The best cure for lack of sleep? A victory for your team, preferably one which includes a Carlos Alberto-esque goal, of course. Ben Shave rounds up the action from Round 9 of the Liga ZON Sagres.
Carlos Brito hasn't been sleeping well. The Rio Ave manager admitted as much to Sport TV this weekend, citing the stress and demands that coaching a top-flight side places upon him, both mentally and physically. A glance at the table before Round Nine would have highlighted some of the issues which have presumably haunted Brito since the middle of August- issues that no amount of counting sheep could have solved. For after eight rounds, Rio Ave were bottom. In fact, the side from Vila do Conde appeared to have taken it upon themselves to redefine the phrase 'rock bottom.' If Dwayne Johnson followed Portuguese football, he would have had his lawyers typing up a cease and desist order quicker than you could ask the nearest person to you if they could smell what the Rock was cookin'.
In those eight games, Rio Ave had picked up a mere three points. Depressing enough, but Brito's problems would have been compounded by the cruellest of contradictory facts: despite their position in the table, his side weren't that bad. Shipping ten goals isn't exactly title-winning form, but those sort of foolish expectations are, along with world-class defenders, in short supply at Portugal's provincial training grounds. Académica had also conceded ten, and they were sitting in 3rd place heading into last weekend. And whilst it's true that Rio Ave haven't exactly been bursting the old onion bag on a regular basis, they are hardly alone in boasting a woeful strike rate, in a Liga which, outside of the usual suspects, is particularly short on quality centre-forwards this season. No, Rio Ave deserved better than bottom. Naval were indubitably worse, and as for União de Leiria, don't even get me started. Despite losing two key players from last season in centre-back Fábio Faria (who joined Benfica) and full-back Sílvio (who has blossomed at Braga, winning his first Portugal cap), Brito had managed to hang onto his creative linchpins (Bruno Gama and Bruno China), whilst securing the erratic but promising Yazalde on loan from Braga for another season.
But despite this, and the understandable optimism that last season's 12th place-finish could be at least replicated, Rio Ave were rock bottom. It's difficult to pick out one low point, although failing to beat fellow strugglers Marítimo at the Estádio dos Arcos is undoubtedly a strong contender. Conceding a heartbreaking 89th-minute goal at the Alvalade against Sporting would have been enough to break most teams, and indeed I opined on this very website last week that despite his long and proud association with the club, Brito was on the brink. As wind, rain, and even lightning pierced the Vila do Conde skies prior to kick-off against Braga this past Saturday evening, the omens were all bad.
What followed was wholly unexpected. Rio Ave, perhaps aided by the inclement conditions, certainly benefiting from Braga's shaky away form this season (Domingos Paciência's side have picked up just two points away from the Quarry), came out swinging, exhibiting a direct but still engaging style, and worrying their illustrious opponents right from the off. Yazalde, presumably galvanised by the prospect of showing his parent employers exactly what they are missing, hit the post, ran the channels and generally provided an outlet for the high but not aimless passes coming from the midfield. Chances came and went, but still no goal. Following the dismissal of Moisés after twenty-eight minutes and Felipe saving the resulting penalty from João Tomas, the buffeted fans in the Arcos would have been feeling that this wasn't their day, and perhaps, their season. After the interval, the ten men of Braga began to exert some control over the flow of the game, with substitute Paulo César in particular posing all sorts of problems to the home defence.
It seemed as if an away goal was only a matter of time. In a minute by minute report, I said that Braga were looking the more likely winners with every passing second. I turned out to be half-right. In a move that resembled nothing less than Brazil's fourth goal against Italy in the 1970 World Cup final (yes, that one), Rio Ave took the lead. Patiently edging forward, the ball was eventually played by João Tomas inside to Bruno Gama, who waited, waited, and waited some more (he's Péle in this hackneyed comparison), before nudging it across to the onrushing right-back Zé Gomes, who, in the manner of Carlos Alberto, crashed home emphatically. It was a remarkably intricate move finished with a powerful exclamation point, and the unfettered joy in Brito's celebration was obvious. Zé Gomes, who hadn't scored since October 22nd 2006, could barely believe it. Any prospect of a late rally from Braga was killed off ten minutes later, when Bruno Gama, offered plenty of space by the indisciplined Elderson, delivered a perfect cross for João Tomas to meet ahead of Sílvio. 2-0 Rio Ave, and finally, a victory for the home fans to celebrate.
