SL Benfica belied a slow start to the domestic season by opening their UEFA Champions League campaign with a solid home victory and coach Jorge Jesus hopes that will mark the first step on the road to a successful European adventure.
The Portuguese champions were 2-0 victors over Israeli counterparts Hapoel Tel-Aviv FC on Matchday 1 and, with Wednesday's trip to FC Schalke 04 preceding a double-header against Olympique Lyonnais, Jesus believes his team can prove a force to be reckoned with.
"Benfica have very strong ambitions in the Champions League," he told UEFA.com. "
Our objective is to get through the group stage and to gain an identity in Europe, like we had in the past. Benfica haven't been in the Champions League for some years and we will make the best use of this opportunity."
Although Benfica reached the UEFA Europa League quarter-finals last term, having missed out on the UEFA Champions League group stage since 2007/08, they are short of experience at the highest level, as their coach acknowledges. "The Champions League teams are stronger than those in the Europa League," the 56-year-old pointed out.
"Last year we had a great time in the Europa League and could have gone further, but there were other targets which were more important: becoming national champions. In the Champions League you're playing against the best teams in the world. The matches are more even but, as we believe we're at the same level as the best, we want to be part of the history of this year's competition."
Benfica earned their UEFA Champions League place by claiming the Portuguese title in style, losing only two Liga games all season. Jesus looks back with understandable pride on that achievement, explaining: "It was a very strong emotion, because Benfica hadn't been champions for five years, and in 19 years had won just one other title, in 1994.
This championship created a wave of identity and passion among our fans. That was an important factor in them having a feeling and love for the team again. In Portugal Benfica aren't just a club; they're almost a religion."
Having been a coach for more than 20 years, Jesus has the wisdom to cope with supporters' expectations, making light of the pressure he faces. "Benfica have made their fans used to winning trophies and in the Champions League they want us to go as far as possible – meaning the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final. That's the pressure for a Benfica coach, because the past demands it. We know we have the quality to make that happen."
With Ángel Di María and Ramires, key components of the championship triumph, departing over the summer, a new-look Benfica lost three of their first four league matches, yet their coach is confident his rebuilt team will gel swiftly. "Di María and Ramires are great players – that's why Real Madrid and Chelsea signed them – and it isn't easy to find players of that standard," he said.
"We're still feeling their loss a bit, because the players who arrived this season are still adapting, and we aren't as strong as last year. But we will be strong and able to play as we did last year: football of great character and great quality.
In my opinion, in Europe last year, there were two great teams: Barcelona and Benfica."
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