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Jan 8, 2012

Divergent fortunes for Benfica duo

The influence of South American players in Portugal is strong. In Saturday night's clássico between Sporting and Porto, 17 of the 22 starters were born outside Portugal, including 12 South Americans. In the words of Portuguese sports daily O Jogo, it will be the "most foreign" clássico in the last 15 years, since limits on overseas players in the Liga were abolished.

The story is the same across Lisbon at Benfica. Six South Americans started Tuesday's 4-1 League Cup win at Vitoria Guimaraes with two more - Bruno Cesar and Oscar Cardozo - coming on at the interval. Cardozo swung the game decisively in Benfica's favour, scoring twice and creating another for former Bolton loanee Rodrigo.

Nothing unusual in that, you might think. After all, Cardozo is now the scorer of 117 goals in 192 matches since arriving in Portugal from Newell's Old Boys in summer 2007. Yet while his fellow South American Nicolas Gaitan is flourishing amid speculation of a forthcoming move to Manchester United, Cardozo's star appears to be on the wane.

Coach Jorge Jesus' surprise decision to start the relatively inexperienced (but more mobile) Rodrigo in Cardozo's stead for October's crucial Champions League win away to Basel paid dividends, and the Paraguayan's status has been diminished ever since.

The apex of Cardozo's spell in Portugal was at the spearhead of Benfica's 2009-10 vintage, an exhilarating, all-out attacking side brought together by Jesus, and one which scored a stunning 124 times in all competitions. Cardozo hit 38 of those.

It was in that season that he was Europa League top scorer, with ten. Before the 2009 Champions League final, you may remember some misguided English pundits taunting Lionel Messi with the anomaly that he had never scored against a Premier League side. Cardozo never had that problem. He scored a hat-trick in a 5-0 demolition of Everton before putting two past Liverpool in Lisbon. Of Cardozo's 23 European goals, eight have come against English sides.

Yet despite his scoring exploits, the Benfica supporters have never completely taken Cardozo to their hearts. He has endured an often-testy relationship with the Luz faithful, and has frequently been the target of boos and whistles. After scoring in last season's Champions League win over Hapoel Tel Aviv, the striker turned to the Benfica ultras behind the goal and pressed his index finger against pursed lips - a reaction that was met by a hail of whistles around the stadium. Cardozo was forced to apologise, but had another angry exchange with fans later in the competition after defeat to Schalke.

One wonders if his very gait provokes. A towering 6' 3.5" (192cm), Cardozo is no target man, but a languid technician. He has a deft left foot, and is masterful from set-pieces. Yet when the radar is off-kilter, effortless begins to look lackadaisical in the blink of an eye.

The extent of his pedigree has also been thrown into question by his relative impotence at international level, where he has scored just eight times in 41 appearances for Paraguay. The iconic moment of his efforts for his country is a bitter one too, after he missed the penalty against Spain in Johannesburg that could have taken his side to the World Cup semi-finals at the expense of the eventual winners.

This season's change from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1 is a palpable leap of faith for Jesus but has been a success, and while it has lessened the need for Cardozo, it has freed Gaitan to become the player he has always threatened to be. Signed in the summer of 2010 on the back of that glorious title season, Gaitan arrived from Boca Juniors as a nominal replacement for Angel Di Maria, sold to Real Madrid after a splendid season on the left-wing in partnership with left-back Fabio Coentrão.

It quickly became apparent that the two Argentinians were quite different players. Di Maria uses his control and speed to make defenders commit, while Gaitan's exceptional range of passing tends to favour early delivery, such as the delicious sweeping crossfield pass which created Cardozo's goal against Manchester United at the Luz in September.

Trained as a more classical playmaker, the slightly-built Gaitan adapted slowly to his new role, and his momentum was further broken by the receipt of a foolish red card in the Champions League defeat to Lyon, which arguably cost his side the match. He came back well though, scoring nine times and giving nine more assists, and provided reason for optimism at the end of a demoralising season against André Villas-Boas' relentless Porto side.

In this campaign Gaitan has developed further still, with Jesus' tactical switch giving the Argentinian a solid base (of the largely deep-lying pair Javi Garcia and Axel Witsel) to work from. This has allowed him the freedom to drift onto either wing or into the centre behind the lone forward. Gaitan's sparkling form in this season's Champions League saw him finish the group stage as the competition's top assist provider.

Gaitan's October signing of a contract extension to 2015 bumped up his release clause to €45m (£37m), while Cardozo's stands at a whopping €60m (£49.5m). In the latter's case, it is clear Benfica would be willing to do business at a considerably lower figure - though the player himself told Record earlier this week that "I don't want to leave Benfica."

Having been linked with a switch to the Premier League in the past, Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev have been mentioned more recently; something more realistic given the inflated sums involved in any potential deal. Cardozo will be 29 in May, and the feeling that he has missed the boat to move up a sporting level is becoming overwhelming.

The same cannot be said of Gaitan. As with most modern contracts, the Argentinian's new deal is more of a tidy pay rise for player and safeguard for club rather than a commitment of lifelong fidelity. After years of profligacy Benfica have become canny in the market, extracting maximum value from Chelsea and Real Madrid for David Luiz and Coentrão respectively. Few would bet against Gaitan treading the same path.

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