Pressure growing on Benfica boss Rui Vitoria

Colin Millar by Colin Millar / 05 October 2017, 09:06

Sunday’s clash between Sporting CP and Porto was the centre of attention in Portugal; not only was this the first meeting between two of the Portuguese ‘Big Three’ this season but for the first time in many years this was a genuine title clash. The last time both clubs occupied the top two positions was in 2009, while Sporting haven’t lifted the Primeira Liga title in 15 long years.

Indeed, Benfica have won the previous four titles on the trot as the balance of power shifted south to Lisbon after Porto’s previous hegemony - The Dragons had triumphed in nine of the previous 11 campaigns.

Many thought the power shift would happen in 2015, when the Portuguese football world was rocked by charismatic manager Jorge Jesus walking out of Benfica - having won two consecutive league titles - to join fierce cross-town rivals Sporting.

Jesus was replaced by Rui Vitoria who had impressed in managerial stints at Pacos de Ferreira and Vitoria de Guimaraes. Two years earlier, he won the latter club’s first ever major trophy with a famous defeat of Benfica in the final.

Despite concerns that the relatively inexperienced tactician would take time to settle, Victoria guided his side to a third consecutive league title and broke a series of records in the process. The team set a new record points total (88) for the 18-team league. The club also impressed in Europe, reaching the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League and added their seventh Taca da Liga trophy. Unsurprisingly, Victoria was named as the season’s best coach.

The second season saw more records tumble: the club recorded a national record 15 consecutive league triumphs on the road, retained the Primera Liga title while also adding the Super Cup and Taca de Portugal. The club’s fourth consecutive league title, the ‘tetra’, was significantly the first in their illustrious history while there was more success in Europe - they reached the last 16 of the Champions League in successive years for the first time ever.

Benfica only knew success under Vitoria and in April they handed him a renewed two-year contract and four months later another title was landed. By beating his old side Vitoria de Guimares in the Super Cup, the club had won 12 of the 16 domestic trophies available in four seasons.

The target for the current season was clear; to become only the second Portuguese club since Porto (1995-99) to win five domestic titles on the bounce while continuing to perform on the European stage. However, mutterings of concern had already begun before the season started as the club’s precarious financial situation once again dominated the transfer market.

Goalkeeper Ederson and highly-rated defenders Nelson Semedo and Victor Lindelhof left the club for a combined fee in excess of ¤100m, while Konstantinos Mitroglou - the previous season’s top scorer - joined Marseille for ¤15m. In little over 24 months at the helm, Victoria could only watch as Joao Cancelo, Andre Gomes, Talisca, Goncalo Guedes, Maxi Pereira Nicolas Gaitan and Renato Sanches were among the stars to depart from Estadio da Luz.

“Until we have control over the debt, we will not stop selling,” club president Luis Filipe Vieira stated in June.

“One can mortgage a title, but not the club's future.”

Portuguese clubs are accustomed to selling their stars to more cash-loaded European rivals but unlike previous seasons, both Sporting and Porto now possess settled squads while both are hungry for the title. Despite recuperating over ¤130m in sales, the ¤3m arrival of Croatian midfielder Filip Krovinovic was Benfica’s biggest summer outlay.

Gaps are staring to appear and the Lisbon giants are appearing increasingly vulnerable. Victoria has rotated key defensive positions - summer signing Bruno Valera has competed with veteran goalkeeper Julio Cesar to replaced Ederson, while the preferred Brazilian central defensive partnership of Jardel and Luisao now has a combined age of 67.

Star forward Jonas - 94 goals in 120 club appearances - has been increasingly restricted by injuries in the past twelve months while Mexican striker Raul Jimenez and summer arrival Haris Seferovic have struggled to impress. Winger Eduardo Salvio adds creative spark but compared to previous Benfica sides this is one often short on ideas and imagination.

Loan arrivals Douglas and Gabriel Barbosa - cast-offs from Benfica and Inter Milan - have failed to settle while Vitoria too has struggled, not just on player rotation but frequently altering between a standard 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1 formation.

The pressure is now growing on him for the first time during his tenure in the Portuguese capital and he is swiftly finding this is a club who will not tolerate failure. They may have drawn a sigh of relief after Sporting and Porto cancelled each other out on Sunday but they followed it up with an uninspired 1-1 draw at Maritimo. They lie five points off the pace already and that is a significant early lead in Portuguese terms.

Equally as alarming has been their disastrous start in European competition, a deeply disappointing 2-1 home defeat at CSKA Moscow was followed by a shock 5-0 thrashing in Basel.

With only one win in six from all competitions Benfica and particularly Vitoria are fast approaching crisis point. Four more Champions League games alongside a Derby de Lisboa and trips to Guimares and Porto await before Christmas, by which time the board’s patience may well have run out.

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