For years now Portugal have been one of the world leaders in terms of youth development with their national sides having performed extremely well in international youth tournaments for at least the last decade and a half.
Until 2016 however that success at youth level had not translated to success for the senior national team and the success at the European Championships in France was seen by many as vindication of the work that has been done over the years at youth level.
The majority of these young players are developed at the top three clubs in the domestic game with Sporting and FC Porto having academies that are noted for their individual approach to player development. Perhaps though the top academy in Portugal at the moment is that of Benfica.
The club from the red half of Lisbon have intense local competition for the best young players from their greatest rivals Sporting but this season saw the Benfica youth side reach the final of the Uefa Youth League (the Champions League for youth sides) where they eventually lost to an extremely impressive Red Bull Salzburg side. This current crop of young players at Benfica has the potential to be the best yet to emerge in to the first team.
Below I have chosen five of the players in the Benfica system that I believe have the potential to make a genuine impact at first team level.
Position: Attacking Midfielder
Andre Horta is an interesting case study in that he spent the initial part of his youth career with Benfica. After eight years in the Benfica youth system he made the choice to leave the club to join Vitoria Setubal. It was at Setubal that he made his first team debut under coach Domingos Paciencia.
After making more than thirty appearances at first team level for Setubal as a young player Horta showed enough promise for Benfica to bring him back to the club at at the start of the 2016/17 season. So far he has yet to fully cement his place in the first team but he is certainly close to doing so.
Horta is an attacking midfielder with the capacity to perform in the wide areas or in the centre. His biggest strength lies in his technique and capacity to beat a player in a one on one situation.
Here we see Horta in possession of the ball out in the extreme wide area on the left hand side. He shows great balance in the first instance as the opponent looks to apply pressure from behind and manages to regain his feet.
Next we see the mentality of Horta as he looks to attack in to the penalty box instead of pausing in possession and looking to play backwards. As he knocks the ball past the defending player we see the acceleration from Horta as he is able to burst in to the penalty area before delivering an impressive cross in to the penalty area.
Here we see Horta take possession in the centre of the pitch. Crucially we see Horta scan the space before receiving the ball so that he is aware of the possibilities immediately.
We also see that when the ball comes to Horta is in space between the lines of the opposition defence and the midfield, his is aware that this is the space in which he can cause maximum disruption with the ball.
When the ball does come to Horta we see him effectively pause in possession of the ball waiting for the play to develop ahead of him. As the third run man is made ahead of the ball Horta has the technique to play the through ball with the perfect weight for the man running in to the penalty area.
Position: Central Midfield
Gedson Fernandes at eighteen has been one of the driving forces this season behind the journey of the Benfica youth side to the final of the Uefa youth league. A tall angular central midfielder Gedson comes alive in the final third of the pitch with his capacity to manipulate the ball to beat an opponent before delivering the pass in to an area of maximum opportunity for a team mate.
Whilst he has as of yet not made a senior appearance at the club it is very much considered to be a question of when and not if he makes the breakthrough.
Here we can see Gedson on the ball in the corner of the field high in the opposition half.
After initially shifting the ball back to a supporting player we see Gedon take possession of the ball back. He uses his strength to shield the ball from two opponents who move in to challenge him and he showcases excellent technique and ball mastery to wait until both are tight to him before quickly shifting the ball in to space behind them and delivering a cross in to the penalty area.
This ability to shield and drag the ball can also be devastating to the opposition in central areas of the field.
Here we see Gedson contributing to the defensive phase of play as Benfica lose the ball in their own half of the field.
He displays his pace as well as a willingness to track back after being caught on the wrong side of the ball and he recovers in time to be in position to challenge the ball carrier as he gets to the edge of the penalty area.
Position: Attacking midfield
Joao Carvalho is one of the poster boys for the Benfica youth system at the moment with the diminutive playmaker displaying the technique and character that has become synonymous with the youth system at the Lisbon club in recent years.
Carvalho is most comfortable centrally in the number ten slot but can also play on either flank or as a playmaker from the central midfield strata. Such is the potential of the young attacker that he has represented his nation at youth level all the way from u-15 to u-21 where he is currently placed by the national team coaches.
This season saw Carvalho mirror the steps made by Andre Horta in joining Vitoria Setubal albeit on loan and not permanently and he has adapted to the new environment and first team football extremely well.
