A long, strange trip

Carlos Martins was raised as a footballer by Sporting Lisbon. On Sunday evening, he fired their city rivals back into the title race. Ben Shave has the story, and all the action from Round 7 of the Liga ZON Sagres.

The fans at the Nuevo Colombino were sad to see him go. In thirty-one appearances, the player they nicknamed Carlitos had powered his way into their affections, becoming a crucial part of what will be remembered as a season where the wheels came off at an alarming rate, but in the end, survival was secured. Recreativo de Huelva's 8th-placed finish in the 2006/7 La Liga season was one of the more remarkable achievements that Spanish football has seen in recent times. Like many promoted from La Segunda, the club were on shaky monetary ground, and as such were expected to make a swift return to whence they came. They defied the odds, securing another season of top-flight football and then some. But as even the most casual of fans can tell you, staying up is not even half the battle. The trend that has become known as 'second-season syndrome' affects teams the world over, and as the yawning financial chasm between the haves and the have nots continues to increase, long-term security becomes an almost impossible dream that many have fallen trying to achieve.

Not that it stops them from trying. Recreativo's recruitment policy in the summer of 2007 reflected their parlous financial state, but they hit the jackpot in their acquisition of Carlos Jorge Neto Martins, a midfielder who wanted out. Speaking to Portuguese television network RTPi in November 2007, Martins outlined his reasons for leaving, declaring that his relationship with then-Sporting CP coach Paulo Bento had become less than ideal. If they gave out awards for understatement in interviews, Martins would surely have swept the board. Having joined Sporting at the age of eight, he made his first-team debut in 2002, after a season on loan at S.C Campomaiorense. Although the fans at the Alvalade immediately took to the combative midfielder, appreciating his uncompromising style of play, a succession of injuries stunted his development, and in January 2003, he was loaned out once more, to Académica. He returned to the Sporting squad for the 2003/4 season, but during the following four years was unable to establish himself as a first-team regular. This can partly be attributed to injury, but Martins did not do himself any favours by neglecting the defensive side of the game, an understanding of which is essential for any modern central midfielder. This was augmented by his uneasy rapport with Bento, who never fully placed his trust in the Coimbra native.

Matters came to a head in February 2007, when Bento took the decision to freeze Martins out of his squad until season's end, whereupon the player was transfer-listed. Rumours persist as to the nature of the infraction which pushed Bento over the edge, but Martins himself later intimated that their confrontation(s) had verged on becoming physical. Recreativo stepped in, and Martins departed from the club that raised him. As at Sporting, the fans in Spain soon embraced their new signing, and for his part, Martins responded with the finest season of his career, producing six goals from midfield. The high point came in December 2007, where his brace was enough to give Recreativo a vital home win over relegation rivals Real Zaragoza. At the end of the season, Recreativo finished on forty-four points, with Zaragoza condemned to the drop, two points back.

In one of football's odd quirks, Zaragoza's goal in that 2-1 loss was scored by Diego Milito, who, like Martins, was at that time plying his trade a good level or two below that which his ability merited. Neither would remain in Spain, with Milito returning to his beloved Genoa, and Martins signing for Sporting's arch-rivals Benfica. Perhaps not incidentally, Benfica's new manager that summer (Quique Sánchez Flores) arrived in Lisbon from Spain, where the performances of Martins would have undoubtedly caught his eye. Initially, the fans at the Luz were somewhat suspicious of their €3m acquisition, not especially surprising given his background. However, Martins sealed the deal with his new supporters in March 2009, where he stepped up to net the decisive penalty in that season's Taça da Liga final shootout. Benfica's opponents that day? Sporting Clube de Portugal.

The following season saw the arrival of Jorge Jesus at the Luz, and whilst never the first name on the team sheet, Martins played his part in what was Benfica's finest campaign in years, scoring a beautiful free-kick in the 2010 Taça da Liga final. This past summer saw the departure of Ramires and Ángel Di Maria, freeing up two places in Benfica's midfield diamond. Although Martins initially failed to cement one as his own, recent weeks have seen him rectify that situation. Even during Benfica's poorest performances, Martins has been a voluble presence, driving his teammates forward, with varying levels of success.

Then came Sunday. Benfica's meeting with Sporting Braga pitted the two likeliest challengers to FC Porto's early-season dominance against one another, with defeat an unthinkable proposition. As such, the encounter was tight from the outset, with both defences excelling, and neither manager willing to gamble too much too soon. Such matches are generally decided by a single goal, and that was the case at the Luz. Fábio Coentrão, restored to left-back by Jorge Jesus, made a rare foray down the wing; with Braga's right-back Sílvio caught upfield. The youngster found Javier Saviola (who had missed a golden opportunity a few minutes earlier), and the diminutive Argentine floated a precise ball over the Braga defence to Martins, who had barrelled his way into the penalty area, unmarked and unnoticed. After bringing the ball down with his right foot, the midfielder crashed home an unstoppable left-footed strike, and seventy-three minutes of tension were released in a single moment of raw catharsis. Martins' celebration said more than his now-characteristically circumspect post-match interviews ever would. The boy who grew up at Sporting has become a man at Benfica.

