It may be tough to reach the top, but staying there can certainly be even more difficult. Rampant victors of the Portuguese league title race in 2009/10, Lisbon giants Benfica have found the going much harder this campaign, particularly after defeats in three of their four opening games.
The big-money departures of Argentina winger Angel Di Maria and Brazil midfielder Ramires, to Real Madrid and Chelsea respectively, as well as an injury to prolific Paraguay striker Oscar Cardozo, were decisive in this sluggish start. Now though, As Águias appear to have turned things around.
Sometimes you have to hit rock-bottom before you can bounce back, and for Os Encarnados that low point came on Matchday 10 of the 2010/11 Liga Sagres. Hammered 5-0 away to arch-rivals FC Porto, who remain unbeaten and in first place, a lesser side might have continued to slide down the standings.
Not Benfica. Jorge Jesus’ charges rolled up their sleeves after that humiliation in the Estadio Dragao and have gone on to win all their games in domestic competition since. And though this sparkling run was offset by two UEFA Champions League group defeats that ended their stay in the competition, As Águias are once again showing the consistency and thrust that was so much in evidence last term.
An integral figure in this revival has been 20-year-old Argentinian Eduardo Salvio, who arrived in Lisbon last summer on loan from Atletico Madrid, charged with the weighty task of replacing hard-running Brazilian Ramires. The early stages of his time at the Estadio da Luz offered precious few glimpses of the versatile attacker’s ability, but both player and team gradually found their groove and have now won back the supporters’ faith.
On a run of 11 consecutive victories - spanning the league, Portuguese Cup and Portuguese League Cup - since that crushing loss in Porto, Benfica are in buoyant mood, even though retaining their title still looks a long shot given Os Dragões’ eight-point lead. It is performances like Salvio’s in the clash with Rio Ave on Matchday 14 that have been crucial to this renewed confidence. The diminutive Argentinian scored two and created one in a 5-2 home success that day, and a further three goals have followed in a series of sparkling displays. Unsurprisingly, Salvio has nailed down the club’s right-midfield berth in the process.
‘Toto’, as he has been known since his time at first club Lanus, is clearly a player whose vast potential remains largely untapped. Nonetheless, he has supplied a welcome dose of unpredictability and drive to Benfica’s attack, where team-mates Javier Saviola and Cardozo also appear to have rediscovered last season’s lethal form.
“I’m extremely pleased with how he’s come on, because he’s also helped the team improve,” said coach Jesus. “Salvio didn’t get much playing time at Atletico Madrid, so we’ve worked with him and taught him some things about the game that he didn’t know before. He’s starting to fulfil his potential, he’s a good professional and a lad with a very good spirit.”
Though the Benfica boss would surely love to keep him, Salvio’s next move remains unclear once his loan deal expires and he returns to Atletico at the end of the season. Whatever happens, As Águias can have no complaints about the young man’s commitment or contribution, while the player himself will hope to continue his upward progression after acquitting himself so well at a top European club.