Here we see Cavalho playing for Setubal and taking possession of the ball out on the left hand side as Setubal look to transition from defence to attack.
Straight away we see Carvalho look to engage the first defender who is isolated in a one on one with little in the way of cover. As soon as the first defender is beaten Carvalho moves to attack the penalty area.
Once again he displays a willingness to engage defenders moving in to the box and going past the last defender by throwing him off balance with a series of stepovers and driving past on the outside. Only the finish lets him down and prevents what would have been a superb goal.
This time we see Carvalho in action for the Benfica youth side against Napoli. The Italian side have tried to press and win the ball when Benfica have the ball on the right hand side but the Portuguese side manages to play out of the pressing trap.
As the ball is shifted across the field in to Carvalho we see that he has dropped off to occupy an area of space with no defensive player able to put him under immediate pressure.
When he takes possession he appears to be looking to the far side waiting for the wide player to make a run but instead plays a disguised through ball with the outside of his foot in to a player attacking the area from the right hand side of the pitch.
It is a measure of the regard that the young winger Joao Filipe is held in that he was already spending time on trial at clubs like Manchester United at just 15 years of age. It may be a mark of his maturity that despite interest already from top sides around Europe including the aforementioned Manchester United and Barcelona that he stayed in Lisbon and continued his footballing education at Benfica.
Filipe is very much in the mould of the modern Portuguese wide player in that he is able to operate on either flank or even as a withdrawn striker with the capacity to attack opposition defenders on the inside or outside with ease,
As with the other players on this list we are yet to see the young winger come in and make an impact at first team level but his time is sure to come.
Here we see the young winger take possession of the ball out on the right hand side of the field.
As he gets the ball a supporting teammate makes a run beyond in to a favourable position and Filipe executes the pass with an extraordinary piece of skill.
Dragging the ball back with one foot he spins and drags the ball with the other foot in to the path of his teammate.
Whilst some will see this example of flair as being unnecessary I believe instead that it is a mark of the young players confidence and mastery of the ball both of which are essential pieces of a young attacking players development.
Here we see Filipe playing for his national team. Once again he executes a superb piece of skill on taking possession of the ball.
As the ball is switched out to his flank he deals with the bouncing ball and the opposition player moving to engage by simply opening out his foot and in one motion flicking the ball up and over the defender.
It is at this point that we see that Filipe has more than just tricks to his game as he then takes the ball down and looks to immediately drive at the opposition defence. It is this direct and skilful style of play that makes him so difficult for defensive players to cope with as his pace and ability to improvise in possession are so difficult to read.
Position: Attacking Midfielder
Joao Felix is the youngest player featured in this article and the fact that he is included at 17 is testament to the level of talent that he possesses.
Joao Felix is also something of an anomaly given that he made the switch from Porto to Benfica at youth level choosing in a move that not many players make at any level. The switch seems to have been the right one with Joao Felix performing extremely well for the youth team as well as Benfica B.
As with seemingly the majority on this list he is most comfortable in advanced central areas of the field where his creativity and eye for a pass can be at their most devastating.
Here we see Joao Felix collect possession wide on the right hand side of the pitch.
He shows what we expect from a creative central attacker in this position as he looks to pass the ball as opposed to driving forward in possession.
He pauses in possession and waits for the player who has played the ball to him to make a vertical run breaking the defensive line of the opposition. It is the quality of the pass in terms of weight and execution that really stands out as Joao Felix strikes through the ball with the outside of his right foot curling a perfect pass in to the feet of his teammate.
Here we see the danger that Joao Felix has in bursting in to the penalty area with late runs in to pockets of space.
Benfica have possession on the left side of the Real Madrid penalty area and the man in possession Is pausing and waiting for a supporting run.
Joao Felix is the man that offers this run arriving late in to the penalty area and attacking an area of space in to which the pass can be played. The quality of the pass and the timing of the run make the finish an easy one.
The next step for all of these players is to gain time in the first team squad and to eventually make a first team spot their own. It remains to be seen however whether a spell on loan will be beneficial in the first instance to aid the transition from potential star to first team regular.
It speaks to the holistic approach of the Benfica youth academy that they have produced so many versatile attacking talents all of whom have complete mastery of the ball.
Indeed, there seems to be no sign of a let up in the production line and the future is certainly bright for Benfica and Portuguese football as a whole.