Round 7 Talking Points

That goal assumed even more importance on Monday evening, as FC Porto finally dropped their first points of the season, in a scrappy, ill-tempered meeting with Vitória Guimarães. The Dragons were on top from the first whistle, and after Hulk's superbly-taken goal (his ninth of the season in all competitions) gave them the lead going into half-time, they looked certain to enter the international break with that 100% record intact. Somehow Guimarães fought their way back into the match. After sixty-three minutes, a seemingly innocuous long ball was hurled forward towards substitute Abdelghani Faouzi, signed over the summer from Wynad Casablanca. The Moroccan, tracked by Porto's Uruguayan full-back Jorge Fucile, looked to be chasing a lost cause, only for Fucile to completely mistime his jump, which left Faouzi one on one with Helton. His calm, smooth finish levelled the match, and lit the torch paper under a Porto side not accustomed to tasting defeat. Fucile, clearly incensed by his error, was dismissed fourteen minutes later after a horrendous stamp on the ankle of Faouzi earned him a second yellow from Carlos Xistra. Replays showed that the Uruguayan can have no complaints, yet his manager André Villas Boas protested so vociferously that he too was shown red. Despite the numerical disadvantage, Porto looked the more likely winners as the game reached its frantic conclusion, but Guimarães held on for a point that takes them up to second, seven points behind the Dragons. Villas Boas described the performances of the officials as “scandalous”, but in a quieter moment, the young manager will reflect on his own actions.

Joining Guimarães and Benfica on twelve points are Olhanense, who have arguably been the story of the campaign so far. Led by Daúto Faquirá, a manager with less than a season's worth of top-flight experience, the modest Algarve outfit confirmed their lofty ambitions with a convincing 3-1 win over Vitória Setúbal on Saturday evening. Despite missing an early penalty, winger Paulo Sérgio nevertheless recovered his composure to deliver a beautiful cross for the opener minutes later. Centre-back Maurício met the ball with a towering header, and full-back João Gonçalves doubled the lead eight minutes before the interval. Setúbal keeper Diego Silva was left baffled by a slight deflection, and Olhanense looked to be cruising. However, Manuel Fernandes rallied his troops during the break and Setúbal pulled a deserved goal back through Ricardo Silva after fifty-seven minutes. For a time it looked as if Olhanense were going to succumb to the pressure, but another Sérgio corner, this one converted by Jardel, restored their advantage; and Setúbal were unable to mount a second comeback. Faquirá was philosophical after the victory, declaring their rarified position in the table to be “temporary”, but the fact remains that Olhanense have conceded just four goals in their opening seven games, and - on Saturday's display - look capable of giving problems to most sides in this division.

Below the top four lies another unlikely success story, União de Leiria, who secured their third win of the season in Friday's round opener against fellow high-flyers Académica. Jorge Costa's men took the lead against the run of play, with Fidalgo converting after excellent work from Sougou, undoubtedly one of the most exciting players in Portugal. However, instead of killing the game off with a second, Académica elected to drop deeper and deeper as time pressed on, and Leiria, emboldened by the timidity of their opponents, drove forward until the inevitable equaliser came from Carlão, who seized upon the ball after Académica failed to clear their lines. Spurred on by this, Leiria threw caution to the wind in the final ten minutes, and were rewarded when substitute Zhang (who made his name last season when he scored a hat-trick against Sporting, whilst playing for semi-professional Mafra in the Taça de Portugal) got the back of his head to a free-kick and saw the ball loop over everyone and into the net. Leiria were deserved winners, and - hopefully - a run of positive results can increase local interest- their average attendance this season is hovering around the 1200 mark.

Another side with attendance issues are Naval. Their 2-1 home loss at the hands of Paços de Ferreira attracted a thoroughly depressing 384 bodies. A combination of bad weather and worse results presumably dissuaded the people of Figueira da Foz from making the trip to support their side, but the statistics make for grim reading. Home ties with Porto and Sporting saw around 5000 packed into the Estádio Municipal José Bento Pessoa, but the other two games staged there this season have been Sunday's horror show, and a 0-0 draw with Setúbal, witnessed by a mere 712. Blaming the results and the weather might be convenient for a national media with minimal interest, but such a low turnout is, in truth, inexcusable. On the club's Facebook page (a predictably depressing read), the latest status questions when the last time was that the attendance matched the 1999 who 'Like' the page. An apt question. President Aprígo Santos will hope to bring back the people with Tuesday's appointment of Rogério Gonçalves, who has already had two successful spells as manager.

A well-travelled veteran of Portugal's lower leagues, Gonçalves has on his resume a season with Beira Mar, who currently lie one place above Naval, following their impressive 1-1 home draw with Sporting CP on Monday evening. Although the Aveiro outfit were happy to hand the initiative to their opponents during the first half, they took the lead after thirty-eight minutes through Renan. The Brazilian's free-kick somehow escaped the fingertips of Rui Patrício, who despite vocally positioning his wall, still contrived to wholly misjudge the flight of the Jabulani. Yes, the Jabulani. João Pereira pulled one back for Sporting three minutes later, but Beira Mar dug in, played their way out of trouble with impressive composure, and could well have taken all three points. Paulo Sérgio's men huffed and puffed, but couldn't break through the well-drilled back line of last season's Liga de Honra champions. Sérgio admitted after the match that the problems were familiar ones, but as the Lions departed the Mário Duarte to jeers and whistles from their travelling fans, he offered no new solutions. Last Thursday's 5-0 humbling of Levski Sofia showed that Sporting can cope with defensive outfits, but their season so far has been defined by a chronic lack of consistency. The clock is ticking, on Sérgio but also on the Bettencourt administration that selected him.

Round 7 Results:

UD Leiria 2-1 Académica, Olhanense 3-1 Vitória Setúbal, Rio Ave 0-0 Marítimo, Nacional 3-1 Portimonense, Naval 1-2 Paços de Ferreira, Benfica 1-0 Sporting Braga, Beira Mar 1-1 Sporting CP, Vitória Guimarães 1-1 FC Porto.

No fixtures this coming weekend as the Selecção are in action against Denmark and Iceland. The weekend of the 16th/17th sees the 3rd Round of the Taça de Portugal take place, I'll return with a roundup of the action the following Tuesday.

Ben writes regularly for IBWM, but if you would like to read more from him please visit cahiers du sport.