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Cups are all half full as Benfica chase quadruple

AS Neil Lennon would wistfully concur, winning three trophies in a season remains an elusive target for any club, even in this currently enfeebled Scottish environment.

Jorge Jesus's obsession over details has led the Benfica coach to gesticulate at players over the slightest errors during games. Picture: EPA
Jorge Jesus's obsession over details has led the Benfica coach to gesticulate at players over the slightest errors during games. Picture: EPA

Yet Benfica, a club of similar background to Celtic, are heading into Jock Stein territory as they attempt to win a domestic treble, with the opportunity to add a further, crowning glory with a European trophy.

To achieve a feat unprecedented in the club's history, the new Primeira Liga champions need to win three games in the next 12 days. The sequence starts tonight with the Taca da Liga final - their equivalent of the League Cup - against Rio Ave, continues on May 14 with the Europa League final against Sevilla, and ends a week on Sunday when tiny Rio Ave again provide the opposition in the Taca de Portugal final.

Anybody who watched Benfica out-manoeuvre Juventus over two legs of the Europa League semi-final would accept the bookmakers' assessment that they are favourites to return to Turin and beat Sevilla. And as far as the odds-makers are concerned, Jorge Jesus's side need only turn up to see off Rio Ave in the two domestic cup finals.

The club from Vila do Conde in northern Portugal play to crowds of between 1500 and 2000 and have no bespoke training facilities. Throw in a recent 4-0 league defeat by Benfica and the task facing Rio Ave makes the David-Goliath final look like a fair match up.

The consolation for the underdogs is that footballing giants can be toppled as well. There will inevitably be a degree of distraction for Benfica, who will regard the Europa Cup as the most cherished prize.

Rio Ave's own merits, despite the club's poor support and infrastructure, cannot summarily be dismissed either. Reaching one cup final in a season could be attributed to good fortune but two in a country which boasts a number of fine teams suggests something more substantial than Lady Luck's largesse.

Step forward the young but deeply ambitious management team headed by former goalkeeper Nuno Espirito Santo and including the 27-year-old Dundonian Ian Cathro. Under their direction Rio Ave finished sixth in the Primeira Liga last year, while reaching the Portuguese Cup final this season guarantees European football for the first time in the club's largely undistinguished 75-year history.

The new boys must now pit their wits not once, but twice, against Benfica's excitable and feverishly gum-chewing Jesus. He will be 60 in July but, much like Rio Ave, spent most of his managerial career in the lower divisions in Portugal before alighting at Braga in 2008 and moving to Benfica the following year.

Hard as it is to comprehend now, Jesus was under pressure last September. His reputation had been damaged badly by a dreadful end to the previous season, when Benfica lost the league to Porto at the death, lost to Chelsea in the final of the Europa League and then, most humiliatingly of all, were beaten by Guimaraes in the Portuguese Cup final. That left the club without a trophy for the first time in five seasons and indifferent performances at the start of this campaign incensed the fans further.

Jesus resurrected himself, but memories of last season's late, dire collapse will be at the forefront of his mind in the next twelve days. That is a powerful motivation, as is the desire to surpass the feats of Jose Mourinho at Porto in 2002/03 and Andre Villas-Boas at the same club in 2010/11. Both won trebles, including European trophies.

As if Benfica did not have enough to incentivise them, there is also the memory of the club's greatest player to honour. Eusebio died in January and given the outpouring of affection at Benfica's next home game, against Porto, it is obvious that a quadruple would be dedicated to the icon's name.

All of which makes the task facing Cathro and his boss more daunting. Typically the 27-year-old is unphased. "Nuno is positive and optimistic about the two games," says the man who nurtured Ryan Gauld and other young Dundee United talents.

"A lot of work, discussion, debate and analysis has gone into the way Benfica play and the way we play. We need to manipulate the small things that are going to give us advantages. I honestly believe that if that happens we've more chance than most to beat Benfica.

"When we played them last month it was approached with the finals in mind. It gave us something to study and we know now what we have to do. But don't ask me which of the finals gives us a better chance - I switch between the two.

"What I do know is that the whole town is getting behind us in a massive way. We had more than five times our usual crowd for the Portuguese Cup home semi-final leg against Braga. We'll be taking 10,000 to the first final and even more to the second one."

What Cathro does not underestimate is Benfica's devastating recent form. Unbeaten in the last 28 games - the best top-flight record in Europe - they are justifiable favourites for the quadruple.

"There are some things we just can't allow to happen," he says. "If we do, Benfica will be almost impossible to stop. If they can win four trophies that is going to be a great achievement and in the depths of their subconsciousness they will be doing it for Eusebio.

"These three games are going to be emotional occasions for Jorge and the players who experienced the massive fall in the final 10 days of last season. He is a very good coach who clearly cares and feels every small detail in the team. If a centre-back makes a clearance but Jorge feels his feet slightly were out of position the player will get a fierce gesticulation instead of a 'well done'.

"He's made some big decisions like changing the goalkeeper and bringing different players in. They are a top, top team.

"Benfica are one of the biggest clubs in Europe never mind Portugal. I defy anybody to walk past the Estadio da Luz and not realise this is a serious football club.

"If we can beat them I will be really pleased for Nuno, but also very happy for the staff and workers at Rio Ave who have been here for 20 or 30 years. Our friendship has grown since I arrived here almost two years ago unable to speak a word of Portuguese."

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