After several injury-plagued campaigns and the heartbreak of last season's relegation with Real Zaragoza, a smile is finally back on the face of Pablo Aimar. The former Valencia and River Plate star is thriving since his move to Lisbon giants Benfica, and is even eyeing a return to the national team set-up under new coach Diego Maradona.
Though they are struggling on the European front, the latest setback coming in the shape of a 5-1 UEFA Cup Group B defeat against Olympiacos on Thursday, Ás Águias (The Eagles) are currently flying high in second place in the Portuguese top flight, just one point behind surprise early leaders Leixoes. Under Spanish coach Quique Sanchez Flores, Benfica appear to be made of sterner stuff than in recent league campaigns, with Aimar providing the flair in the No10 shirt previously worn by club legend and current sporting director Rui Costa.
"Flores is a great coach, with a huge desire to work hard and achieve things with Benfica," says the player known fondly as El Payasito (The Little Clown), who was a two-time La Liga champion with Valencia. "Benfica are a huge club, as big as I'd expected, perhaps even bigger on a global scale. I'd love to win something with them."
Aimar also claims to have put the injury problems that have hampered his career behind him, rejecting the suggestion that at 29 he is past his peak. "[Physically] I'm fine now," says the player, who has appeared in six of Benfica's nine league matches thus far. "I'm very pleased to have come here. It's always better to play for a big club like this, and that's why I've no regrets about the move, quite the opposite in fact."
Though yet to find the net for his new employers, Aimar's magical assist for team-mate David Suazo in his side's 2-1 away win at Vitoria Guimaraes on 2 November is already the stuff of YouTube legend. Reacting to a loose ball in midfield, Aimar wrapped his right foot round the back of his left leg to deliver a raking first-time ball into Suazo's path - the former Inter Milan front-man racing clear of two defenders before firing home.
Nor has Aimar given up on adding to his 51 senior caps for Argentina. "I'd do anything to play for the national team again but it's a privilege you have to earn," he says. "Maradona is my idol, like he is for every Argentinian." The gifted creator and ardent River Plate fan also had words of praise for a fellow countryman who is also plying his trade on Portuguese soil. "For me, Lucho Gonzalez is the best player in Portugal," says Aimar of the FC Porto midfield dynamo.
A huge admirer of iconic Uruguayan forward Enzo Francescoli, another player blessed with the skill and imagination to open up opposing defences, Aimar is thoroughly enjoying his role in Sanchez Flores' tactical system. "I really enjoy playing in the hole behind the strikers," he says. "And I've been doing that since I came here, so I'm very happy." With their side already five points clear of city rivals Sporting Lisbon and seven ahead of serial title winners Porto, so too are the Benfica faithful.