“We should be focusing on the derby, not wasting time with this,” Benfica’s players insisted.
It was late December and manager Jorge Jesus had gathered his squad at Estadio da Luz in Lisbon to discuss things that had been said in the dressing room following the 3-0 defeat by Porto in the Portuguese Cup.
Jesus had missed that game because of suspension, but was told that one of the team’s captains, Pizzi, had insulted him and so asked the veteran midfielder to repeat what he had said, word for word.
Pizzi denied having offended him. Jesus didn’t believe it and announced the midfielder would no longer be training with the first team.
As the 67-year-old coach left the room, the rest of the squad talked for a minute and came to a quick decision: if Pizzi was left out of the session, they wouldn’t train either.
There was no turning back – it was Jesus versus the players.
Within 48 hours Jesus was on his way out of the Portuguese giants. It could have been a turning point for them – it wasn’t.
A day later Benfica played Porto again, and were only four points behind their northern rivals back then. As they prepare to host Liverpool on Tuesday in the Champions League quarter-finals, they are 15 points off the top and out of the league title race for another year.
It comes as no surprise, though, that a season which started with Luis Filipe Vieira – club president since 2003 – being put under house arrest has come to this. He subsequently resigned for alleged tax fraud and money laundering, though as yet there has been no conviction and his lawyers deny the allegations.
The question being asked now is a different one: how on earth has a team that went through all this and couldn’t even beat the likes of Vizela and Gil Vicente come so far in the Champions League?
- Darwin Nunez – the Benfica striker recommended by Luis Suarez
‘It’s time to get rid of any pressure’
Over the past few months, leaked conversations revealing, for instance, that Jose Mourinho pushed for Benfica to appoint Laurent Blanc instead of Jesus as manager have made the headlines nearly every day in Portugal.
They are part of audio recordings made by public prosecutors while investigating Vieira and his closest partners, and have disclosed much of the club’s business.
With so much off-the-pitch noise, it’s hard to think of a scenario where Benfica could have stayed focused on football.
“It’s only natural that the players end up being affected by it, too,” former Benfica, Tottenham and Portsmouth centre-back Ricardo Rocha told BBC Sport.
“Although many of these problems are not game related, they certainly make it much more complicated for the team to achieve its goals. And this is a team that is expected to fight for every trophy. But then again, it’s much more difficult to do that when you have so much trouble surrounding the club structure.
“They’ve had presidential elections, a new president [Portugal legend Rui Costa] and a new coach [Nelson Verissimo, who was previously in charge of the reserves]. These things obviously affect your daily routine and this is clear by the way the team has been performing in the Portuguese league – they are not in the position they wanted.
“Since Verissimo took over, however, he has managed to unite the players and, having reached the quarter-finals in the Champions League, it’s now the time for them to get rid of any pressure and play their football against Liverpool.”
Will 2006 win over Liverpool be repeated?
While struggling for most of the domestic season, Benfica’s best moments have come in the Champions League: beating PSV Eindhoven in the play-offs, Barcelona in the group stage and Ajax in the last 16.
It’s much more than they could have hoped for, but they want to keep their European adventure going.
If they do so, they will have emulated Rocha and his team-mates, who caused a major upset by knocking Liverpool out of the Champions League last 16 in 2006.
“I’d say Liverpool are even stronger now, but back then they were the title holders and also a very difficult side to play against,” Rocha said. “It didn’t stop us from believing we could still go ahead and so we went on to beat them in both matches. This is the mentality for games like these.”
Throughout this campaign, Benfica have looked far more comfortable defending compared with when they have had to take control of games.
Perhaps that is key to understanding why they find themselves among Europe’s eight best clubs, but couldn’t impose themselves against Braga in the league on Friday, losing 3-2.
Benfica must “expose Liverpool’s weak points” on Tuesday night, said Rocha, and that top scorer Darwin Nunez – with 27 goals and three assists this season – and defensive duo Jan Vertonghen and Nicolas Otamendi will be “absolutely crucial” for them.
“The whole team will have to be at their level if they are to keep dreaming,” he added.
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