Jesus making an impact at Benfica
On June 8 this year, Benfica announced that they would be parting company with coach Quique Sánchez Flores by the old faithful "mutual consent." This was two weeks after the season had finished, two weeks in which the club had gone to the lengths of releasing official statements denying rumours that Flores had been, or was about to be sacked, and a whole month after the Portuguese media had announced Jorge Jesus as Flores' replacement (which Benfica had also vehemently denied).
On June 17, the club announced Jesus as their new head coach and celebrated by going off and buying ten new players before the season started. Plus ça change at the Estádio da Luz, then.
Flores' story was typical of so many Benfica seasons over the last 15 years or so, as a very encouraging start, with the team unbeaten in the league before the winter break, proved to be a false dawn. All the talk of Flores revolutionising the club with his La Liga-exported calm and professionalism was quickly forgotten as Benfica finished 12 points behind the perpetual champions - and their modern day nemesis - FC Porto.
Some said Flores, despite his experience at the helm of volatile Valencia and his distinguished playing career with Real Madrid and Spain, was just too nice. But one of Flores' recent predecessors, José António Camacho was anything but, and he too had failed to restore the 31-time champions to former glories. Roberto Carlos once mocked one of Camacho's furious tirades at his squad of galácticos during his brief 2004 spell in charge at Real Madrid, telling journalists that "if you thump your fist against the table, you just break the table. And it makes your fist hurt." Camacho shrugged, grunted and snorted his way through six months of press conferences, gave opportunities to a few good young players and then slinked off in March 2008, the second of four Benfica managers to occupy the post in a disastrous season.
So it's strange to think today that Benfica really could be entering a new era of stability and success, thanks to the influence of the new coach. The club have only won the title once since 1994, in Giovanni Trapattoni's sole season at the helm in 2005. Unfortunately for Benfiquistas, Trap upped sticks for Stuttgart with his fingerprints still moist on the league trophy, and they've never come close again since.
Jorge Jesus may have nowhere near the trophy haul of his Italian counterpart, but as a Lisbon native the 55-year-old understands the very particular pressure of bossing Portugal's biggest and most popular club. Loathed as he may be to admit it, president Luís Felipe Vieira has taken a leaf out of Porto's book. The northerners appointed Jesualdo Ferreira in 2006, like Jesus an experienced campaigner in Portugal who'd never really had a crack at a top job (save a few short months at Benfica) and who was memorably described by José Mourinho as "an old donkey who's never won anything." What Benfica would give for a dose of Jesualdo's prescription - three successive titles and a Champions League quarter-final.
Jesus' good start has not owed simply to results - his former club Braga lead the table having won all their seven games - but in the style of play that he has so swiftly and successfully imposed on his new charges. Benfica have scored 24 times in their opening seven matches, twice as many as leaders Braga, and since the opening day draw with Marítimo have won six on the bounce. The weekend's 6-0 win at Monsanto in the Portuguese Cup with many of the big guns rested showed this attacking attitude pervades throughout the squad.
Despite their 100% league record on the road, it is Benfica's form at the Luz which has been key thus far - something Everton must heed when they pitch up on Thursday. Rebuilt just a stone's throw from the old Luz for Euro 2004, it's the biggest and most impressive stadium in Portugal, which is why it has been chosen for the home leg of Portugal's World Cup play-off with Bosnia-Herzegovina. This is no soulless Meccano-style new ground. When the home side are playing well, the atmosphere is something to behold, and Jesus' side have already caught the imagination on home turf this season, notably in the 8-1 demolition of Vitória Setúbal and the 5-0 win over Leixões last time out.
It's not just the momentum of support that bodes well for the remainder of the season. Perhaps looking at the club's recent record of getting through coaches at a rate of knots, Jesus has widely elected to create a stable spine in his team. Goalkeeper Quím, central defenders Luisão and David Luíz, midfielders Pablo Aimar and Carlos Martins and top scorer Óscar Cardozo are all in at least their second year at the club, and well disposed to helping the new boys adapt.
Furthermore, the choice of new blood has moved away from the usual scattergun policy of random big names, with practical signings balancing the fantasy ones. Javier Saviola will make the darting runs onto his compatriot Aimar's through passes, and Ramires (eyecatching for Brazil in the Confederations Cup) is already weighing in with goals from midfield, while Javi García is a fine enforcer in the middle of the park and Cesar Peixoto has versatility and Portuguese league experience going for him.
Outflanked in the South American market by Porto and dwarfed in the academy production stakes by less well-off city rivals Sporting, the penny has finally dropped at the Luz that a rethink was necessary. They've even managed to keep Aimar fit enough to earn a recall to Diego Maradona's squad for the recent World Cup qualifiers. Yet having not yet met either of their main domestic rivals, Everton will provide their biggest test of the season so far.