Benfica challenging the transfer kings
Portugal's economy may be continuing on its seemingly inexorable downward spiral, but business is not too bad for its biggest football clubs. The €70 million (£60 million) double transfer of Porto's star pair Joao Moutinho and James Rodriguez to Monaco was only a shock in terms of the players' point of arrival, rather than the identity of the sellers.
Cashing in on one's best players is an established and accepted aspect of reality in Portuguese football, but Porto have turned it into an art form since 2004's Champions League win. September's sale of Hulk to Zenit St Petersburg meant that the club had banked €450 million (£382 million at today's rates) on player sales since Jose Mourinho masterminded that win in Gelsenkirchen.
This is no revelation. What is now clear is that today, Porto are no longer alone in that shrewdness. Just as Benfica have re-emerged as being capable of pushing their sworn enemies every step of the way in the last few years, they have also begun to match the northerners' expert manipulation of the transfer market. President Luis Filipe Vieira has taken ownership of a clear direction in the club's dealings, notably in tandem with head coach Jorge Jesus.
It is little wonder that Porto have been ahead of the game. The champions' president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa has had plenty of time to streamline his club's strategy, having been in office for 31 years. Vieira is no fly-by-night, and is due to celebrate a decade in charge come November. He has come under fire in the past from some fan groups, with a majority of voting members at the club's general assembly last September refusing to ratify the year's accounts.
Yet even if doubts remain among the faithful about the opaqueness of Vieira's running of the ship, there is relative confidence that Benfica aren't haemorrhaging money as in the past. Vieira is never slow to invoke the ghost of Joao Vale e Azevedo, who served as president in the late '90s and ran up enormous debts, before eventually being convicted of a fraud related to player contract negotiations.
Plenty of the world's biggest clubs run on huge overdrafts, and Benfica have now joined them in the category of no-risk loanees. This at least partially informed Vieira's recent decision to extend Jesus' contract to 2015. The catastrophic final weeks of the season, when Benfica blew their chance of a glorious treble, put Vieira in an uncomfortable spot.
Jesus had seemed a shoo-in to extend a contract that was expiring but such a humbling, domino-effect failure in the campaign's denouement inevitably put a question mark above the coach's ability to galvanise his troops for what's next. Some sources in Portugal even claimed the club had agreed a contract with then-Valladolid (and now Valencia) coach Miroslav Djukic to take over.
Yet it is hard to imagine that Vieira ever really wanted to get rid of Jesus. This is a coach that has given Benfica their personality and their verve back - and, perhaps as importantly in modern context, made them a big pile of cash in the process. After guiding an incredibly stylish side to a league and league cup double in 2010, the stars that Jesus helped to develop brought home the bucks too.
David Luiz, Ramires, Fabio Coentrao, Javi Garcia and Axel Witsel were sold on for fees totalling €150 million (£127 million) - a profit of €130 million (£110 million) on what they cost. Coentrao - converted from winger to left-back with spectacular results - and Witsel were notably shaped into players of greater value by working with Jesus' coaching team.
The future is also mapped out at the Estadio da Luz, so Jesus' team continue producing the dazzling football that lights up the arena as well as moulding the next big exports. Last summer's signing of Ola John signalled a further development of Benfica's own market identity, a change of tack. The 21-year-old winger blew hot and cold during his debut season in Lisbon, but showed in the Euro under-21 in Israel exactly why he has a €45 million release clause in his contract, with his beguiling blend of pace, balance and quality on the ball.
There is no feeling that they will abandon the South American market. Arsenal de Sarandi's centre-back Lisandro Lopez (not to be confused with Lyon's striker of the same name) is expected to arrive imminently, and the value to be had is clear when one gauges the influence of Maxi Pereira, Nicolas Gaitan and Enzo Perez.
Yet while Porto have traditionally concentrated their energies on Argentina and Brazil for their stars of tomorrow (recently diversifying into Mexico to pick up Diego Reyes and soon-to-sign Hector Herrera), Benfica are carving their own niche, rather than simply appropriating their rivals' own successful recipe.
That means looking at the Netherlands. You could argue the trend started before John, with Nemanja Matic having served his own apprenticeship in the Eredivisie - Chelsea loaned the midfielder to nursery club Vitesse Arnhem for a year in August 2010. Certainly, Matic is a player whose intuitive feel for the ball is a pre-requisite at the Luz and offers us a clue to why Jesus is now prospecting in the Netherlands. A self-confessed fan of Barcelona's approach - and having shadowed Johan Cruyff's training sessions in Catalonia at the beginning of his coaching career- Jesus feels that he will get players switched onto Benfica's modus operandi straight away. The new blood will be technically polished, and attack-minded.
So midfielder Filip Djuricic, for example, is a significant step up from Carlos Martins, with the Portugal international likely to be one of those making space in the squad this summer. Djuricic, who starred at Heerenveen, will be joined in midfield next season by fellow new boy Lazar Markovic. In snaring highly-rated teenage Markovic from Partizan Belgrade, Benfica are stepping into the shoes of Dutch sides who previously lured the finest young Balkan talent - such as Twente's Dusan Tadic - and cutting out the middle man.
These players will fire Benfica forward in the short-term, and make them money in the medium-term - and the latter attribute is important as the former in allowing them to keep pace with Porto at home and in Europe.