After a low-scoring opening weekend in the Liga ZON Sagres, Ben Shave reflects on a round to forget for two giants of Portuguese football.
In recent times, being a Sporting CP fan has been something of a cross to bear. Their last league title came way back in the 2001-02 season, and last year they were forced to endure the ignominy of finishing in fourth place, a whopping 28 points behind their hated city rivals, Benfica. After an encouraging pre-season, the highlight of which was an assured 2-0 victory over Manchester City, normal service was resumed this weekend, as Sporting fell to a 1-0 away defeat at the hands of a youthful, dynamic and well-organised Paços de Ferreira.
Whilst a great deal of credit should go to new manager Rui Vitória for injecting some life into what was a fairly limp collection of players last season, his cause was undoubtedly aided by the abject nature of Sporting's performance. It is, of course, only the beginning of the season, but the early signs were not encouraging for Paulo Sérgio, his team lacked cohesion, creativity, and goal threat (Liédson was virtually invisible). Director of Football Costinha moved quickly to reassure fans that the club's transfer policy had not yet been fully implemented, confirming that he expected two more new signings before the close of the window. Sporting fans will be praying that his promises are kept.
If the opening weekend was a depressing one for the green and white half of Lisbon, their spirits will perhaps have been moderately lifted on Sunday evening, when Benfica continued their lousy opening day record with a 2-1 loss to Académica, in front of almost 49,000 fans. It has now been six seasons since the Eagles won their first fixture, and the victory extends Académica's fine record at the Luz, where they have now won three of the last four meetings between the two sides. However, it could all have been so different. Having snatched an early lead through Miguel Fidalgo's free header, Académica were dealt a serious blow after 50 minutes when David Addy was dismissed, having picked up two senseless bookings in as many minutes.
The inevitable Benfica pressure ensued, and once new signing Francisco Jara converted Fábio Coentrão's low cross on 62 minutes, it seemed only a matter of time before the winner came. But Benfica weren't themselves. In front of an increasingly short-tempered crowd, the defending champions began to misplace passes, trying to force the issue when it had become increasingly obvious that all it would take to breach the ten men was calm, probing possession. David Luiz in particular lost his composure, and was booked for manhandling Fidalgo as he strolled off the field. As time ticked on, Benfica continued to huff and puff as Académica stood firm, and the game seemed to be headed for a surprising draw.
But one man had other ideas. In the 93rd minute, substitute Laionel received the ball for Académica in the centre circle. As Sidnei scrambled to block his path to a teammate, the Brazilian (signed on loan from lowly Grémio Anápolis in Brazil) kept his head up, picked his spot, and deftly sent the ball sailing over the head of the hapless Roberto, who was barely five yards off his line. It was a moment of singular skill and impudence (a more pretentious man than myself would declare it a quintessentially Brazilian goal), and it silenced the Luz until the end of the game, whereupon the remaining Benfica fans erupted with a cacophony of whistles and jeers.
Whilst the loss itself can perhaps be attributed to a moment of fabulous skill, the performance was nevertheless a worrying one from the Eagles. With the exception of an occasional burst from Coentrão, the side lacked the width which served them so well last season, whilst the absence of Ramires was also felt in the midfield. Why Jorge Jesus chose to wait until the 65th minute to introduce Carlos Martins is something I'm still struggling with, and to compound it all, Oscar Cardozo had a stinker up front.
Of course, this was only the first game of the season, but on the evidence of this weekend, both Lisbon clubs are going to be busy between now and the end of August, having been rudely awoken from their summer slumber.
Round 1 Talking Points:
- FC Porto fans will have watched the events of the weekend with delight. Although the Dragons were at times laboured against an impressive Naval side (now coached by Victor Zvunka, who famously guided Guingamp to the 2009 Coupe de France), they nevertheless left Figueira da Foz with all three points, thanks to a debatable 84th minute penalty; converted by Hulk. In fact, there was nothing to debate: Jonathas made no attempt to play the ball with his hand, and was caught by an unavoidable bounce off the turf. Naval were excellent, denying Porto the space and time to stroke the ball around the midfield, with Moutinho particularly ineffective. A draw would have been a fair result, but the victory bodes well for Porto's campaign: the last five times that they have won their opening match, a league title has followed.
- Indeed, the only title contenders to impress were Braga, who brushed aside newly promoted Portimonense 3-1 in Friday's season opener. The Algarve outfit displayed plenty of heart, but were largely outclassed by Domingos Paciência's men, who rarely needed to progress beyond second gear. Matheus opened the scoring, continuing his strong early-season form, and Paulo César put the game beyond doubt just before half time with a finely placed low drive. Although the league's new boys pulled one back through Jumisse on 55 minutes, and almost drew level moments later (when Pires failed to connect with a penetrative cross), they rarely troubled last season's runners-up. Braga's attention will now turn to Wednesday's date with Sevilla, in the 1st leg of their Champions League Playoff Round tie. Although the Minho club will begin as underdogs, they look to be in impressive form, having begun their season at the end of July.
- Monday's final game of the round proved to be one of the most entertaining, as Olhanense hosted newly-flush Vitória Guimarães at the Estádio José Arcanjo. The game eventually finished goalless, but was notable for the manner in which Olhanense (who barely avoided relegation in 09-10) attacked from the first whistle. Employing a high-tempo, positive passing game will win them plenty of friends this season, with wingers Paulo Sergio and Jorge Gonçalves putting particularly eye-catching displays. However, new manager Daúto Faquirá has yet to solve the problem which afflicted his side last season: this is a team chronically lacking in a goalscorer. The home fans celebrated just 12 goals in 09-10, and whilst captain Djalmir always works until he drops, a predator he is not. Having said that, if Faquirá can acquire a more nuanced frontman, Olhanense may just surprise a few people.
Results in full:
Sporting Braga 3-1 Portimonense, Marítimo 0-1 Vitória Setúbal, Naval 0-1 FC Porto, Paços de Ferreira 1-0 Sporting CP, Rio Ave 0-1 Nacional, Beira Mar 0-0 União de Leiria, Benfica 1-2 Académica, Olhanense 0-0 Vitória Guimarães.
Round 2 Fixtures:
Académica-Olhanense, Vitória Setúbal-Sporting Braga, Nacional-Benfica, Portimonense-Naval, União de Leiria-Paços de Ferreira, Sporting CP-Marítimo, FC Porto-Beira Mar, Vitória Guimarães-Rio Ave.
Ben writes regularly for IBWM, but if you would like to read more from him please visit cahiers du sport.