Following the final whistle, Brito was at pains to emphasise the quality of his side, who lifted themselves to within one point of 14th-placed Portimonense. Declaring that “the season has not been fair to us”, the man who had just saved his job trudged off into the dressing room, content in the knowledge that his side now face a run of eminently winnable matches against Setúbal, Paços and Naval; and also perhaps anticipating a better night's sleep.
Round 9 Talking Points:
FC Porto continued their march towards the title, preparing for next Sunday's Clasico against Benfica with a 1-0 victory at Académica. What looked like a potentially enticing meeting was, in the event, ruined by the abysmal weather which had gripped Northern Portugal throughout Saturday. The recently-relaid surface at the Estádio de Coimbra absorbed what seemed like a year's worth of rainfall in twelve hours, and whilst the downfalls were only sporadic once the match kicked off, the damage had been done. Porto's normal high-tempo passing game was rendered impotent by the swamp-like conditions, and the encounter came to be dominated by a kick and rush style more reminiscent of that seen on the fields of Eton in the 1860's. With neither side at their incisive best, the game was always likely to be turned on a moment of quality, and it came just before half-time, courtesy of Porto's Silvestre Varela. Académica failed to adequately clear a high ball in (what else?), and Varela seized upon the chance, swivelling his body and striking a crisp volley beyond Peiser. It was a goal of wonderful poise and precision, and with Académica unable to muster a single shot on goal during the second half, it was more than enough to restore Porto's seven-point lead at the top of the table. Jorge Costa, an FC Porto idol now managing in Coimbra, argued that the game should have been postponed, and he might have had a point, but it looks increasingly as if the title race this season will be decided next Sunday, and on April 3rd 2011.
Having confidently predicted that off-field events would provide too great a distraction to Leonardo Jardim and his squad to continue to perform well, it should perhaps have come as no surprise when Beira Mar eased past fellow strugglers Naval to notch up their second win of the season, and extend their unbeaten run to three games. Artur's penalty and summer signing Leandro Tatu gave the Aveiro side a comfortable half-time lead in this local derby, and although Edvaldo pulled one back for the travellers, Jardim's men held out before Sporting loanee Wilson Eduardo kept his composure when through on goal, calmly slotting home to secure the 3-1 win. Despite their chronically limited resources, Beira Mar are an attractive side to watch, and in goalkeeper Rui Rêgo boast one of Portugal's finest young players. They look set to be the neutral's choice in a relegation battle which is beginning to take shape. As for Naval, they now prop up the table following four straight defeats.
The Sporting revival continues apace, with the Lions securing their second straight Liga win (and their fourth in all competitions) against a Leiria side who look increasingly as if they are going to be drawn into that aforementioned relegation battle. Sporting were spearheaded by the Chilean Jaime Valdés, who rekindled the pre-season form cut short by a combination of injury and reduced opportunities. Paulo Sérgio unveiled another new formation in 4-2-3-1, partly due to injury and partly due to his emerging tinkering tendencies, but on the evidence of Sunday's game, any setup which accommodates both Simon Vukcevic and Valdés is one worth pursuing in my opinion. André Santos and Maniche provided an effective combination of screening and more offensive midfield play, whilst Vukcevic was able to pull the strings from a more central position. Abel flanked the Montenegrin, with Hélder Postiga and Valdés a mobile presence further forward, interchanging positions to great effect. It was Postiga's excellent cross which found Valdés for the opener, with the Chilean controlling and volleying sweetly home from close range. His second, which came on forty-one minutes after Carlão had bundled home an equaliser, was even better, an unstoppable effort from the far left-hand side of the penalty area. The second half was far less entertaining, with neither side looking capable of adding to their goal tally, but it represents another step in the right direction for Sporting.
Round 9 Results:
Benfica 2-0 Paços de Ferreira (wonderful, wonderful solo opener from Pablo Aimar), Rio Ave 2-0 Sporting Braga, Académica 0-1 FC Porto, Nacional 1-0 Vitória Setúbal, Olhanense 1-1 Marítimo (Yontcha salvaging a point for the home side from the penalty spot), Beira Mar 3-1 Naval, União de Leiria 1-2 Sporting CP, Vitória Guimarães 2-0 Portimonense (the home side up to 3rd now).
Round 10 Fixtures:
Vitória Setúbal-Rio Ave, Paços-Nacional, Portimonense-Académica, Marítimo-UD Leiria, Naval-Olhanense, Braga-Beira Mar, FC Porto-Benfica (Clasico!), Sporting CP-Vitória Guimarães (4th hosts 3rd!)