By Luis Mira | Portuguese Football Editor
"Winning the League Cup will not salvage the season." Jorge Jesus' remarks prior to Saturday’s cup final victory over Gil Vicente reflected just how thin the ice he is skating on has become in recent weeks. The 2-1 win, courtesy of Rodrigo and Javier Saviola, has provided little reprieve to the 57-year-old coach.
The four points that separate Benfica and leaders Porto in the Portuguese Liga mean that this will most likely be the only silverware that Jesus’ side will claim this season. And if winning just this one trophy seemed insufficient in 2010-11, it looks all the more frustrating this term as they have come unstuck against a much weaker Porto side compared to the one led by Andre Villas-Boas.
Since arriving at the Estadio da Luz in 2009, Jesus has helped Benfica win four titles: one Portuguese Liga and three League Cups. But if giving the club their first domestic championship in five years earned the coach much praise, the same cannot be said of the success in the cup competition, which continues to be the least prestigious tournament in the country.
|BIG-MONEY SALES UNDER JESUS
Angel Di Maria
One thing, however, is undeniable: the former Sporting Braga coach has made the team play in a completely new style. He took over from Quique Sanchez Flores, who was heavily criticised for his time at the club, and introduced a vibrant attacking approach, with high tempo and intense pressure from the moment his players lost the ball. The changes saw Benfica secure an impressive +58 goal difference (opposed to Flores' +30) and Jesus earned rave reviews for his work with the team.
But by the time the season was over, everyone had become familiar with Benfica's new weapon, and the inability to change the way the team was built has proved costly. The fact is that Jesus' side have never been rock-solid in defence, not even in his first season at the club. Benfica's opponents were simply forced to play in their own half to avoid being slaughtered by a team they had no answers against. But when the attack stopped becoming a potent threat, the defensive frailties became much more noticeable.
What no one can deny is Jesus' role in developing young players: under him, the club have made over €100 million in transfers, and with the team looking likely to win just one title this season, players like Nicolas Gaitan and Javi Garcia will remain heavily linked with big-money departures.
But that seems to mean little after a season in which Benfica showed insignificant improvements, and spurned a five-point lead at the top of the table. As the campaign approached its crucial stage, Benfica dropped eight points in three matches, and that allowed Porto to leapfrog them to the summit of the league. At the same time, Jesus lost tactical battles against Porto, Sporting Lisbon and Chelsea, all of which has caused fans to question if he still has the right qualifications to remain in charge of the team.
With his contract due to expire only in 2013, Benfica president Luis Filipe Vieira will certainly consider all options before deciding whether to sack the 57-year-old. Paulo Bento, whose contract with the Portugal national team runs out after Euro 2012, and Braga coach Leonardo Jardim have been suggested as possible candidates to take over at the helm. But Vieira will have to keep one thing in mind: Porto, too, are expected to make a coaching change in the summer after Vitor Pereira's disappointing debut campaign, and president Pinto da Costa is a confessed admirer of Jesus.
The fear of inadvertently strengthening Porto will certainly give the Benfica chief some food for thought in the pre-season.
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