FC Porto mauled Benfica in the biggest game of the season so far, whilst Sporting hit the self-destruct button against Guimarães. Ben Shave reports on the action from Round Ten in Portugal.
Henriques Fernandes, a hardened veteran of the Porto PSP (Polícia Segurança Pública), had a plan. It wasn't the most conventional, nor was it perhaps the easiest to implement. But in the tense build-up to this weekend's Clássico between FC Porto and Benfica, billed (as has become customary in recent times) as a meeting of title-defining proportions, and a fixture which has generally attracted its fair share of trouble; any plan will do. As well as the promised seven hundred and fifty PSP officers in and around the stadium, Fernandes confided in the Portuguese media at Friday's press conference that he would feel more confident about controlling the situation if the “spectators wore swimwear.”
There were few bikinis and long shorts on display at the Dragão on Sunday evening, but Benfica certainly had their pants pulled down by a stunning performance from their hated rivals. Heading into the match trailing Porto by seven points, the Eagles needed a victory to maintain a realistic challenge in a title race that had already developed into a two-horse affair. The signs were mixed. Last Tuesday, Benfica had battered Lyon for large parts of their Champions League group match, and went into half-time 3-0 up. But after Fábio Coentrão added a fourth and put the game beyond doubt, Benfica took their foot off the gas, unfortunately forgetting to slip into cruise control. In the final fifteen minutes, Lyon found the net three times, and although the 4-3 victory preserved their Champions League status, Jorge Jesus and his side were booed out of the Luz.
Perhaps this capitulation and narrow avoiding of disaster spooked Jesus, or perhaps it was the manner in which Hulk ran amok the following Thursday against Besiktas, not scoring but time and again thundering down the right wing with malevolent intent. Porto secured their berth in the Europa League knockout phase with a 1-1 draw, with André Villas Boas sensibly resisting the urge to go for the win; content in the knowledge that his settled side were producing some of the finest football seen at the Dragão since a certain J. Mourinho led them to Champions League glory.
Meanwhile, Jesus continued to scramble. Instead of sticking with the side that looked so comfortable in the first half against Lyon, he chose to twist, and made wholesale changes. David Luiz, a central defender by trade but with some experience at left-back, was fielded in the latter position, clearly with Hulk in mind. His replacement alongside Luisão was Sidnei, who has seen very little playing time over the last eighteen months. And what of Coentrão, the finest left-back at the World Cup and the player who, together with Carlos Martins, ripped Lyon apart with his piercing runs from deep? He was fielded on the left-hand side of a flattish midfield four, up against Sapunaru, the finest right-back in the Liga. Javier Saviola's lack of goals this season relegated him to the bench, and saw Pablo Aimar pushed slightly further towards Alan Kardec. It was a gamble from Jesus, with one glaringly obvious intention: to stop Hulk.
It failed. After just twelve minutes, Fernando Belluschi found the Brazilian, who bore down on his compatriot. David Luiz backed away, Hulk simply barrelled through him, and centred for Varela, who tapped home. 1-0 Porto. But worse was to come for Jesus and Benfica. Thirteen minutes later, Belluschi who was fed by Hulk, and the Argentine, after turning Luiz inside out, delivered a delicate cross which was turned in by Radamel Falcao. 2-0 Porto. The Colombian added his second just four minutes after, in a move that once again exploited the acres of space available on the Benfica left. Sapunaru played a searching ball to Belluschi, who bore down on Roberto, cut inside and calmly squared the ball to Falcao who crashed home. In case you're wondering, David Luiz was watching from the halfway line as Sapunaru played the pass that would have been defence-splitting, if there was anyone defending it.
With the contest essentially decided after twenty-nine minutes, the remainder of the game was a procession for Porto, and a prolonged torture session for Benfica. Luisão was given a straight red card for throwing an elbow at Guarín, and Hulk grabbed a brace inside the last ten minutes- one from the penalty spot, the other after cutting on the (you guessed it) Benfica left-hand side. Porto's fans did their best to lower the tone by pelting Roberto with golf balls and matters took a turn for the surreal when they released a live chicken onto the pitch (frango, meaning chicken, is also a colloquial Portuguese term for an error-prone goalkeeper); but the result itself was never in doubt.
Post-match, Porto were jubilant, but the headlines have mainly been devoted to what was, by anyone's definition, an absolutely catastrophic performance from Benfica. The descent into ignominy of Jorge Jesus, who could do no wrong last season, has been instantaneous, and according to A Bola, the tactician has been handed a set of minimum requirements for the upcoming months by President Vieira: qualification for the Champions League knockout rounds, continuation in the Taça de Portugal (surely Benfica's best hope of a trophy this season), and winning the next nine games. That takes us to February 13th, and the implication in A Bola's report is that should these targets fail to be reached, it could be curtains for Jesus. Although he was rightly lauded for his achievements in 2009/10, one senses that it is these next few months that will, rightly or wrongly, define his time at the Luz.
Can he do it? In a word, yes. Those nine Liga fixtures are eminently winnable. The victory over Lyon ensures that Benfica's Champions League fate lies in their own hands, and the Taça tie against Braga (to be played later this month) will be held at the Luz. Jorge Jesus can guide his squad through this period. However, questions remain over the long-term direction of his reign. The diamond formation which served Benfica so well last season has shown itself to be ineffective, with the well-documented personnel changes over the summer surely a factor. Against Porto, Jesus fielded a lopsided 4-4-1-1, and his side were picked off. A switch to 4-2-3-1 seems to be the most favourable option, with the young Brazilian Airton capable of sharing the defensive midfield load with Javi García, who was simply overrun on Sunday evening. The restoration of Fábio Coentrão to left-back must also be implemented now if not sooner, with the youngster clearly not as effective higher up the field.
