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Braga challenging Benfica revival

Sitting five points clear of the chasing pack at the top of the Portuguese league, Braga and Benfica could be forgiven for a moment of quiet contemplation as they assess the situation they currently find themselves in.

Benfica, buoyed by their Europa League successes, look more than capable of picking up their first league trophy since 2004 after a summer of transfer activity that has reinvigorated their side. Yet having won all of their first seven matches (beating perennial Portuguese champions FC Porto into the bargain), Braga are no longer seen as a surprise team after years of consistent performances in the league - although their position is still unusual given they have never won the title in their long history.

For the established order of Portugal, though, Braga's success represents a something of a shock. The summer upheavals at Porto have weakened the champions' side and it will take time for their new arrivals to gel, while the league's other giant, Sporting Lisbon, sacked coach Paulo Bento after a run of results that has seen them drop to 8th position and fail to pick up a win since September.

With the foundations shaking, Braga and the more established Benfica have taken the initiative and the reason for their success lies in the hands of Jorge Jesus. The 55-year-old manager left Braga in the summer to join Benfica and the impact of his departure has been immediate (on both sides).

Under the new leadership of former Porto stalwart Domingos Paciência, Braga stormed to the top of the league with an unbeaten start - even beating Benfica 2-0 - before eventually losing their first game last weekend to Vitoria de Guimaraes in a fiery Minho derby.

Rising to become a force in the league since the start of the decade, Braga have established themselves as one of the most consistent sides in the division with a series of top-six finishes that has seen them qualify for Europe with regularity, but now they are laying a claim to become only the third team after Boavista and Belenenses to win the league outside the 'big three'.

During his year in charge, Jesus certainly did not build the Braga side to what they are now, as Jesualdo Ferreira and Jorge Costa had laid the foundations, but his exit allowed Paciência to build on his successes and take them to the next level. Without the likes of Luis Aguiar, Cesar Peixoto and Renteria, the side have been forced to reassess, but they have been boosted by the fact that players like Alan, Meyong, Mossoro and new arrival Hugo Viana have stepped to the fore.

Brazilians Alan and Mossoro have been particularly impressive, but Viana's rise gets most of the headlines because of the failures he has had after high-profile moves to Newcastle and Valencia. Currently on loan from the Mestalla, his rocket of a free-kick helped Braga to beat Benfica and he has contributed four goals and two assists to the cause this season, while reinvigorating a career that many thought had faded from view.

Paciência can claim the credit for making the 26-year-old the lynchpin of Braga's attacking play and, in the wake of Jesus' departure, he has also brought fearlessness to the club - a rare trait for a side of their stature in such a heavyweight league.

Ahead of the Benfica game, he said: ''For many, it is unthinkable that we are both in the positions we are in, but we are confident, optimistic and will approach this match in a serious manner. Braga will look to be the team that it has been. We will play to win. We will not change our identity and our principles because the game is against Benfica. I understand that Benfica have been very good, but this will not alter my way of thinking or of my players. Every time I faced big teams, I never abandoned my way of thinking or my style of football."

But while Paciência continues to impress, it will be with mixed feelings that Jesus looks at his former side and, most importantly, the league table (as it is only separated at the top by the clubs' head-to-head record).

For his current side, Jesus has instilled an attacking philosophy that has seen Benfica net 31 goals in their opening ten matches. With a strong spine throughout the side, goalkeeper Quím, central defenders Luisão and David Luíz, midfielders Pablo Aimar and Carlos Martins and top scorer Óscar Cardozo have proven to be a vital part of their success, with the talents of Angel Di Maria, Javi Garcia and Fabio Coentra also attracting attention from some of Europe's elite.

Jesus will do well to hold on to the trio, with interest from Chelsea and Manchester City appearing to draw the eye, but if he fails to persuade them that their long-term futures lie in the Portuguese league then, come January, Braga may find themselves in an even better position.

Furthermore, Braga do not have the distraction of the Europa League (having been knocked out in the early stages by Elfsborg), but while Benfica have used the competition to assert their authority on some of Europe's lesser elite - as Everton found to their cost when they were soundly beaten in successive games - the further they progress, the more likely they are to stutter domestically as the games begin to pile up.

Privately, though, Jesus may not believe that his former side have what it takes to mount a serious title challenge and it would be churlish to suggest that Porto would not be involved as the season draws to a close. But, as Braga continue to impress, the neutral fan will be rooting for an underdog that, for once, is not Benfica.


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