EuropeBen ShaveComment

Love Thy Neighbour

EuropeBen ShaveComment

This weekend saw no less than three local derbies take place in Portugal. Ben Shave rounds up all the action from Round 11.

Ask someone to name a Portuguese derby, and they'll inevitably cite the age-old rivalry between Benfica and Sporting, which has divided the city of Lisbon since 1907. They might also reference O Clásscio, the meeting between Benfica and FC Porto which, as was discussed last week, has become the pre-eminent derby in Portuguese football. Yet despite the stranglehold that these two encounters hold on the footballing calendar, there are others. Plenty of them, in fact. Admittedly none are as well-attended and widely-covered in the media as those involving the três grandes, but for fans of those involved, they are as important an occasion as when the likes of Benfica come to town.

A quirk in the fixture list meant that this season, three derbies took place over a single round. All were, considering the stature of the clubs involved, exceptionally well-attended, and all three contained the passion and tribalism that makes Portugal one of the most vibrant smaller European nations for footballing culture.

Round 11 opened on Friday evening, with the meeting between Clube Desportivo Nacional and Club Sport Marítimo- the derby of Madeira. The fact that an island with such a small population (around 250,000) can support two top-flight sides with rich histories (plus three lower division outfits) whilst coping with the inevitable 'fan drain' towards Lisbon and Porto stands as a testament to the strength of feeling on the part of the local populace towards not only football, but Madeiran identity. Alberto João Jardim, the charismatic but controversial Governor of the island, proposed in 1997 a merger of Marítimo, Nacional, and CF União Madeira (currently competing in the II Divisão but at the time a top-flight side) in order to challenge the dominance of the major powers. He gambled on the collective desire of the populace to see Madeira assert itself, but his plan was shelved amidst mass demonstrations.

Like many city derbies around the world, Madeira's is divided along socio-economic lines. Marítimo has traditionally been viewed as the club of the working class, whilst Nacional are perceived as the club of the island's elite. Despite the pace of globalisation and commercialisation in football, the rivalry has not been diluted over the years, with one famous flashpoint being Cristiano Ronaldo, Madeira's most famous son. The story goes that the young Ronaldo turned down an offer from Marítimo to begin his footballing career at Nacional, where his godfather was part of the administration. As with many points of conjecture between rival teams, the truth has been somewhat forgotten amidst the desire to enhance and strengthen the rivalry- Ronaldo was ten at the time, and it is almost certain that the decision was made for him- but as anyone who supports a club with a city rival will know, rationality does not often enter the equation.

On the pitch, Nacional have had the better of things this season, with Marítimo hovering around the bottom two. This state of affairs was reflected on Friday, with Nacional carving out the clearest chances in the first half. Luis Alberto forced a fine save out of Marcelo Boeck, and the 2856 bodies packed into the Estádio do Madeira, colloquially known as Choupana- the hut, went into half-time expecting a home victory. But the crowd were instead treated to a scrappy second period, with few presentable chances for either side. Djalma almost netted with an acrobatic scissor kick for Marítimo, and Boeck pulled off another decent save just before the final whistle, but the main incident was the dismissal of Nacional centre-back Danielson, seven minutes from time. The Brazilian tugged on the shirt of Kléber as they chased a long ball, but the Marítimo man went down exceptionally easily. The point leaves Nacional in 5th spot, with Marítimo (who have only scored five goals this season) one place above the drop zone.

Saturday's Minho derby, which saw Vitória de Guimarães host Sporting Braga, was a far livelier and technically accomplished affair. The two cities are separated by just 25 kilometres, and around 4000 Braga fans made the trip. The club did their bit for safety by laying on free transport, and the inevitable reports of trouble along the way quickly emerged. They arrived at the D. Afonso Henriques stadium to what was described by the Vitória vice-president as "our biggest ever" security operation, involving hundreds of police and stewards. This was no mere idle show of force- the rivalry between these two sides has its origins in the very foundation of Portugal as a unified country: Afonso Henriques was the first King of Portugal, and Guimarães was his birthplace and capital. Braga was the most important conurbation in the early kingdom of Gallaecia, but the perception amongst fans is that Guimarães has been a usurping force throughout history.

All stirring stuff, I'm sure you'll agree, but in footballing terms, the rivalry has been taken up a notch by Braga's recent success. Yet Domingos Paciência's men have been on the slide of late, and their local rivals entered the game in 2nd place. The atmosphere was raucous and smoke-filled, and the 25,651 fans were rewarded with a cracking first half. Having dominated the early proceedings, Braga went ahead when Alan bundled the ball over the line, and the pace increased as Vitória strove for an equaliser. It came on the stroke of half-time, through Maranhão. Braga failed to clear a free-kick, and the on-loan Brazilian sent in a low shot which Felipe was unable to hold onto. The breakneck pace spilled over into ill-feeling moments later, when Alan was shown a straight red for apparently elbowing Flávio Meireles. Replays indicated that the Vitória captain had in fact been brushed across the chest by an unintentional arm, but the reaction from the bench along with that of the player saw João Ferreira brandish an ill-advised red card.

