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Crossing the Lisbon divide: Jorge Jesus leaves Benfica for Sporting

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the modern era of Portuguese football, Benfica’s clash with Porto has become the biggest game of any season, with these two superpowers seemingly fighting it out for top spot on a perennial basis.

This is largely due to the decline of the other member of the Três Grandes, Sporting Lisbon, with the last of the Verde-e-Brancos’ 18 Primeira Liga titles coming back in 2002.

It was Romanian coach László Bölöni who led Sporting to that domestic triumph, but since he left the club less than 12 months later, the historic club have had 16 different men take charge of the team in the space of 13 years.

Undoubtedly the most high-profile and controversial is the club’s new manager, as Jorge Jesus has done the unthinkable and crossed the Lisbon divide to leave current champions Benfica and assume the hotseat at the Estádio José Alvalade.

The 60-year-old’s decision has sparked pandemonium in Portugal; once thought impossible, tensions are high following Jesus’ decision to leave one bitter rival for another.

The move is significant for a number of reasons, namely that the Derby de Lisboa is the most ardent rivalry in the Portuguese game from a geographical and historical sense.

Jesus leaves Benfica after six years in charge, in which his achievements should not be understated.

Porto were in full flow and the undoubted dominant force in the domestic game when Jesus arrived in 2009; the Estádio do Dragão outfit had won six of the previous seven Primeira Liga titles.

However, Jesus led Benfica to an unlikely title success in his first season in charge and in total has won ten domestic trophies in the space of six years.

This includes back-to-back titles over the last two seasons, while the passionate tactician also led the Estádio da Luz outfit to two Europa League finals, only to be agonisingly beaten by Chelsea and Sevilla.

As such, Jesus deserves to be regarded in the same light as compatriots José Mourinho or André Villas-Boas for his comparable record of success.

Jesus’ man-management skills have also been critical in developing a wealth of top-class talent in Lisbon, with Benfica profiting from the sales of David Luiz, Ramires, Fábio Coentrão, Nemanja Matić, Lazar Marković, Axel Witsel, Enzo Pérez and Rodrigo during the manager’s tenure.

Many have accused the coach of greed following his switch across the Lisbon divide.

With his contract expiring this summer, Jesus was widely expected to extend at Benfica but was also asked to take a wage drop in the process.

Sporting, backed by wealthy shareholder and Angolan banker Alvaro Sobrinho, took advantage of the hiatus in negotiations and outdid their rivals financially to make the unlikely a reality.

Jorge JesusJesus and his new employers will look to his playing career as a raison d’être, with the retired midfielder a product of the Sporting youth academy and given his first opportunity in senior football with the club as a player.

Despite this, six years at Benfica as manager suggests that the tactician should surely feel more affinity to the red side of the Lisbon divide.

At first sight, Jesus has a real job on his hands.

Sporting finished nine points adrift of last season’s champions Benfica, but in truth the title charge was only ever a two-horse race between the eventual winners and Porto.

The Estádio José Alvalade side have a number of young stars coming through the ranks, none brighter than gifted deep-lying playmaker William Carvalho – holding onto the Portugal international will be critical in Sporting’s chances of success.

Others such as Carlos Mane, João Mário and Tobias Figueiredo have all shown that with the right level of tutelage they can become household names.

Ex-Vitória de Guimarães trainer Rui Vitória has been instilled as Jesus’ replacement at Benfica, who despite the change will still enter 2015-16 as title favourites given their squad.

Jesus’ first job will be to widen the title race from a two-team battle, while getting consistency from a squad with young talent but not proven performers.

Portuguese football is set to take on a new explosive element due to the former Benfica coach’s controversial move, with Sporting hoping to re-announce themselves as a force to be reckoned with in dramatic fashion.

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