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After the weekend’s fixtures, the ‘Eagles’ – who’d looked off the pace in the Portuguese Primeira Liga when the 42-year-old took over as care taker in early January – remained top of the pile on goal difference just ahead of champions Porto. The turnaround in their performances since Lage took charge has been extraordinary.
Thirty-four points from 36 in his first 12 games has seen Benfica overtake a Porto side that had looked strong favourites to retain their title. Up until Lage’s appointment, the Lisbon giants had been drifting under his predecessor.
An indifferent first half of the season had seen Rui Vitoria, who’d won two league titles and both domestic cups in his three-and-a-half-year tenure, leave the club on January 3rd after a disappointing defeat at mid-table Portimonense.
Lage, then reserve team boss, was brought in to hold the fort as Benfica looked for a long-term appointment. But after only two league games in charge, he was, to the surprise of many, confirmed as manager until the end of the season. And then as the wins and eye-catching performances mounted up, his contract was extended to 2023.
The Eagles have soared, scoring 42 goals in those 12 league games – a rate of 3.5 a game, compared to the two of Vitoria’s 15 matches in charge this season. Their form has seen them climb right back into the title race and qualify for the last eight of the Europa League.
Back in August, World Soccer Magazine’s man in Portugal, Tom Kundert (@PortuGoal1), suggested that with the Portuguese ‘Big Three’ having squads of similar quality, the club with the best coach would ultimately win out.
For him, that was Porto and Sergio Conceição. And by mid-January and the midpoint of the season, and with Porto sitting five points clear, he’d seen nothing to cause him to shift his position.
But Benfica’s subsequent resurgence has led to something of a rethink. “At the turn of the year it looked like Porto would run away with it.
You expect a reaction when the coach changes, but the impact Lage has made appears far more sustainable than a mere new manager bounce. Benfica and Porto are neck and neck, but arguably it’s the former who have the momentum.”
According to Kundert, there’s been a notable change in style and in how Lage has used the personnel at his disposal.
“Benfica have been a joy to watch, playing with a consistent, attacking style, even against tough opposition – something Vitoria was reluctant to do. And he’s also given opportunities to all his squad, making his selections based on merit, unlike his predecessor who clearly had his favourites with others seemingly frozen out.”
Lage has been a breath of fresh air, drawing often eyebrow-raising performance levels from his men.
“Swiss striker Haris Seferovic and Portuguese winger Rafa Silva have been completely rejuvenated,” says Kundert.
“But perhaps the players whose improvement has been most striking has been the defensive midfield duo of Gabriel Pires and Andreas Samaris, who are both playing at a level few believed they could reach given their performances before Lage took over.”
That said, the jewel in the crown appears to be the brilliant 19-year-old forward João Félix, whose ten goals and four assists in 19 league appearances has been central to the revival.
In terms of the domestic run-in, Benfica and Porto have very similar workloads. But World Soccer’s man feels that the involvement of both sides in the latter stages of European competition could play a role in the outcome.
“Porto face Liverpool in the Champions League and will be keen to give a better account of themselves than when they faced the same opposition last season, while Benfica play Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League.
Any injuries picked up could prove crucial. On paper Benfica have a better chance of going deeper in Europe, which in theory could actually work against them when it comes to the title race.”
So who does Kundert fancy to win it now? “Ultimately, its too tight to call. I said Porto at the start of the season because of Conceição, but nobody could have predicted that Bruno Lage would become Benfica coach and have such a spectacular impact. This one really is a coin toss!”