What had been a full-blooded encounter turned into a game of cat and mouse during the second half, as Braga desperately held out for a point. Vitória continued to press, but it looked as if Paciência had masterminded a fine defensive display from his beleaguered players. However, fate intervened with seven minutes remaining. Alex sent in a deep cross that went beyond Edgar, but Miguel Garcia, the Braga right-back, panicked. Sensing the onrushing Bruno Teles, he hacked at the ball, with the intention of sending it behind for a corner. Instead, it trickled beyond the despairing Felipe and into the back of the net. 2-1 Vitória, and the balance of power in the North continues to shift.

Vitória now look well-placed to challenge for the European places, and speculation that they could perhaps emulate the achievements of Braga last season continues to mount. Manuel Machado certainly has a talented group of players, although the number of chances squandered during the second half indicates that they are some way from being the finished article. But for the fans on Saturday evening, inflicting a third successive defeat on their hated rivals will have been far sweeter than the nebulous possibility of success in the title race. They won the derby.

Round 11 Talking Points:

The final derby of the weekend came on Sunday afternoon, as Rio Ave hosted Paços de Ferreira. Although the hosts' main rivals are Liga de Honra side Varzim, who are just 4 kilometres down the road, their absence means that Paços represent the next best option. Having written about the Rio Ave revival in recent weeks, it came as something as a surprise when Paços took an early lead through Mário Rondon. However, a nine-minute brace from the veteran João Tomás gave the Vila do Conde side the lead going into half-time, and although Benfica loanee Nelson Oliveira almost levelled matters soon after the restart, the second half was a much more comfortable for Carlos Brito and his men. Braga added a third with twenty minutes remaining, and once Rondon was dismissed for a second bookable offence, the victory was secure. Rio Ave are now unbeaten in three games, and have climbed out the relegation zone. Given their current form and upcoming fixture list, the safety of mid-table is beckoning.

Whilst Rio Ave have been impressive of late, Beira Mar, who have not tasted defeat since September 26th, continue to defy expectations. They went behind to an early goal at Olhanense, when Adilson met Paulo Sérgio's neat through ball with a precise finish. Given the home form of the Algarve club, few would have given Beira Mar much of a chance after that, but Leonardo Jardim's side continued to press for an equaliser, playing neat, possession-based football, rarely resorting to aimless long passes forward. They rode their luck a little, and Olhanense will look back with regret on some poor finishing, but when Renan struck a stunning free-kick from 35 yards in the final minute, few neutrals would have begrudged Beira Mar a well-earned point. Promoted sides generally struggle in the top-flight, with most finding the technical step up too great, as well as the task of coping with the financial problems that an extended stay in the lower divisions inevitably brings. Yet Beira Mar are sitting in 8th spot, just three points back from Sporting in 4th, and level with 6th-placed Académica, who they host in the Taça de Portugal this weekend. Heady times in Aveiro.

Benfica bounced back from their humbling loss in the Clássico with a 4-0 home win over rock-bottom Naval. The Eagles took an early lead through Kardec, but did not have it their own way throughout the first half, with the visitors pouring on pressure and forcing a number of fine saves from Roberto. Rogério Gonçalves has an uphill battle if he wants to save the Figueira da Foz outfit from the drop, but he will have been heartened by the opening forty-five minutes in Lisbon. Yet as is generally the case in Portugal, a combination of profligate finishing (Naval have the second worst attack in the Liga) and Benfica's quality eventually told. Nico Gaitán capitalised on some slack defending and grabbed a memorable brace. The first came from twenty-five yards out, a crisp half-volley which swerved beyond the outstretched Salin. The second might have been even better. Salvio, who delivered his best performance in a Benfica shirt, sent in a deep cross, which Gaitán, who had ghosted into the box unmarked by the Naval back line, side-footed home on the volley.

It was an audacious finish, and but for the events of the final minute, would have stolen the headlines. But those went to Nuno Gomes, a bit-part player at the Luz these days, but still an idol amongst the fans. The veteran latched onto a short back pass, tussled with Salin and managed to poke home from an angle. Gomes, who has recently lost his father, was clearly emotional as he celebrated, and much of the next day's column inches were dedicated to a player who has accepted his reduced role with remarkable good grace, considering his standing at the club. Gomes recently announced his decision to depart from Benfica at the end of the season, citing his desire to play one more full campaign. His destination is not yet clear, but moments like Sunday's will ensure that he always has a place in the hearts of Benfiquistas.

Results:

Nacional 0-0 Marítimo, Vitória de Guimarães 2-1 Sporting Braga, Académica 1-2 Sporting (Pedro Mendes made his return from injury), Rio Ave 3-1 Paços de Ferreira, União de Leiria 1-0 Vitória de Setúbal (905 through the gates, dear oh dear), Olhanense 1-1 Beira Mar, Benfica 4-0 Naval, FC Porto 2-0 Portimonense.

No Liga matches this coming weekend as the Taça de Portugal 4th Round is taking place. It returns on the 26th, here are the fixtures:

Vitória de Setúbal-Académica, Marítimo-Vitória de Guimarães, Paços de Ferreira-Olhanense, Sporting-FC Porto, Naval-Rio Ave, Portimonense-União de Leiria, Beira Mar-Benfica, Sporting Braga-Nacional.

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