By Goncalo Almeida
LISBON (Reuters) – A group of young and ambitious players who came through Benfica’s famous youth academy in Seixal, south of Lisbon, helped the team secure Portugal’s Primeira Liga title on Saturday, a victory celebrated by fans across the country.
Benfica coach Bruno Lage took a leap of faith in January this year by giving a chance to Seixal-based youngsters, elevating them to the club’s first-team squad.
“It was crucial to have younger players in the first team,” Lage told reporters after their 4-1 victory over Santa Clara.
“It’s important for others young players from Seixal to believe that it’s possible to reach the main team in the future.
“It was a huge achievement for us and especially for the fans who have supported this group of young people immensely.”
The key to Lage’s success was uncovering the potential of 19-year-old Joao Felix, who trained at the youth academy, giving him a role in the team that helped him to find space between the lines and behind main striker, Haris Seferovic. Together they scored 38 goals and contributed 12 assists.
Benfica also moulded 21-year-old centre back and Portugal international Ruben Dias, who has developed into a key player for the Lisbon club, making 60 appearances this season
Players including Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva and Ederson, Juventus’ Cancelo and Bayern Munich’s box-to-box midfielder Renato Sanches are just some to have come through Benfica’s youth academy in Seixal, which was founded in 2006.
Lage, 43, took other important youth players from Seixal, including 19-year-old Florentino Luis, a defensive midfielder who has been linked with a move to Manchester City and 20-year-old Jota, a creative winger who previously had a trial at Manchester United.
Benfica had a disappointing start to the season under former coach Rui Vitoria, suffering three defeats in 15 games, leading to his departure in January.
Lage shook things up, making Benfica the highest scoring team in the Primeira Liga, with a remarkable 72 goals in 19 games without losing since he took charge, winning times and drawing once.
Turning an inflexible 4-3-3 formation into a dynamic 4-4-2, Lage brought right-footed Portuguese winger Rafa to life by moving him to the left side, which allowed midfielder Pizzi to attack more freely on the right.
Benfica regained first place in the table after beating former champions Porto away in March, a pivotal result in their journey to winning a 37th Primeira Liga title, with 87 points.
In terms of goals scored, the season was one of their best in decades, boosted by a 10-0 win against Nacional.
Despite their domestic success, Benfica failed in European competition.
After being beaten by Bayern Munich and Ajax Amsterdam in the Champions League group stage, Benfica dropped into the Europa League.
They reached the quarter-finals where a 4-2 home win against Eintracht Frankfurt in the first leg of their last-eight clash was not enough to put them through after losing 2-0 away.
(Editing by Catarina Demony and Toby Davis)