The Second Coming? Jorge Jesus in line for sensational Benfica return

Colin Millar by Colin Millar / 30 November 2018, 09:54

The Portuguese top flight does not usually garner the same attention in mainstream media as other leading European nations.

It is viewed as lacking competitiveness and being dominated by three clubs – Lisbon duo Benfica and Sporting CP, alongside FC Porto – whose resources far exceed their rivals.

Only twice in the league’s 83-year history has a side outside of the trio lifted the title while even Sporting have not been champions since 2002.

Yet there is a tangible, almost unrecognisable, sense of turbulence and flux this year leaving the status quo looking increasingly uneasy and vulnerable.

The summer headlines were dominated to the crisis unfolding at Sporting CP, where a number of star players sought to cancel their contracts at the club following an attack at the club’s training ground.

The Taça de Portugal, the nation’s main cup competition, has been won by seven different sides in the past eight years with two of those, Vitória de Guimarães in 2013 and Desportivo das Aves in May, lifting the tournament for the first time.

Three of the league’s top four are the usual suspects but a little deeper digging suggests the established order is under a genuine threat.

Benfica lie fourth and a month ago lost back-to-back league matches – against Belenenses and Moreirense, who had never before beaten the Eagles in the Primeira – for the first time since April 2011. It was so long ago that the second team who beat them, Naval 1º de Maio, no longer exist. Only a matter of weeks prior to that, they were held at Chaves – currently bottom of the 18-team league.

The balance of power in Portugal has tangibly shifted north. Porto lifted the league title last season to prevent Benfica winning their fifth in succession – particularly significant as this has only been done once before, by Porto, between 1995 and 1999 – and Sergio Conceicao’s side sit clear at the top this time round and have progressed serenely into the last 16 of the Champions League for the second successive campaign.

This again contrasts with Rui Vitoria’s Benfica, who crashed to a 5-1 defeat in Bayern Munich this week and have been eliminated from the competition, with Ajax also progressing.

Their sole victory came against AEK Athens and whilst this represents an improvement on last year – losing all six games and losing just once – a return to the demanding schedule of the Europa League in February is not what Benfiquistas wanted.

The pressure has been ranked up on the under-fire boss Vitoria with reports of a mid-season sacking intensifying following Tuesday’s thrashing in Munich.

Benfica have subsequently confirmed a board meeting was held on Thursday to make a decision on the future of the coach. President Luís Filipe Vieira has subsequently confirmed that Vitoria will be retained, but the fact the boss did not take training – with the squad instead focused solely on gym work – coupled with the widespread reports of dissatisfaction at the highest level suggest it is only a matter of time.

The man waiting in the wings is the one whom Vitoria replaced at Benfica in 2015: Jorge Jesus.

The charismatic boss rocked Portuguese football three years ago when swapping the club – whom he had guided to two consecutive titles – to join crosstown rivals Sporting.

Despite enjoying an impressive 64%-win rate at Los Leões, his only title was the Taça da Liga (League Cup) and he left Portuguese football in summer following the club’s training ground attack and subsequent shock cup final loss to Aves.

Jesus, who had been managing in Portuguese football for 28 years and just shy of 1,000 matches, somewhat surprisingly joined Saudi Arabian club Al-Hilal in June.

Yet reports in the Portuguese press report that, ‘after fulfilling his six-month obligation’ to the Asian club, he is now keen to return to his native country.

As rumours of his exit from Arabia gather pace, it makes the position of Vitoria looks even more tenuous. There have been suggestions that Benfica have been considering instilling B team boss Bruno Lage as temporary coach before appointing Jesus upon his return at the end of the year.

 

Vitoria now faces a do-or-die December with testing league trips to Madeira-based Maritimo and Vitória Guimarães, who are challenging for Europe, before entertaining surprise-package Braga – who currently sit third – just two days before Christmas.

When winning the league last season, Porto dropped just 14 points and Benfica are already just four points shy of equaling this. Despite Thursday’s vote of confidence, it appears increasingly unlikely that Vitoria will still be at the helm come May.

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