Benfica sold Enzo Fernandez for a British record transfer fee in January but are looking within their ranks to fill the gap in their midfield as the Champions League returns.
The Portuguese side have always shown an impressive capacity for recovery after losing star players and are already finding their feet without the Argentine World Cup winner.
Benfica, five points clear of Porto at the top of the Portuguese league, visit surprise package Club Brugge in the last 16 of Europe’s premier club competition on Wednesday with high hopes despite Fernandez’s departure.
Handed a tough group featuring Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus, Benfica went unbeaten and finished top to reach the knock-out rounds, with the Italian giants — the two-time winners of the competition — eliminated.
Fernandez played a key role in that progress but departed for Stamford Bridge in exchange for a stratospheric fee of 121 million euros ($129 million) on the last day of the January transfer window, just six months after making his debut for Benfica.
The Lisbon-based side made a huge profit on the 10-million-euro fee they paid Argentinian club River Plate in the summer of 2022, in yet another demonstration of the club’s knack for finding bargains and developing players.
Joao Felix and Darwin Nunez are two other high-profile big money sales Benfica have made in the past few seasons, the latter replacing the former after his departure to Atletico Madrid.
When Liverpool signed Nunez last summer, Goncalo Ramos stepped up a level to help replace the Uruguayan striker’s goals, and is enjoying the best season of his career.
Benfica’s plan to replace Fernandez has been to promote from within.
Midfielder Chiquinho, 27, largely used as a squad player in the first half of the season, has started each of the three games since Fernandez’s departure.
Although accustomed to playing further forward, he has adapted well to playing in Fernandez’s deep-lying position alongside Florentino Luis.
“I think he has already confirmed that he is capable of playing great games,” said Benfica’s German coach Roger Schmidt.
“He showed all his qualities, with the ball, his versatility, his physical capacity. I think he has done a very good job.
“He is a always a very positive player, even when he wasn’t playing he trained at a top level.
“He’s adapting very well to his new position, I think he’s a good example of what you can achieve with a good attitude.”
‘Who is Enzo?’
Chiquinho’s commitment has quickly won over Benfica fans, while reports that the Portuguese midfielder rejected a lucrative approach from a Saudi Arabian side in January only endeared him further.
“Who is Enzo? I don’t know — Chiquinho!” Benfica fans have started singing.
With Chiquinho fitting in well into Fernandez’s position, Schmidt will not divert from his system, which uses two deeper midfielders and three players in front of them, behind Ramos up top.
“We are going to play with the same formation, two players in the centre of the midfield, and we have five options,” said the coach.
“After that, it will depend on the opponent and how it plays, we can find the best solution for each game.”
The former PSV Eindhoven and Bayer Leverkusen coach said he agreed with the club’s decision not to splash out on a replacement.
“Enzo’s exit was unexpected, but the decision was to leave it at that — it’s difficult to make a quick transfer, and if you do, it has to be a player of unequivocal quality,” Schmidt said.
“The players we have for that position are top quality. I’m also keeping an eye on the youth players.
“This was our decision and I believe it was the right one. We want to be champions with the players we have.”
Benfica’s other midfielders are also pulling together to help replace Fernandez’s contributions.
Along with Chiquinho, Norwegian midfielder Fredrik Aursnes, Luis and Joao Mario demonstrated their quality in two consecutive 3-0 league wins over Arouca and Casa Pia, with Mario netting twice in each game.
Benfica would have preferred to keep Fernandez but won’t let his departure to the Premier League disrupt their bid to win Europe’s premier competition for a third time, 61 years since their last in 1962.
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