Portugal's três grandes made it safely through the minefield that is the Taça 3rd Round. Ben Shave on why not just their fans will have been pleased with the weekend's action.
Late Saturday afternoon. A plush, air-conditioned boardroom located in the swankier confines of Lisbon's business district. Bushy of moustache, round of gut and purple of complexion, they puffed lazily on cigars, availing themselves of the extensive buffet situated at one end of the room. They sat, made small talk, paying little attention to the screen on one wall. Then, suddenly, simultaneously, they began to sweat, fidgeting in their leather seats. Someone asked for the air-con to be turned up a little, but the uncomfortable feeling remained. It persisted for over half an hour, into the early evening, and the relief, when it came, was like water to a dying man. 'Not before time!' they chuckled to one another, safe in the knowledge that soon, the world would be set to rights once more. And so it came pass, less than twenty minutes later.
The offices were those of Sport TV, the game was Estoril-Sporting, and the event was the 3rd Round in the Taça de Portugal, the stage at which the big guns entered the fray. Now I wasn't privy to the executive gathering on Saturday afternoon, but it doesn't take much of an imaginative leap to picture the horror on the faces of those movers and shakers when Alex Afonso, a much-travelled Brazilian striker, headed the home side in front after thirty-six minutes. As exclusive holders of the rights to the Taça, the BWIN Cup and all but one of the weekly televised matches from the Liga ZON Sagres, as well as a plethora of international football competitions, Sport TV is big business. And in a country like Portugal, where you can carve up the population by which of the três grandes they follow, business is, well, good. For most of the time that is. But weekends like this past Saturday and Sunday always send an involuntary shudder down the spine of even the most hard-nosed television executive.
Just as in the UK, the entry of the top-flight sides into the national cup competition provides a noticeable injection of media interest and intrigue. The phrase 'shot in the arm' has rarely been more appropriate. Whilst the opening two rounds are set aside for the provincial sides to scratch and scrabble for a paragraph on the inside of A Bola, Record, or O Jogo (which is incidentally owned by the same company that owns Sport TV, the aptly-named Controlinveste); the entry of Benfica, FC Porto and Sporting CP throws the proverbial cat amongst the proverbial pigeons. In this case, the cat is the prospect of a giant-killing, the pigeons are the high-powered suits at Sport TV. It's often said amongst footballing neutrals that everyone loves a good giant-killing. But in modern footballing parlance, the phrase is anathema amongst certain circles. Sure, it's great for Estoril, or Porto's opponents AD Limianos, or Arouca, who sent their entire playing squad (along with thirty-two busloads of fans) to the Estádio da Luz on Saturday evening. It's great for the newspapermen, the neutrals, the fans of other clubs. Everyone loves a good giant-killing. But when the dust has settled and the next stage comes around, the people (always a nebulous collective but one often referenced by our pals in the boardrooms) don't love it anymore. They don't want to see Estoril cancel out Malveira da Serra, or Limianos, or anyone not named Benfica, Porto or Sporting. They don't love it, they sure as hell won't watch it, so the ratings tumble, and when the ratings tumble, our friends in the suits are forced to remove their ties and reach for the brandy.
Luckily for them, the 3rd Round of the 2010 Taça de Portugal passed off without a hitch. Sporting's first-half performance in Estoril must have surely raised the blood pressure levels of the TV men (not to mention their fans) through the roof. Devoid of rhythm, ideas, and any attacking threat, the Lions were lucky to make it to the interval only a single goal in arrears. Paulo Sérgio made his pitch for the Carlos Martins Understatement In An Interview Award in his post-match chat, when he described his side's display as “very bad.” Sporting were abject, and Estoril, who have enjoyed a fine start to the season in the Liga de Honra, looked set to pull off a shock. But the introduction of Salomão (yet another promising product of Sporting's academy) and a fit-again Liédson galvanised the away side, who finally began to resemble a club of their stature. Salomão provided the assist for Liédson's equaliser after sixty-four minutes, and some questionable defending allowed Postiga to crash home the winner ten minutes from time. Sporting are still searching for that Holy Grail of consistency, but with the cup competitions only requiring sporadically strong performances, and the title already surely out of reach, Paulo Sérgio will surely be pinning his hopes of silverware on the Taça. Something that will please the good people at Sport TV no end.
Taça 3rd Round Talking Points:
Following Estoril-Sporting, FC Porto did their bit to calm the nerves, running out easy 4-1 winners over a determined but hopelessly outclassed Limianos, who deserve great praise for the support that they brought to the Dragão. Their engaging of the Porto fans in a who can shout the name of our team the loudest competition brought life to a game that was fairly uneventful, with the result never in doubt. André Villas Boas was unhappy with the marking that led to Limianos' consolation goal, but to poke too many holes in such a routine performance would be churlish. In the absence of eight first-team regulars, Porto's reserves and youthful prospects grabbed the headlines, with Brazilian striker Walter (a summer signing from International de Porto Alegre) helping himself to a hat-trick. Although he was undoubtedly aided by the slack defending and reduced stamina of the semi-professional opposition, the twenty-one year old did what was required on his first start in blue and white. The contributions of Ukra, Castro, and Colombian prodigy James Rodríguez will also have pleased André Villas Boas, who will be counting on every member of his squad; for what looks set to be a season fought on four fronts.
