Meet Gelson Martins, the Liverpool target who adored Robinho
There are two teams called Benfica in Lisbon. One is SL Benfica, the Portuguese champions famous around the globe. The other is CF Benfica, a tiny club established about three decades later in 1933, known locally as Fofo and totally unrelated to the Eagles.
If fact, CF could claim to be the true bearers of the name, because they are actually situated in the Benfica district. It is a relatively poor area, heavily populated by immigrants, and thus CF Benfica offer an opportunity to the kids who polish their football skills playing on the street. The best of them was Gelson Martins, the Sporting Lisbon star currently linked to a potential transfer to Liverpool.
CF Benfica nurtured Martins, whose family came to Portugal from Cape Verde when he was eight. They noticed the immense potential of a shy boy, gave him freedom to express himself and persuaded him not to leave and play futsal academy when he wanted to.
A couple of years later, the two big clubs from the capital noticed him and sent scouts to follow his progress. Sporting were quicker than SL Benfica to offer a deal, which could turn out to be one of the best in their history -- they acquired the 15-year-old Martins for just €1,000 back in 2010.
To be precise, the sum had eventually grown to €33,000 after the winger made it to the first-team squad and played in Primeira Liga, but now Sporting value him at €60 million. However, CF Benfica are not only proud to see their graduate starring for the national team, but also waiting quite impatiently for the big move. They are entitled to get 1 percent of the fee, which is going to be a huge fortune by the club's standards. It might be a reason why Fofo president Domingos Estanislau is trying to make some headlines. "Gelson is going to be the new Cristiano Ronaldo," he claimed last year.
Such a comparison might sound heartwarming to Liverpool fans, who would love to have their own Cristiano, but it is not realistic. Both are right-footed wingers who started their careers at Sporting and are blessed with breathtaking ball control at speed, but that is where the similarities end. Martins had never likened himself to the national team captain, but is much closer in style to his true longtime idol -- Robinho.
When Martins played at the European Under-19 Championships in 2014, where Portugal reached the final, he was nicknamed "the Portuguese Robinho" in the press and was interviewed about his early days in Cape Verde. "I watched him on TV and tried to imitate every gesture and every touch. I wanted to be quick like him," the youngster said about the Brazilian.
Curiously, Martins was not always positioned in attack those days. His last coach at Sporting's academy preferred to use him as a right-back in order to take advantage of his speed and cover the whole flank (as Martins used to be a runner as a kid). That was not a bad idea: the player learned a lot about tackling and positioning, and those skills make him a more versatile performer now. But he never felt comfortable so far from the opponents' penalty area. Martins' pure instinct is to take on defenders, and that makes him a great player to watch. Sporting fans fell in love with him immediately when he was promoted to the first team in 2015.
Lucky for him, that was the year Jorge Jesus joined the club from SL Benfica. The veteran coach had admired Martins' talents ever since watching him at the Under-20 World Cup in New Zealand in 2014. The prodigy was gradually introduced in his first season, and was ready to become an undisputed starter in 2016-17. In fact, he stole the headlines on his full Champions League debut, which (somewhat symbolically) took place against Cristiano Ronaldo.
The superstar scored a late equaliser, and Real Madrid completed a magical comeback to win 2-1 in injury time, but the game mostly belonged to Martins who ran riot on the wing, sliding past Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Casemiro as though they were amateurs. It was a stunning performance, arguably the best of his career so far, but one must notice that it didn't result in any goals or assists.
That was -- and still is -- Martins' most significant flaw. He is not the finished article, and should become much more effective and clinical in the future. While he definitely can't be considered a selfish player, his decision making is far from perfect. The 22-year-old tends to dribble too much at times when the early cross might appear to be a better option.
Last term, Martins was Sporting's main source of creativity, and he finished the season with six goals and nine assists. Working under Jesus is a blessing because the coach gives him confidence and helps him to improve. That is the major reason behind the fact that 2017-18 is Martins' best season so far: he's scored five league goals already, including the all-important strike that nearly brought the Lions a derby win at SL Benfica before they conceded an injury-time equaliser.
"Gelson is one of the best players I've seen the Portuguese league in recent years," Sport TV commentator Luis Catarino told ESPN FC. "There are few wingers who offer such a combination of speed, intelligence, consistency and technique. He's got the power to destroy any defender in the world and his self-confidence is unshakable.
"This season he is even better because Jesus made him more versatile. Sometimes he looks for the ball in more central areas,"
As Liverpool consider signing him, they should take into account that Martins is hardly able to play on both wings like Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane, because his left foot is much weaker. However, his skills should make him a useful squad player, one who is dedicated and known as a good listener. Jurgen Klopp could help him to reach new heights.
Robinho didn't really like his time in the Premier League at Manchester City. It would be interesting to see whether his self-proclaimed heir is about to do better.
Michael Yokhin is an experienced international football journalist who writes for ESPN, Blizzard, Guardian and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @yokhin.