Pep Guardiola will bring a trio of former Benfica academy stars to Lisbon on Tuesday night, as well as ex-Eagles goalkeeper Ederson
Ruben Dias, Bernardo Silva, Joao Cancelo and Ederson all have history with Sporting CP.
They return to the Portuguese capital city Lisbon, where it all began, for Manchester Citys Champions League clash on Tuesday.
The homegrown trio rose through Benficas academy and its also the club where Ederson made his first steps as a young, raw goalkeeper.
Lisbon is a football-obsessed city and the fierceness of the rivalry between the two biggest clubs boils up from a young age – even while players are still at primary school.
Under-10 games between Sporting and Benfica or Porto – the third Os Tres Grandes club – can attract hundreds of fans.
Young players can grow up quickly.
The progress of Dias, Bernardo and Cancelo was carefully nurtured in Benficas famous academy and those derby matches also gave them a first taste of the passion and pressure that has helped catapult them to the top of the game.
Former Benfica youth team coach Joao Tralhao watched those players from a young age and then worked with them from U18 level.
Nearly a decade ago, Tralhaos side were chasing a national championship and they trailed favourites Sporting 2-0 at half-time when he provoked a reaction from Cancelo.
“Sporting were smashing us, they were really better than us,” Tralhao tells GOAL. “At half-time, I went crazy and said we need to show a different mentality.
“I was in control as a coach but I needed them to react mentally rather than tactically or technically.
“Within 10 minutes, Cancelo beat Sporting alone, he did everything alone. He dribbled, he crossed, he assisted, he stood out.
“We won that match 3-2 and it was one of the most impressive games I ever had against Sporting.
“But my biggest memory is of going out of the dressing room onto the pitch [for the second half] and hearing Cancelo say, They will see who we are! And those werent his only words. He was amazing.”
Cancelo smiles when asked about his memories of those matches.
“Happily, when I was in the youth team, I won more games than I lost, so thats a good sign that we were doing things right,” the 27-year-old told reporters on Monday.
“Sporting are a big club, theyve got a great youth set-up – thats where Cristiano Ronaldo came from, Luis Figo and Nani too, great players. We have to value Sporting as a great club, one of the biggest in Portugal.
“Benfica is the team of my heart, but I’m a Manchester City player and the desire to win is something we always have.”
The intensity of those derbies also provided a perfect platform for the leadership qualities of Dias.
The centre-back made an instant impact at City following his arrival at the Etihad Stadium in a £62 million ($79m) move from Benfica last September.
Not only did he pull together a defence that had started the season short of confidence following a dismal defeat to Lyon in the 2020 Champions League – coincidentally, at Sportings Jose Alvalade Stadium – but he also brought a new sense of authority.
The 24-year-old has been a natural leader since his schoolboy days in the Portuguese capital and facing Sporting was always an opportunity for him to show those qualities.
“These big games are where people show up and Ruben always had a great speech to the group and, even me as a coach, he made me want to play,” Tralhao adds.
“He inspires everyone. You listen and his team-mates say, Yes, I want to go there, I want to play. And then its not just talking, he always performs in the big games.
“Bernardo, too, is like a coach on the pitch. Not shouting, but all of his team-mates listen to him because he knows exactly what the team needs to do.”
Like Cancelo, Dias and Bernardo have never lost their love for Benfica, with Bernardo saying he wants to return to the Estadio da Luz before he retires, while Dias was in tears when he said goodbye to his team-mates.
And while the rivalry between Lisbons two biggest clubs shapes the footballing landscape, Tralhao says a desire to knock Sporting out of the Champions League will not be an extra motivating factor.
In Manchester, the City trio have a good relationship with Uniteds Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and Diogo Dalot – the first two former Sporting players – and would regularly meet for meals if not for the coronavirus pandemic.
Portugals national team has a united squad, which has helped them win the 2016 European Championship and 2019 Nations League, and includes Joao Palhinha, Luis Neto and Matheus Nunes, who all could start the first leg for Sporting on Tuesday night.
“I know them well and they will fight for Manchester City to win but they will have the same respect for Sporting and their fans as they have for everyone,” Tralhao says.
“Sporting will be playing one of the best teams in the world in Manchester City, with some of the best players in the world, but they are well organised, full of confidence, with a great mix of young and old players. It should be a great game.”
City go into the match as big favourites with a Portuguese club failing to beat a Premier League side in the knockout stages since Benfica overcame Liverpool 16 years ago.
Pep Guardiola will be judged harshly by some critics until he delivers the Champions League title and last seasons run to the final was the closest he has come during his time at the Etihad Stadium.
For Tralhao to see the boys he watched growing up on the training pitches at the Benfica academy fulfil their potential and be a crucial part of Guardiolas team is a huge source of satisfaction.
Like the City boss, he believes Dias, Bernardo and Cancelo will not rest on their achievements so far, with European success still out of reach.
“We have amazing memories of when we worked together and won things,” Tralhao says. “But one thing that will live forever is the pride when I see these boys playing at this level.
“They always wanted more, they were never satisfied and I see the same in them at this moment and that is why they are elite players.
“Its like a father and son relationship, so to see them at the top level, Im so proud.”