The Usual Suspects part three: Benfica

Team Name: SL BenficaNickname: The Eagles

Introduction

The third of Portugal's Os Tres Grandes (The Big Three, or for our purposes, The Usual Suspects) is SL Benfica, perhaps the biggest club in Portugal with 171,000 paying members and a trophy cabinet that includes two European Cups and 31 domestic leagues.

That golden era of continental dominance may today be nothing more than a bittersweet memory, but Benfica will retain their permanent seat in the elite group that challenges for domestic honours.

Everton fans looking for information about Benfica – both sides are in Europa League Group I, along with AEK Athens and Belarusians BATE Borisov – will find a comparison close to home... just across Stanley Park, in fact.

Broadly speaking, Benfica are Portugal's Liverpool.

Both teams have legions of fans (not just in their home city), a rich history (including European Cup wins) and are routinely regarded as title contenders – despite a distinct lack of silverware in recent seasons.

Benfica still hold the record number of league titles (31) but have only topped the final table once in the last 16 years – and that win, in 2005, came with a points total so low that it wouldn't have even made second place in any previous campaign.

Meanwhile, FC Porto have chipped away at their pre-eminence, winning 11 titles in the same 16-year period, including six of the last seven league titles.

Does that sound like a certain rivalry from north-west England?

Eusebio in 1962, when Benfica retained the European Cup 

Aware of the weight of history and expectation, Benfica usually set unrealistic targets that are bound to frustrate their supporters.

That puts an insurmountable pressure on players to perform, and it's not uncommon to witness many changes in the summer.

Last year Benfica finished third in the league – a big let-down. Fired by fourth-place failure (and thus UEFA Cup limbo) in 2007/08, the club had bought the likes of David Suazo, José Antonio Reyes and Pablo Aimar.

Everyone expected the club to at least finish in the top two, and thus qualify for the Champions League. But after a good start everything went down the drain. Once again.

For the third year in a row, the club has invested a significant amount of money to strengthen the squad.

Among its higher-profile signings are Ramires (€7.5m from Cruzeiro), Javi Garcia (€7m from Real Madrid) and Javier Saviola (€5m, also from Real Madrid).

The efforts to put Benfica back where they think they belong are understandable, but there's a risk.

In Portugal, football is hardly a sustainable activity; it's very difficult to make a profit without a player trade surplus.

Making hefty investments without the support of a solid organisational structure and a carefully thought-out business plan usually means you're borrowing against future revenues... the footballing version of Russian roulette.

The squad

This may be a refrain heard every summer, but Benfica's squad should challenge for domestic honours and advance to the later stages of European competition (this year, the Europa League).

Defence is the manager’s biggest headache, although it has improved since last year.

Left-back José Shaffer, signed this summer from Racing Club in his Argentinian homeland, has shown flashes of promise; capable of supporting the attack and delivering pinpoint crosses, he’s still a bit raw and needs to improve his marking.

Shaffer's arrival means Brazilian David Luiz, who filled in at left-back last season, can now move to his best position – centre-back.

Luiz has tons of potential and if well nurtured he will go far. Fellow Brazilian Sidnei, just 20 years old, is also a talented centre-back and enjoyable to watch.

However, their compatriot and fellow centre-back Luisão doesn’t deserve as much praise as he gets. He'll have one great game, then one strewn with errors that would make a Sunday League player blush.

Nevertheless, the 6ft 4in 27-year-old will play, since he’s one of the senior players at the club.

What? No silverware? The 2009 Amsterdam Tournament winners 

Two years ago, no one would have guessed that Maxi Pereira would become a vital piece in Benfica’s backline.

Signed as a right-sided midfielder who could play in the middle if required, he played in both positions in his first season and didn’t make an impact.

Last year, however, he was converted to right-back – and today he’s probably the best in the league. He’s even more important considering Benfica lack a second right-back.

There are a lot of options in midfield. Spaniard Javi Garcia is a defensive midfielder in the Kostas Katsouranis style (that's a  compliment). Strong and with good positioning, Garcia is still young and can only get better.

Signed in the summer, Brazil international Ramires is expected to be a fixture – despite an uninspiring start (apart from the crucial goal at Vitória Guimarães) which could be because he's not adapted to the league yet.

Pablo Aimar will be the creative spark in the midfield and the Argentinian’s class will be vital to the club, provided he remains injury-free.

Among the important squad players striving for a regular place are Carlos Martins, Hassan Yebda and Ruben Amorim – especially the latter, who took his game to a new level after arriving from CF Belenenses.

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Manager Jorge Jesus revealed he likes to have five forwards at his disposal, and the board granted him that wish.

Paraguayan Óscar Cardozo, who scored 40 goals over the last two seasons, is a favourite: slow, but if properly fed, almost certain to score with an amazing left foot that can score from anywhere (except from the penalty spot...).

Cardozo: in the zone again 

Cardozo's partner will initially be Javier Saviola, signed in the summer from Real Madrid for €5m. The diminutive Argentinian has started well and will hope to end the underachieving wandering that has marked his recent career. 

However, don't be surprised if the Little Rabbit finds his place under threat from Brazilian youngster Keirrison.

Signed from Palmeiras this summer by Barcelona for €14m, and immediately loaned out to Benfica, the 20-year-old finished the 2008 season as the youngest-ever top scorer in the Brazilian league.

Extra strength in depth in added by 33-year-old veteran Nuno Gomes and Weldon, a 29-year-old Brazilian who signed in the summer after an impressive loan spell with Belenenses.

Meanwhile, injury-plagued Angolan striker Mantorras will be there to fire up Benfica’s faithful in the final minutes.

Probable starting XI: Quim; Maxi Pereira, Luisão, David Luiz, Shaffer; Javi Garcia, Ramires, Pablo Aimar; Di Maria, Saviola, Cardozo.

The coach: Jorge Jesus

With Quique Sanchez Flores having lasted barely a year in the hotseat, Jorge Jesus moved to Benfica after a solid season with SC Braga.

The seasoned coach has managed several mid-ranking clubs with relative success, but it remains to be seen whether he can become a big-time player.

Apparently unfazed by such challenge, he invited extra pressure by claiming his team would play twice as well as last year’s. Jesus may talk the talk, but can he walk the walk?

One to watch: Pablo Aimar

It seems ages ago that Europe watched Pablo Aimar oozing class in a Valencia shirt.

The Argentinian may be past his best – he turns 30 in November – but his vision, silky touches and creativity can make the difference at Benfica.

Last season he played as a supporting striker, which didn't fully suit a player who needs to have the ball to dictate his team’s movements – the maestro in Benfica’s orchestra.

Jesus seems to agree, declaring Pablito is better suited for a deeper role.

If the Eagles are to enjoy an above-average season, they’ll need a fully-fit and in-form Aimar – something that would be welcomed by Benfica supporters – and football in general.

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The Usual Suspects part one: PortoThe Usual Suspects part two: Sporting

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