After failing to promote from within over recent seasons, Benfica are reaping the rewards by focussing on their youth system, with Renato Sanches the pick of the fresh-faced influx.
The bounty of Benfica's famed academy has not been evident in first team in recent seasons with a number of products going on to make names for themselves elsewhere, but this season has been a turning point.
With no path to the first team, the pattern over the last few years has seen prospects move on early and the likes of André Gomes and João Cancelo at Valencia and Ivan Cavaleiro and Bernardo Silva at Monaco have sought their fortunes elsewhere with success. To put things right Eagles president Luis Filipe Vieira vowed in November 2014 that the 2015/16 season "would start a cycle of players raised at Benfica, integrating into the squad and fighting for regular chances”.
Victor Andrade, Victor Lindelöf, Nuno Santos, Gonçalo Guedes, João Teixeira, Nélson Semedo and Renato Sanches were the chosen ones, with a number making themselves very important very quickly.
Right-back Nélson Semedo – who arrived at the club in the final stage of his development – had the difficult task of replacing Maxi Pereira but stepped straight into the shoes of the experienced Uruguayan while winger Gonçalo Guedes, at Benfica since he was nine, grabbed his opportunity with both hands when Eduardo Salvio's injury allowed him to establish himself on the right flank.
However, the pick of the crop so far has undoubtedly been Renato Sanches, whose meteoric rise has dazzled the critics. Starting the season as part of the UEFA Youth League squad, he is now firmly ensconced in the starting XI thanks to his physical strength and intensity.
The role played by coach Rui Vitória has been vital. Even at his unveiling back in July he had his eyes on the youngsters. "It's fundamental that they know the senior side is open to them, so they can work on the same basis as the rest of the players," he said. "Only their work will decide if they play or not."
The new regime was summed up well by Nuno Gomes, the former Benfica forward who is currently responsible for the academy. "Our coach is doing a great job and it's good when we feel that our leader is not afraid of betting on our young talent," he said.
The 2015 Best Academy of the Year prize presented at the Globe Soccer Awards is evidence there is plenty more to come from the youth section in the upcoming years. Luis Filipe Vieira admitting that "It’s an award for the investment in the youth teams and the will of having even more youngster developed in the A team," said Filipe Vieira.
Rui Vitória, the coach reaping the benefits of the new crop, is looking forward to having many more youngsters joining his first-team squad over the next few seasons. "Five have already made their debut and more will follow; Benfica's future is assured because there’s a lot of quality."