After a woeful start to the season, Sporting CP might just be on the up again. Ben Shave has the story, and all the action from Round Thirteen of the Portuguese Liga.
Paulo Sérgio shifted in his seat. The question was one that had become familiar to him as January roared into view. The Sporting coach, never particularly comfortable when faced with Portugal's press row, was clearly considering how to phrase a response that should ideally a) make the reporters move on to something - anything - else, and b) not place any unrealistic expectations in the minds of the club's millions of supporters. In the end, he pulled out that classic managerial trick for when they are forced into an undesirable corner: he mumbled, and cracked out a bit of the old doublespeak. “I am not desperate for reinforcements”, he said, before grudgingly accepting that yes, January was approaching, yes, the transfer window would be open, and yes, the sky is indeed blue (although considering Portugal's recent weather, dark and ominous might be a more accurate description). Meanwhile in another interview, his sporting director Costinha, infinitely more accomplished in the art of footballing gibberish, was smoothly talking himself out of a delicate spot. Speaking to Antenna 1, the former defensive midfielder turned boardroom politician declared that Sporting's movements in January would depend entirely on “the opportunities that arise. We have a large squad.”
Indeed they do, and the fact that both Sérgio and Costinha were allowed to get away with such wishy-washy responses is an indicator of the way that the wind is blowing at the Alvalade. For after a distinctly underwhelming start to the 2010/11 season, the Lions are slowly but surely converting themselves from flailing grandes into bona fide European contenders. In the five games played since the dismal 3-2 defeat at home to Vitória de Guimarães (where they surrendered a two-goal lead in the most comical of manners), the Lions have won four, drawn one (and that came against champions-elect FC Porto), scored eight and conceded three. Compare that to their opening five matches of the season (in all competitions): won three, lost two, scored four and conceded four. As progress goes it appears fairly incremental, but for a club as chronically dysfunctional in recent times as Sporting, progress it certainly is.
Sunday's 3-1 win at lowly Portimonense encapsulated the current state of affairs at Portugal's third most successful club in history. Sporting were never spectacular, but the game lacked the constant air of panic, the sense that one mistake or a goal for the opposition would precipitate a collapse of calamitous proportions. Like I said, it's fairly basic stuff, but ask any Sporting fan what they felt when Pires equalised for Portimonense just over five minutes before half-time, and I can guarantee that fear would have featured prominently. Instead, the Lions responded with two goals in three minutes, giving them a comfortable 3-1 lead going into the interval. Both goals had an air of fortune about them: Soares was snoozing as Evaldo picked his pocket before centring for the onrushing Maniche to slide the ball home, and André Santos' curling shot was deflected beyond Ventura's grasp by the aforementioned Maniche's arm, but football is a sport where the outcome is often (rightly or wrongly) determined by a healthy slice of luck. On Sunday, Sporting's was in.
The second half was, in all honesty, terrible. There was very little in the way of goalmouth action, with Portimonense (in the relegation zone and without a Liga win since the end of September) unable to penetrate Sporting's back line, and the Lions content to restrict themselves to occasional, insipid attacks, in the manner of a well-fed, er, lion. No disasters, no wince-inducing errors, nothing. Speaking to the media afterwards, Sérgio declared (somewhat disingenuously) that Sporting could have put on a more dynamic display. Perhaps, but get him away from the cameras, and he'll take that kind of victory every time. Stability is the order of the day at the Alvalade, and Sérgio's cause has been aided immeasurably by the return of Pedro Mendes to the midfield, and the continued hot streak of Hélder Postiga, who is expected to sign a contract tying him to the club until 2014. With the likes of Daniel Carriço, Evaldo and young André Santos also finding a higher gear, things are looking up for Sporting. Having said that, don't be surprised if they look to sign anyone who isn't nailed down in January. You know what they say about leopards and changing their spots? Well, if these Lions had spots...
Round Thirteen Talking Points
Sporting climbed up to to 3rd in the table thanks to a surprising home draw against Paços de Ferreira from Vitória de Guimarães. Manuel Machado has marshalled his troops into an effective attacking outfit, but the Minho club are still plagued by occasional lapses in concentration, particularly up front, where Edgar has yet to fully prove himself to be capable of leading the line. The Brazilian opened the scoring on Saturday evening, but was also guilty of missing a number of wholly presentable chances over the course of the match, and as Vitória slipped back into the chasing pack (they are now five points behind Benfica, who beat Olhanense 2-0 on Friday evening), the feeling around the D. Afonso Henriques was that an opportunity had been missed. It now looks increasingly as if the current top four – FC Porto (who ground out a forgettable 1-0 home win against Setúbal on Monday), Benfica, Sporting and Vitória – will be fighting it out come season's end, but the latter may well end up ruing what might have been.
Sitting in 5th are União de Leiria, a club with one of the lowest average attendances in the Liga (around 1700), a club who only last week paid two months of wages in arrears, and a club who reportedly owe €246,000 to the municipal organisation that manages their stadium - the Dr. Magalhães Pessoa. Despite these not-inconsiderable problems, Pedro Caixinha has constructed a functional, physically imposing but occasionally free-flowing side, which has now gone four games unbeaten. Saturday's 3-1 win over Braga was a fractious, ugly affair, and featured three red cards for the visitors (one of which went to Mossoró, who managed to draw the referee's ire despite being huddled up on the substitutes bench), but the quality of spectacle shouldn't detract from Leiria's current form, and although it remains to be seen whether they can convert it into a run for the European places, the Leirenses are punching well above their weight right now.
It might be Tuesday afternoon, but Round Thirteen still has two matches left to be completed. Académica-Marítimo was rescheduled for Wednesday after the away side were unable to depart from Funchal airport, thanks to the dismal weather conditions. Those same conditions have turned Nacional's home match against Naval into something of a farce: postponed after fog descended on Sunday afternoon, the match got underway on Monday, only for the same fog to scupper everyone's plans. The remaining thirty-six minutes will hopefully be played on Tuesday, but given that the two clubs have agreed upon a 16.00 kick-off time (yes, that would be the same time of day that caused the postponements in the first place), I'm not holding my breath. I'll fill in the scores once the matches have been completed.
Benfica 2-0 Olhanense, Vitória de Guimarães 1-1 Paços de Ferreira, União de Leiria 3-1 Sporting Braga, Rio Ave 1-1 Beira Mar, Académica 1-5 Marítimo, Nacional 2-1 Naval, Portimonense 1-3 Sporting CP, FC Porto 1-0 Vitória de Setúbal.
Round Fourteen takes place in two weeks as next weekend sees the return of the Taça de Portugal. Fixtures:
Sporting Braga-Académica, Benfica-Rio Ave, Beira Mar-Vitória de Guimarães, Marítimo-Portimonense, Naval-União de Leiria, Olhanense-Nacional, Paços de Ferreira-FC Porto, Vitória de Setúbal-Sporting CP.
Ben writes regularly for IBWM, as well as running a Portuguese football blog, Cahiers du Sport. You can follow him on Twitter @cahiers_dusport.