Benfica are on track to claim their fourth successive Primeira Liga title this season, having opened up a two-point gap over city rivals Sporting Clube de Portugal. The Eagles have lost just once with a third of the campaign played and have both the best attack and meanest defence in the division.
The Lisbon club’s Seixal youth academy has produced some stellar players in recent years, many of whom, such as Bernardo Silva, Renato Sanches and Andre Gomes, now ply their trade elsewhere having been sold on for substantial sums.
Manager Rui Vitoria was a youth coach with Benfica’s academy from 2004 to 2006, so he understands the level of talent being consistently churned out by the Encarnados.
Since being appointed to replace Jorge Jesus in the top Job at the Estadio da Luz in 2015 following a successful spell in charge of Vitoria Guimaraes, the 46-year-old coach has leaned heavily on the latest crop of potential superstars to have progressed through the ranks.
This season, the Benfica starting XI boast an array of high-quality young players, some scouted and signed from elsewhere, some nurtured from within.
Alex Grimaldo – Left-back
Spanish full-back Alex Grimaldo was signed from the Barcelona B team in December 2015 for just €1.5 million.
The 21-year-old has since gone on to become regarded as possibly the most exciting defensive prospect on the continent, thanks to his well-rounded skillset. Adept and getting forward to support the attack with his pace, precise dribbling, excellent delivery and eye for a goal, Grimaldo is very much in the mould of a modern full-back.
But the youngster is also cognisant of his defensive duties and is seldom caught out thanks to his remarkably mature positional sense and clean tackling technique.
So highly thought of is Grimaldo that Benfica inserted a €60 million release clause into his contract. That doesn’t appear to have put Manchester City off the idea of making a move for the Valencia-born youngster, however, as Pep Guardiola’s side are rumoured to be weighing up a January bid.
Nelson Semedo – Right-back
Lisbon-born Nelson Semedo has been with Benfica since his late teens and turned out regularly for the club’s B team before making his senior bow in 2015.
This season, the athletic right-back has established himself as a first-team regular having started all of Benfica’s league games to date.
In that time, the 23-year-old has scored once, registered one assist and maintained an impressive 80 percent pass completion rate. Defensively, he averages 2.4 tackles and 1.5 interceptions per game – a healthy return for a player still relatively inexperienced at the highest level.
And in his third Champions League appearance of the season – a thrilling 3-3 draw with Besiktas – Semedo netted a spectacular left-footed strike, picking out the top corner from 25-yards.
The young right-back’s emergence has led to him being linked with a potential big-money move to Manchester United.
Victor Lindelof – Centre-back
Another young Benfica defender linked with a move to Old Trafford is Swedish centre-back Victor Lindelof.
The 6ft 2ins 22-year-old joined Benfica from Vasteras SK in his homeland in 2011 and made 97 appearances for the Eagle’s second string before becoming a regular feature of the first-team over the last 18 months.
Lindelof’s uncompromising physical style is reminiscent of former Manchester United captain Nemanja Vidic, while his superb passing skills should not be overlooked.
This season, Lindelof is maintaining a highly impressive pass completion average of 89.3 percent, while also making 3.5 clearances, 1.7 interceptions and 0.9 tackles per game.
When questioned about rumours of a potential January move to the Red Devils for his client, Lindelof’s agent replied: “There’s no smoke without fire.”
Andre Horta – Midfield
Portuguese under-21 international Andre Horta is capable of playing as a number 10 or in a deeper central midfield role and has shown his ability to affect play from both positions for Benfica this season.
Horta is a the definition of a tidy operator. Careful in possession, the 20-year-old is finding a team-mate with 86.9 percent of his passes in the Liga NOS this term, while managing and even better return of 91.3 percent in the Champions League.
Despite his tender years, Horta has also shown his willingness to involve himself in the play as much as possible, averaging 41.4 passes per game – the only Benfica midfielders able to better that figure are Serbian anchor Lubomir Fejsa and playmaker Pizzi.
Horta’s creativity is also beginning to blossom, as he completes 1.4 key passes and 1.1 dribbles per game, and has scored once and assisted once.
Goncalo Guedes – Attacking midfield
Young attacker Goncalo Guedes has appeared, either as a starter or substitute, in all of Benfica’s Primeira Liga and Champions League games so far this season.
The versatile forward, who is able to play out wide, centrally as a number 10 or further forward as a second striker, has been regarded as a prospect of some note for several years having represented Portugal at under-15, -16, -17, -18, -19, and -21 level before making his full international debut as an 18-year-old in November 2015.
Although still young and developing, the 5ft 10ins player is already capable of holding his own physically and demonstrates superb technique and vision in the final third.
With four goals and two assists this season, as well as a pass accuracy comfortably above 80 percent, Guedes is already a potent attacking force. Having been voted the 2014-15 Segunda Liga Breakthrough Player of the Season while playing for the B team, he is now taking the Portuguese top-flight by storm.
About the author- Ryan Baldi
Ryan is a Midland’s based freelance sports writer specialising in European football. He has been fascinated with the continental game ever since he was presented with his first football kit at the age of 7 whilst on holiday in Spain – a Barcelona shirt with ‘Romario 10’ on the back. A contributor to numerous footballing websites, Ryan has also covered martial arts for local and national print publications.