Jorge Jesus’s switch from Portuguese champions Benfica to city rivals Sporting Lisbon in the summer was possibly the most controversial in European football in 2015 and probably the most controversial in Portuguese football…well, ever.
When I think about how Benfica lost their brilliant manager, the darling of the Estádio da Luz, a line from The Big Lebowski comes to mind.
“Nobody f#cks with the Jesus!” – immortal words delivered by John Turturro’s mesmeric bowling nut Jesus Quintana in the Coen brothers’ comedy caper.
How Benfica officials must regret doing just that. The more so now that Jesus has driven Sporting to the top of the Primeira Liga and given the club genuine hope of a first domestic league title since 2002.
Jesus’s departure and the manner in which it occurred still casts a deep shadow over the champions. Put simply, The Eagles’ hierarchy took Jesus for granted.
They allowed his contract run down, and then expected he’d sign a new one that better reflected the economic problems facing the country.
The 61-year-old was clearly displeased, and left to cross the city to ambitious Sporting, reportedly doubling his wages in the process.
The Verde-e-Brancos, having come close to financial disaster in 2011, are now back on a sound financial footing and have big plans under President Bruno de Carvalho to emerge from the shadows of their illustrious rivals.
Stealing Jesus away from Benfica showed just how serious they are.
Outside of Portugal, it’s surprising just how little credit Jesus gets. Yes, the Primeira Liga is in the second tier of European leagues – but his achievements there and in Europe suggest that Jorge Jesus should have a profile in the game at least equal with that of the likes of Andres Villas Boas, for example.
And yet when the big jobs come up across the European game, Jesus is rarely if ever linked.
Consider the facts. When he arrived at Benfica in 2009, the club was in the doldrums. Down on their luck, they had won only two league titles in 17 seasons.
But in his six year tenure, Jesus lead them to ten major trophies, including three league titles, reviving memories of the club’s trophy laden past.
Moreover, Jesus masterminded two impressive Europa League runs – reaching back-to-back finals, only to fall at the final hurdle on each occasion.
His achievements are made more remarkable when you consider how he kept the club on the road to glory despite losing a raft of top names (including Angel Di Maria, Nemanja Matic, David Luiz, Ramires and Fabio Coentrao) over that period.
Now Jesus is looking to repeat the trick at the Estádio José Alvalade – and he’s started extremely well. Despite Friday’s surprising 2-2 draw with bottom club Tondela, Sporting remain table toppers having lost only once so far this season.
Along the way, they have inflicted impressive defeats on their main rivals Benfica and Porto. Back in late October, on Jesus’s return to Estádio da Luz, Sporting ran out easy 3-0 winners in the most intimidating and vitriolic of atmospheres.
But just as notably, two weeks ago, Jesus’s men beat Porto 2-0 in what was their first league defeat in 341 days – a loss that was to be manager Julien Lopetegui’s final game in charge.
Star striker Islam Slimani has been central to Sporting’s climb to the top of the table, scoring 14 goals in his 17 league appearances. The Algerian has been turning heads, with Manchester United among many big clubs to be linked with him this week.
Midfield anchor William Carvalho has also played a key role – his midfield screening proving critical to a defence that has conceded only 11 goals this season.
Premier League watchers will also be interested to read of a couple familiar faces who feature in Jesus’s title push – former Fulham attacking midfielder Brian Ruiz and Liverpool flop Alberto Aquilani.
The two points dropped on Friday night will be a reminder to Sporting fans, however, that there’s a long way to go in that race for the title.
But in Jorge Jesus, they will also know that they have a man who has been there and done it, and one their main rivals will fear.