The title might be slipping out of reach, but if he makes the right moves, Jorge Jesus might just save his job.
Round Ten Talking Points
When the history of ill-advised comments in the world of football is written, Rogério Alves, an administrator at Sporting, will surely merit his own dedicated chapter. On Monday afternoon, a story appeared in the press which quoted Alves describing himself as “satisfied” with the result from Porto. Unfortunately for Alves, he had forgotten the golden rule when it comes to gloating in football: wait until your team has played their bloody match before you open your mouth. For on Monday evening, Sporting shot themselves in the foot. In fact, that phrase doesn't really do their second half performance against Guimarães justice. It was more of a co-ordinated air strike lifted from the Donald Rumsfeld school of warfare.
The Lions went into half-time 2-0 up, after a fine counter-attacking move was finished by Hélder Postiga, and an Olympic goal (you know, one scored straight from a corner) from Simon Vukcevic which, upon not-especially close examination of the replay, turned out to have bounced off the bar nowhere near behind the goal line. Fortuitous it may have been, but Sporting were headed into third, level on points with Benfica. Mr Alves was feeling particularly smug. But he hadn't reckoned on the combined power of Manuel Machado's tactical nous, and Maniche's propensity to do incredibly stupid things on the football pitch. With seventy-three minutes, Rui Miguel and Maniche competed for an aerial ball. The Guimarães midfielder, in dropping back down to earth, glanced (and I mean glanced) the Sporting veteran's head with his elbow. A foul, nothing more. But Maniche, incensed, took a little look, and, well, kicked his opponent. Unfortunately, he didn't notice the referee's view, which was excellent. A straight red card followed, and Guimarães smelled blood. In a finish that redefined the word 'grandstand', Machado's men plundered three goals in eleven minutes, two of them coming from substitute Tiago Targino, a midfielder who hadn't started a game since the end of January. It was a thrilling encounter, game of the weekend by a country mile, but that was of little comfort to Sporting, who watched the victors advance up into 2nd, by virtue of their victory over Benfica back in Round Four. The Lions have rallied in recent weeks, but the manner of this defeat could well come back to haunt Paulo Sérgio.
The other candidate for game of the weekend came on Friday evening in Setúbal, where Vitória and Rio Ave battled to a breathless 3-3. Whilst the technical standard was poor and the defending was largely unmentionable, the 2767 bodies packed into the Estádio Bonfim were rewarded with outstanding value for money, at least in terms of excitement. Jailson's early strike put the home side ahead, but goals from Yazalde and João Tomás gave the travellers a half-time lead. Vitória pressed from the restart, and deservedly took the lead through Neca, after Valdomiro's headed equaliser. But there was late drama. Rio Ave, who had been reduced to ten men after Sidnei apparently swore at the referee, snatched a point through Tomás, a much-travelled veteran enjoying an indian summer at the Vila do Conde club. The point wasn't enough to lift Rio Ave out of the relegation zone, but their recent improvement has lifted the pressure on Carlos Brito.
It was also an excellent weekend for the two promoted sides, Portimonense and Beira Mar. The former looked dead and buried at half-time in their home fixture against Académica, who had raced into a 2-0 lead thanks to Miguel Fidalgo and Hugo Morais, the latter netting with a lovely free-kick. However, Jorge Costa's men (not for the first time) elected to sit on their lead, and the Algarve club powered back into the game during a two-minute second half spell. First, Renatinho floated a free-kick beyond the reach of Peiser, and then Nilson struck with a fine low drive from the left-hand edge of the penalty area. Portimonense are just one point above Rio Ave in 14th, and will undoubtedly need to maintain their home form if they are to survive. Performances like Saturday's will do them no harm at all.
Beira Mar outstripped their fellow minnows with a shock victory over Sporting Braga at the Quarry. Despite the ongoing financial crisis at the Aveiro club, Leonardo Jardim has so far kept to his promise and refused to let the situation affect his players. Beira Mar were 3-0 up after seventy minutes, having thoroughly outplayed a Braga side admittedly severely affected by injuries; but still in possession of sufficient quality to continue the home form which has seen them go undefeated at the Quarry for the last eighteen (!) months. Leandro Tatu opened the scoring before Ronny's brace, and although Braga fought back with goals from Meyong and Lima, it wasn't enough. The twenty or so travelling fans embraced their players at the final whistle, and Beira Mar moved improbably up into the comfort of mid-table, level on points with their victims. For Braga, the season continues to lurch between triumph and disaster, and Domingos Paciência will need all his limited experience to steady the Minho ship.
Vitória Setúbal 3-3 Rio Ave, Paços de Ferreira 0-1 Nacional, Portimonense 2-2 Académica, Naval 1-1 Olhanense, Marítimo 1-1 União de Leiria, Sporting Braga 2-3 Beira Mar, FC Porto 5-0 Benfica, Sporting CP 2-3 Vitória de Guimarães.
Round Eleven Fixtures:
Nacional-Marítimo, Vitória de Guimarães-Sporting Braga, Académica-Sporting CP, Rio Ave-Paços, UD Leiria-Vitória Setúbal, Olhanense-Beira Mar, Benfica-Naval, FC Porto-Portimonense.
Ben writes regularly for IBWM, as well as co-editing the site, but if you would like to read more from him please visit cahiers du sport.