Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

Portuguese to unveil another special blend

Colourful Benfica boss plots Blues' downfall

LISBON, PORTUGAL - MAY 02:  Jorge Jesus of Benfica celebrates his teams first goal during the UEFA Europa League semi final second leg match between SL Benfica and Fenerbahce SK at the Estadio da Luz on May 2, 2013 in Lisbon, Portugal.  (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
Jorge Jesus of Benfica celebrates his teams first goal during the UEFA Europa League semi final second leg match between SL Benfica and Fenerbahce SK at the Estadio da Luz on May 2, 2013 in Lisbon, Portugal. (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
Benfica's Nemanja Matic

It was the defining image of this, and probably any other, Portuguese Liga season. When substitute Kelvin fired Porto's stoppage-time winner in Saturday's top-of-the-table O Classico encounter with Benfica, the camera cut to the side of the pitch to witness the Lisbon side's coach Jorge Jesus falling to his knees on the turf.

An unbeaten domestic season, the title and the treble all seemed to go up in smoke in the blink of an eye.

If ever, though, there was a character with the capacity to bounce back, inspire and reinvent, it's Jesus.

Since his November arrival, Rafael Benitez's very presence on the touchline has cast a substantial shadow for many Chelsea supporters.

Yet it will be his opposite number who commands all the attention on the periphery of the field in the Europa League final in the Amsterdam Arena tomorrow.

Jesus is Portuguese football's biggest managerial personality since ... well, you know who. "The Special Two" – as rival coach Manuel Machado famously dubbed him with some sarcasm in a running feud between the pair – is a gripping watch on the touchline. Jesus is a ball of energy, all wild gesticulations and barked instructions beneath an unruly mop of grey hair.

That wild side extends into interviews and press conferences, playing to his image as a fiery, rough-around-the-edges leader. "As soon as he started playing in Sporting (Lisbon)'s youth team, he never even contemplated returning to school," says Rui Matos Pereira, a Lisbon-based journalist, who has known Jesus for some years.

"Unfairly, he became a bit of laughing stock for his statements (as a coach), because of his lack of articulacy and – if we are talking about having a career overseas, and speaking other languages – people's perception of him."

So when Jesus reacted furiously to Newcastle manager Alan Pardew's well-intentioned comments after their quarter-final defeat that Benfica would finish around eighth in the Premier League – asking: "We knocked Manchester United out of the Champions League, so do they play for eighth place?" – many in Portugal reprised their perpetual sniggers at his struggles to faithfully pronounce the name of the English champions. More fool them. There is more to Jesus than the caricature these days.

"I'm always learning," the 58-year-old said in his press conference before the match with Porto. His actions in the game suggested as much, with TV cameras catching the striking sight of him shouting "Calma!" (calm) to his players during the second half. He has more time for the defensive side of the game too, though he requires technical proficiency from his defensive players – such as Nemanja Matic (pictured), the ex-Chelsea man who occupies Benfica's defensive midfield berth.

This restraint has come with experience. "Jesus always was a fan of attacking football," Matos Pereira says. "As a former playmaker he dictated tempo and tried to encapsulate that in his teams as a coach. The problem was that despite the ability of his teams' opponents, his sides always went for the jugular and, more often than not, they would epically crash and burn."

Having visited Johan Cruyff at Barcelona to study his methods, Jesus began coaching after his retirement from playing at 35 in 1989, taking in a number of Portuguese football's lower lights before finally getting his shot at Benfica in 2009, after leaving Braga.

He will need all of his recognised ability to lift his men for the date with Chelsea. Thursday's headline on the popular Mais Futebol website described Jesus' situation going into this week of destiny as "between Villas-Boas and Peseiro", evoking Sporting's horrific few days in 2005 when they stood on the brink of becoming legends – and ended up with nothing.

Back then Jose Peseiro's Sporting slipped to a late (and controversial) derby defeat at Benfica to hand Giovanni Trapattoni's side the advantage in the title race, before going on to lose the Uefa Cup final to CSKA Moscow four days later.

That is a nightmare scenario that Jesus will be desperate to avoid. Being on the end of some punishment from that rampant Porto side of Andre Villas-Boas' in 2011 left its scars too, but Jesus shares the current Tottenham Hotspur manager's regard for the Europa League – and has assembled a side with ambition.

"He now even quotes philosophers like Blaise Pascal to show that he is becoming more interested in issues other than football," Matos Pereira says. "He reflects more before answering a question."

Maybe so, but we can expect to see him at his most motivated and passionate in Amsterdam.

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