Benfica racked up the largest winning margin of the weekend, hammering Arouca (currently 8th in the Liga de Honra) 5-1 at a sparsely-populated Luz. The Eagles have paid little attention to the Taça in recent years (their last appearance in the final was in 2005, where they lost to Setúbal), but on the evidence of Saturday, Jorge Jesus is eyeing unfamiliar silverware. With Coentrão injured and Maxi Pereira, David Luiz and Carlos Martins handed a well-earned rest following their exertions on international duty, Benfica lined up with an attacking formation; leaving just Javi García to hold behind Salvio, Aimar, Gaitán, Saviola, and Kardec. The home side were dominant from the off, but had to wait until the twenty-fourth minute to make the breakthrough, which was engineered by the impressive Gaitán. Operating on the right wing, the left-footed Argentine jinked inside, calmly transferred the ball onto his left foot, and planted a cross onto the head of Kardec. The deadlock broken, Benfica added two more before half-time, which signalled a lazier second-half display, reminiscent of a training match. With five minutes remaining, Gaitán put the exclamation point on a fine individual performance with the fifth, exchanging a swift one-two with Nuno Gomes before gliding into the box and neatly chipping Pedro Soares. Comparisons with Ángel Di María are perhaps inevitable, but Gaitán is a less explosive proposition: a smaller, nimbler player who appears happier when cutting into the centre. Irregardless, his emerging form is another source of optimism for Benfica, who travel to Lyon on Wednesday evening.
The only giant-killing occurred at the Dr. Magalhães Pessoa, where União de Leiria were eliminated after extra time by União Madeira, a semi-professional team from the Northern group of the country's third tier. Whether a side who have an average home attendance of 1244 can be constituted as a giant is a matter for debate, but either way, it was an embarrassing day for President João Alberto Bartolomeu and coach Pedro Caixinha, who have overseen a summer of shrewd spending and a season which, until Saturday, had been progressing nicely. Whilst the cynical view is that elimination from a competition that the club are unlikely to win anyway doesn't represent much of a blow, the loss may well serve to reduce local interest in a side struggling to maintain what little support they currently have. Bartolomeu confirmed on Monday that former Portuguese international Ricardo Sá Pinto will join the club as assistant coach, a move that is almost guaranteed to cause fireworks. An icon as a player at Sporting, Sá Pinto was sacked as Sporting Director at the Alvalade following a physical confrontation with Liédson in December of last year. Bartolomeu is undoubtedly hoping that Sá Pinto's fiery brand of motivation can galvanise both players and fans, but the move has the potential to seriously backfire. Either way, it should be interesting.
Whilst Leiria were the only top-flight side to crash out to lower-league opposition, others came mighty close. Académica required an extra-time winner at Cesarense, whilst Beira Mar, Olhanense and Setúbal snuck through on penalties. The fact is that the Taça only becomes an endeavour worthy of a manager's full attention during the later, more lucrative stages, and sides such as these often attempt to strike a balance between avoiding a humiliating defeat and not risking important players. Thus far, it's a strategy that has worked for all but one of them.
SU 1 Dezembro 1-2 Sporting Braga, Gil Vicente 1-1 Vitória Setúbal (Setúbal win on penalties), União de Leiria 1-2 União Madeira (AET), Estoril 1-2 Sporting CP, FC Porto 4-1 AD Limianos, Benfica 5-1 Arouca, Sertanense 0-0 Olhanense (Olhanense win on penalties), GD Ribeirão 2-0 Belenenses (more woe for the other Lisbon club), SC Mirandela 1-1 Beira Mar (Beira Mar win on penalties), Cesarense 1-2 Académica (AET), Portimonense 2-0 CD Cinfães, Paços de Ferreira 3-1 SC João Ver, Naval 0-2 Marítimo, Leixões 3-2 CD Mafra, Nacional 4-2 Padroense, Vitória Guimarães 4-0 Malveira da Serra.
The Liga ZON Sagres returns this weekend, here are the fixtures:
Académica-Nacional, Paços de Ferreira-Beira Mar, Vitória Setúbal-Vitória Guimarães, Sporting Braga-Olhanense, Marítimo-Naval, Sporting CP-Rio Ave, Portimonense-Benfica, FC Porto-União de Leiria.
Ben writes regularly for IBWM, but if you would like to read more from him please visit cahiers du sport.