It must be a slightly depressing life being a Benfica fan. Your fabled club remains a giant in your own country, regularly draws crowds of over 50,000 to your magnificent stadium, and remains competitive on the European stage, but it’s still to all intents and purposes a big shop window.
Googling Benfica throws up one abiding conclusion – that viewed from outside of Portugal, the country’s biggest club, which has won the last three domestic league titles and is headed for an unprecedented fourth, is seen as a purveyor and seller of quality football talent as much as it is a football club. A shop for those looking for road-tested talent.
The reasons are fairly obvious. Not being in one of Europe’s most powerful leagues with the kind of TV money that fuels it hurts the likes of the two-times European Cup winners. And debt hurts, in Benfica’s case, even more deeply.
According to the recently released UEFA report on the financial health of football on the continent, The European Club Football Landscape, Benfica carries the second highest level of net debt amongst Europe’s football clubs – an eye-watering €336 million. Unsurprising, therefore, that when it comes to The Eagles, everyone is for sale.
If there’s a comfort to any of this for the club’s fans, it’s that Benfica, like the country’s other big clubs FC Porto and Sporting Lisbon, are very good indeed at identifying and grooming talent, getting a season or two of good football out of them, before cashing in.
In fact, Benfica have just pulled in €30 million into the coffers with the sale of winger Goncal Guedes to PSG. Add that to monies received for the summer sales of Renato Sanches to Bayern Munich and Nico Gaitan to Atletico Madrid, and the Lisbon giants have brought in €90 million in flogging just three players.
There is also reportedly serious interest this transfer widow from a range of big clubs in talented full-backs Nelson Semedo and Alex Grimaldo, in Swedish centre half Victor Lidelof, and in 23-year-old goalkeeper Ederson.
The key problem for the club and for manager Rui Vitoria is how to balance the need for cash with the imperative of staying at the top of the game in Portugal. Winning the domestic title is vital to keeping the fans onside – and also for ensuring continued participation in the lucrative Champions League.
So far Vitoria has managed well. There has been a drop off in quality and intensity from last season, the obvious result of losing the midfield drive and exuberance of Sanches and the incisiveness of Gaitan.
The injury to last season’s top scorer Jonas, who bagged an incredible 33 league goals last term, which has seen him only figure in four league games this time round has also had an impact.
But luckily, Benfica’s title rivals have also been struggling to match the heights they hit in last season’s thrilling three-way title race. Jorge Jesus’s Sporting Lisbon are clearly suffering from the summer losses of top scorer Islam Slimani to Leicester and midfield schemer Joao Mario to Inter Milan last summer.
They haven’t really shown enough in the first half of the season to suggest they can overhaul the seven-point gap between them and the champions.
Their struggles see Nuno Espirito Santo’s Porto take over as Benfica’s main challengers this time round, their title tilt founded upon a lock tight defence marshalled by Iker Casillas that has incredibly conceded only 10 goals in their 19 league games!
After Benfica’s surprise Monday night defeat at mid table Vitoria Setubal, there’s now only a point between the top two.
The champions will need to bring their deeper squad and greater title winning experience to bear to see off Porto’s challenge – and the return to fitness of Jonas will be a very welcome boost as they tackle a heavy workload in league, cup and Champions League.
Notably, the Setubal reverse was their second in loss in five days, coming hot on the heels of their surprise League Cup semi-final exit at the hands of little Moreirense last Thursday.
This sudden loss in form will certainly give their opponents hope and suggests that a fourth title in row will have to be earned the hard way.
But earn it and win it they must if the club’s hierarchy want the fans to swallow yet another summer of big money sales at the Benfica market.