Jorge Jesus is in his fourth season at Benfica as coach, a change in trend. Rafael Marchante / Reuters
Jorge Jesus is in his fourth season at Benfica as coach, a change in trend. Rafael Marchante / Reuters

The 70th goal of Benfica's league season may well go down as their best. As it sealed the Lisbon derby on Sunday, it will certainly be among the most cherished. "A Work of Art," the Portuguese sports newspaper, A Bola, called it.

There would be superb technique in the finish, but the real finery came in the construction, the close control and balance on the turn shown by the talented Argentinian, Nicolas Gaitan, in demobilising two opponents, before his quick one-two with the Dutch winger Ola John.

Gaitan's cross then invited Lima, the Brazilian, to dare an airborne volley. He struck it purely. At 2-0 up against Sporting with 15 minutes left, Benfica were on their way to a four-point lead at the top of the domestic table.

Benfica's head coach, Jorge Jesus, began this season determined that the pursuit of the league title, Porto's property the last two years, would not be compromised by commitments in Europe.

Mission nearly accomplished: With four fixtures left in the Superliga, and no defeats suffered yet, they are within touching distance of that prize, even if a trip to second-place Porto, their only challengers, remains on the schedule.

As Jesus and his party landed in Istanbul ahead of this evening's first leg of their Europa League semi-final against Fenerbahce, evidence that domestic concerns remain the priority could still be perceived. Luisao, the captain and central defender, had been left at home, so as not to aggravate a light injury he picked up on Sunday. Jesus hopes to restore him to the line-up at the weekend.

Seventy goals in 26 league matches tells you something about Benfica. In their 38 league and European matches this term, only twice have they gone 90 minutes without a goal - at Celtic and at Barcelona, behind whom they finished in the Champions League group phase.

Jesus's instinct as a coach are naturally attacking, but in some ways, they have had to be. Late last August, the closing of the transfer window left him suddenly without his best pair of holding midfield players, with Alex Witsel (to Zenit Saint Petersburg) and Javi Garcia (to Manchester City) departing at the 11th hour.

From those sales, the club earned almost €65m. The Benfica treasury was grateful. For all their broad fan-base, they have to operate on the basis of scouting shrewdly and selling profitably. They occupy a domestic football culture without large revenues and exist in a national economy among the most affected by the Eurozone financial crisis.

Relative austerity, though, can impose some good disciplines. Benfica's notoriety for regularly sacking and paying off coaches - a young Jose Mourinho lasted 11 games there - is no more.

Jesus will complete a fourth consecutive season in charge next month, a longer reign than any other coach since the 1950s. In a club where presidents are elected by fans, where benfiquista nostalgia for the distant days of European Cup triumphs – the 1960s – still exists and where Porto's 21st century successes (most of the league titles in the period, a Uefa Cup, a Champions League and a Europa League) are envied, that is surprising stability.

And Jesus, who has ambitions to manage in England, is under pressure to commit to the club for 2013-14. Should Benfica pull off a possible treble of Europa League, domestic championship and Portuguese Cup, he will be in an even stronger position at the negotiating table.

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