SL Benfica have recovered from a worst-ever start to a season and now have another Portuguese title and UEFA Champions League progress firmly in their sights.
Five successive Liga wins have rekindled all the old self-belief at the Estádio da Luz after new Dutch coach Ronald Koeman saw his side stutter out of the starting blocks in August. Portuguese champions for the first time in eleven years under Italian Giovanni Trapattoni last term, Benfica lost two and drew one of their opening three games of the campaign.
Unhappy fans showed their discontent by fluttering the traditional white handkerchiefs of scorn at Koeman and his men, but there has been a dramatic turnaround since Benfica went down 2-1 to arch-rivals Sporting Clube de Portugal on 10 September - losing just once, 2-1 at Manchester United FC in the UEFA Champions League, and winning five in the Liga on the trot to climb to third.
A 2-1 defeat of second division Leixões SC in the Portuguese Cup on Wednesday continued the feel-good factor and there is every likelihood the winning streak will continue when Benfica travel to mid-table A. Naval 1° Maio on Saturday. The upturn, says Koeman, is because an early-season injury crisis has abated, new arrivals are proving successful and the team are benefiting from his more adventurous tactics.
After scoring just once in their opening three matches, Benfica now have 14 in the goals scored column, the highest tally in the top flight. "A new coach always needs time for players to adapt to his ideas," Koeman said. "I think the players are now adapting more and more to my ideas, they know my way of thinking better than they did at the start of the season. They know the way I want each of them to play."
Koeman has seen new arrivals like defender Nélson, Russian midfielder Andrei Kariaka, Greek midfielder Georgios Karagounis and Italian striker Fabrizio Miccoli settle in over the last couple of months. Miccoli, on loan from Juventus, began the recovery with the winner in the 1-0 victory over LOSC Lille Métropole on UEFA Champions League Matchday 1, while Nuno Gomes, with eight goals, is the Liga's top scorer.
Koeman, who lifted the European Champion Clubs' Cup with PSV Eindhoven in 1988 and FC Barcelona in 1992, knows what it takes to succeed in Europe. Looking ahead to Wednesday's UEFA Champions League visit of Villarreal CF - third in Group D behind leaders United and second-placed Benfica - he said: "I think that if we beat Villarreal at home we will have a very good chance of going through from the group. It won't be easy but I believe we can do it."