10. Gelson Martins
Few managers have managed to grab Portuguese football by the scruff of the neck quite like Jorge Jesus in recent years, with his adventure at the pinnacle of Primeira Liga football offering Benfica three league titles in six years to swing FC Porto’s dominance over the domestic scene in the same direction.
Donning a goal-laden 4-4-2 formation at a time when the 4-3-3 was irremovably in vogue, there were, among the many fans of his work, plenty who’d ride the other way to diminish his accomplishments. At the heart of the criticism was Jesus’ perceived stubbornness and negligence towards the likes of Bernardo Silva in the youth teams, begging for a run in the first team. Failure in back-to-back Europa League finals didn’t help the manager’s cause and, despite ending his tenure on a clean high, the cited criticisms may well have served as the reason behind the non-renewal of his contract with the club.
Such was the mood between both camps that Jesus had no qualms about going straight to city rivals Sporting, where, ironically, he’d have one of the most globally acclaimed academies at his disposal. With eyes firmly set on league success, there were plenty that tipped the new Lions boss to overlook youngsters once more, but there was one outstanding exception.
Gelson Martins, at the time frozen out of his favoured position due to the high volume of wingers found at Sporting B, headlined the inclusions in preparation for the 2015/16 season. A big showing for Portugal in the Under-20 FIFA World Cup and the omission of contract-rebel André Carrillo from the first team meant the talents of the Praia-born winger were simply too hard for Jesus to ignore.
Sporting would subsequently go toe-to-toe with Benfica for the title until the very last fixture, as four league goals and one assist from 29 appearances left Gelson in good stead for his second season following the multi-million-pound transfer of João Mário to Serie A giants Inter. The number 77 didn’t disappoint, unlike many of those around him that drove the Lions to an underwhelming third-place finish in this past season, in spite of the momentum constructed from the season before. 34 league goals for Bas Dost proved to be a saving grace, with Gelson standing up to assist a large portion of the Dutchman’s conquests.
In fact, Gelson would go on to affirm himself as the assist king of the Primeira Liga with 14 in total, adding a further six league goals to a campaign that will undoubtedly see him regarded as one of the finest talents that a blossoming country has to offer. His excellence was noted by Portugal boss Fernando Santos even before his landmark campaign, earning his first cap in September 2016 versus Andorra before making it into the squad trusted to challenge for the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia.
Behind his most recent season is a long trail of star-studded admirers, such as Real Madrid and Barcelona, largely due to his roof-raising exhibition at the Santiago Bernabéu last September in the UEFA Champions League, as well as Bayern Munich, Liverpool and none other than his ultimate academy predecessor, Cristiano Ronaldo. Gelson’s manager, Jesus, is another preacher of his ability, stating that the 22-year-old is the “most talented” prospect that he has ever encountered at both Sporting and Benfica.
Raw speed and merciless trickery have set the template for Gelson, like many academy graduates before him, to become one of the most feared young wingers in one-on-one scenarios. More impressive still, as his career takes him towards new challenges, is Gelson’s rare ability to remain unfazed by a heightened degree of difficulty, transitioning seamlessly from the depths of Portuguese football to the grandest stages of all with great consistency.
His sponge-like interactivity with Sporting’s experienced manager has seen him develop unearthed facets of his game even further, becoming tactically adept and presenting an appetite for industry that has made him an automatic starter within the space of a year. Factor in his tenacity when defending from the front and it all becomes very apparent as to why a certain Jürgen Klopp was reportedly so keen take the new ‘Golden Child’ to Anfield.
A culture grafting will pay Gelson’s talents the highest compliment in years to come, with the winger needing no better case study than that of Ricardo Quaresma’s and Ronaldo’s alternative destinies. For now, €60 million is the price tag that has so far led Liverpool down the path of rejection but with no real need for Sporting to sell at present, who knows what Gelson’s mesh of craftiness and unrivalled work ethic could do for the Lions’ steadied finances in a year’s time.
By: Patrick Ribeiro/@P_SRibeiro