Benfica have usurped their Portuguese neighbours
When Lisandro López nodded in a last-gasp equaliser for Benfica in O Clássico on November 6th, it was more than a twist in the title race with bitter rivals Porto or an explosive way to sign off before the international break. Rarely has a shock late goal felt so indicative of a prevailing wind.
There was a cruel irony that the goalscorer for Rui Vitória’s champions was the namesake of Porto’s own Lisandro López, who scored 63 times in 143 games over four rampantly successful seasons for the club – they ended all four as champions – before he was sold to Olympique Lyonnais for €24 million in July 2009.
For a long time, Porto were the force that blew everything out of their path, and they continued to be that way long after Lisandro left for France. When the Northerners clinched their most recent championship in 2013, they had won the title in nine of the last 11 Liga seasons.
These days, Portugal is more red than blue. Last season’s title win was Benfica’s third in a row, and the first time that Portugal’s original giants had completed a Liga hat-trick since the mid-1970s. It was meant to be the season when the wheels fell off, after coach Jorge Jesus defected to neighbours Sporting. Instead, Benfica’s retention of their crown proved that Vitória was a highly capable replacement, and that the club is built is built on pretty solid foundations these days.
Lyon's Lisandro Lopez, of Argentina, celebrates after he scored a goal against Lens during their French League One soccer match at Gerland stadium, in Lyon, central France, Sunday, April 10, 2011. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)
Jesus deserves his share of credit for laying the foundations, having managed to combine developing talent like Fábio Coentrão, Nemanja Matic and Ramires for sale at a big profit with the maintenance of sporting success. Vitória has continued seamlessly. In his debut season, he held onto the Liga title with a side shorn of the experienced Maxi Pereira and top scorer Lima, and also reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
This season, Benfica have seen wonderkid Renato Sanches and star playmaker Nicolas Gaitán move on, not to mention coping with an injury crisis that has deprived them of players including the 32-goal hitman from last season, Jonas. After snatching their draw in O Clássico, they are already five points clear at the top.
That late disappointment at the Dragão has been a bitter pill for Porto to swallow after a month replete with bad news. In October the two-time European champions announced a record loss €58.4 million, with over €75 million spent on salaries in 2015/16. Three years ago that figure was as little as €40 miilion – and Porto have won nothing in the intervening period. The mini-revolution under now-Spain coach Julen Lopetegui, which included extensive recruitment, was an expensive failure.
Porto used to be seen as transfer market kings, but they appear to have lost their golden touch. The 2015 signing of Iker Casillas, a legend of European football but the highest-paid player in the club’s history and holding no sell-on value, would have been anathema to their transfer practice in the past.
Porto's Andre Silva, right, and Porto's Diogo Jota react after missing a shot during a Portuguese League soccer match between FC Porto and SL Benfica at the Dragao stadium in Porto, Portugal, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Paulo Duarte)
Fernando Gomes, the administrator of the SAD (the Portuguese equivalent of a PLC) management board, admitted that “costs have risen abruptly” and that Porto are in constant dialogue with UEFA as breaches of the Financial Fair Play (FFP) charter loom. The club’s financial plan for the coming year, recently signed off by the club’s members, included the unusually specific figure of €116 million to be generated via player sales, in order to prevent UEFA sanctions.
Antero Henrique, the club’s long-serving technical director, widely seen as president Jorge Nuno da Costa’s right-hand man and credited with Porto’s efficiency in worldwide scouting and player trading, quit back in September. The times are a-changing and if they are to meet that projected figure, the club’s fans are likely to have to endure the exits of cherished favourites, including 21-year-old striker André Silva, in the near future.
Benfica will have to say goodbye to popular players before long too with centre-back Victor Lindelof, for example, drawing attention from the likes of Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain. Such is life in Portuguese football.
Yet the Lisbon club have much better recent form for finding effective replacements with little fuss. 19-year-old André Horta, who has stepped into Sanches’ shoes, made a telling cameo in O Clássico and created Lisandro’s equaliser. Whereas Benfica’s youngsters have, especially under Vitória, found room to flourish, Porto’s are already under pressure to make good the past mistakes of others. Their coach Nuno has a tough job on his hands to return the balance of power to the north.