Ezequiel Garay: Rio Ferdinand's Successor At Manchester United
Since coach Jorge Jesus first arrived at the Estádio da Luz, Benfica have been transformed - from constant underachievers (with the exception of Giovanni Trapattoni's title in 2005) into serious contenders in Portugal and in Europe. His first year at the club immediately yielded a much sought-after Portuguese league title, with Benfica producing dominating, flashy displays, often with big victories, particularly in front of their own crowd.
However, results on the pitch were not the only thing Benfica got better at. After more than a decade of bringing in past it talent (Michael Thomas and Dean Saunders immediately spring to mind) or even players that clearly were not good enough, the club's, has improved in the transfer market - both in and out. Under the new incumbent, Benfica have sold over the past few years names like Ramires, Fábio Coentrão, Di María, David Luiz and Witsel, making millions of pounds in return.
But making more money is not the only area at which the Eagles improved. They also took the opportunity to freshen up their squad and acquire some good players in some of those transactions - completely under the radar. For instance, when selling David Luiz to Chelsea, the club bought Nemanja Matic, a good prospect that had no foreseeable opportunities at the London club. After selling Javi García to Manchester City in yet another good piece of business, Matic had been quietly waiting in the shadows and was ready to take full advantage of his moment. He has been of the brightest stars in this season's Benfica - and the line-up hardly missed a beat.
Ezequiel Garay was brought in similar fashion. While negotiating the selling of Fábio Coentrão to Real Madrid for a whopping £25 million, Benfica’s president inquired about the Argentinean centre-back and ended up buying his rights for £4.5 million. He would then settle in rather quickly and soon became a stalwart on Benfica's defence.
Garay started out at Newell's Old Boys in his native country Argentina, joining Spain's Racing Santander in December 2005. After helping the team avert relegation by an inch over the final weeks, he would then prove critical for the club's two most successful seasons in 2006/07 and 2007/08 - including qualification for the UEFA Cup in 2008.
That same year, Garay was sold to Real Madrid, only to be loaned back out to his former club. After returning at the start of the 2009/10 season, he took full advantage of starting centre-back Pepe's serious injury and amassed 23 appearances with 20 starts. The following season, now under José Mourinho, was not as productive; with the Argentinean centre-back involved in a mere 8 matches. Looking for a new challenge, Garay had no trouble choosing Benfica, a club again on the rise, with a coach that excelled at bringing the best out from his players.
Over the last season and a half, Garay has been the perfect partner for the eternal Luisão, Benfica's captain. His performances are notable for for his consistency, excellent passing skills and discreet but sure ability to make the right tackle or interception at the right time. Playing in a Benfica side that favours pressing and playing out from the back, Garay is the chosen centre-back to start plays and the pressing once his team lose the ball.
If Manchester United end up buying the player, they'll gain a great passer of the ball, one that does not shy away from responsibility or intense battles. His passing vision often proves useful at Benfica (like Manchester United, used to having to break down tight defensive walls), since he is more than able to bring the ball up the pitch and then pick the right pass. Also, similarly to what Ricardo Carvalho did for John Terry at Chelsea, his speed (even though he is no Pepe) would likely allow him to both play a higher pressing game (something neither Vidic or Ferdinand are particularly fond of doing these days) and sweeping up behind Vidic (assuming Garay would gradually take Ferdinand's place).
There may be a few challenges ahead of course. The Premier League is played at a much higher pace than the Portuguese League, something that sometimes bamboozles players hailing from Portugal. Furthermore, players (especially strikers) are quicker off the shoulder behind the defence and the referees do not have the tendency to blow their whistle at the slightest contact. With that in mind, and using Garay's time in Spain as a guide - particularly at Real Madrid - his speed and physicality could be what makes or breaks the player in England. While he is not one to back down from powerful opponents, he is sometimes vulnerable in that particular department.
If he manages to adapt quickly to that context, he will prove a great piece of business. If not, he will find himself in a similar position to David Luiz - appreciated by some, not so much by others.