Portugal's Liga reached the halfway stage this weekend with Benefica only a point behind leaders Porto. Indeed had the Aguias (Eagles) not dropped two points away to Belenenses on Friday night, they could have claimed the honorary title of winter champions for the first time in 15 years. With just a single point now separating the country's big three, it promises to be a thrilling conclusion to the season.
Despite last weekend's slip-up, Benfica fans are optimistic that 2009 will see them top the standings for the first time since 2005. And while their midpoint tally of eight wins, six draws and one defeat (the fewest number of games lost by any side) is not vastly different from that of previous years, there is a tangible feeling at the club that things are different this season.
"When a team haven't won anything for a long time, they can become comfortable with losing, which is the worst possible thing that can happen," Benfica coach Quique Sanchez Flores said in the press a few days ago. For the Spanish coach, breaking that losing habit could prove his biggest challenge at a club that has only claimed one league title, one Portuguese Cup and one Supercup in the last ten years.
A work in progress
This latest era at the Lisbon side began last summer when Sanchez Flores took up the reins at the Estadio da Luz. The stakes were high for the Spaniard, with club legend Rui Costa having just retired and his two main signings, Jose Antonio Reyes and Pablo Aimar, needing to prove themselves after difficult spells at their previous clubs. The Argentinian's performances thus far have been well received by his coach, who said: "The only thing he needs to do now is create more goalscoring chances."
However, Sanchez Flores has been less satisfied with his compatriot Reyes, who, after a promising start to his Portuguese adventure, has lost momentum of late. True to his style, the coach left his squad in no doubt as to what he expects of them, warning recently: "Anyone who doesn't give the maximum doesn't play, as at Benfica it's about total commitment, not half-measures."
Not even the club's rising star, Argentinian winger Angel Di Maria, is treated differently. While recognising his great potential and protecting him, the coach nevertheless demands utter professionalism from him and insists he still has much to learn.
I'm a coach who rebuilds teams. I feel I've been making up lost ground my entire career.
Though clearly disappointed with their early elimination from this year's UEFA Cup, Benfica should now be able to focus entirely on the league. That said, when he spoke to the press recently the coach was putting greater emphasis on creating a team capable of sustained growth.
"I'm a coach who rebuilds teams. I feel I've been making up lost ground my entire career. I went to Getafe and kept them in the Primera Division, where they'd never been before. Then at Valencia I rebuilt a side that hadn't qualified for Europe, before coming here to Benfica to reconstruct a team that failed to qualify for the Champions League last season," he said.
Integral to this medium-to-long-term project is the coach's desire to utilise the pick of the club's youth academy. The staff in charge of the young sides have been greatly impressed with Sanchez Flores' philosophy in this regard and have seen their charges frequently called up for training and practice games with the first team. This practice has also enabled the coach to personally familiarise himself with the players best equipped to bolster his squad.
Dragons to slay
As Benfica go about their rebuilding, defending champions Porto are once again setting the pace in the league thanks in no small part to a pair of in-form Argentinians, Lucho Gonzalez and Lisandro Lopez. Since signing for the Dragões in 2005, the former has picked up a league winners' medal every year, racking up 140 appearances and winning over critics and fans alike with his goals, assists and all-round contribution from midfield.
His compatriot Lisandro has also been thriving in recent times with the Blue-and-Whites, even catching the eye of Argentina coach Diego Maradona. His 24 goals last season demonstrated how well he has adapted to the Liga Sagres, and the striker has every reason to be optimistic of a recall to the Albiceleste.
However, the chase for league honours in 2009 is far from a two-horse race. Level on points with Benfica are Sporting Lisbon, the third member of the country's traditional big three, while just three points further back are this year's surprise side Leixoes. The Porto-based club have defied all the experts by keeping pace with the big guns and now have lofty ambitions for the season.
With so little separating the traditional powerhouses and some aspiring lesser lights also in the mix, it is sure to be an enthralling second half of the season in Portugal.