Inspired by their brilliant Brazilian, FC Porto won a pulsating encounter with Sporting Braga at the Dragão. Ben Shave rounds up all the action from Round 4 of the Liga ZON Sagres.
I had to work on Saturday, as a runner on a television shoot. Complete with a 5am wake-up call, a worrying number of expensive pieces of filming equipment and distressingly regular rain showers, it was not the most enjoyable way to spend half of the weekend. As I waited for my (delayed) train back to London, I supped on a cold alcoholic beverage and consoled myself with the prospect of the biggest game of the Portuguese season: FC Porto hosting arguably their closest rivals for the title, Sporting Braga.
Although that last sentence might seem somewhat hyperbolic, the fact is that the previous encounter between these two sides at the Dragão went a long way to deciding the destination of the 09/10 Championship. At the time, Braga were in the midst of their finest season in history, and looked certain to take the title race all the way down to the wire. Porto, already out of said title chase, handed their hated rivals Benfica a priceless boost with a 5-1 humbling of Domingos Paciência's team. It was as resounding a defeat as I can remember: 3-0 up at the interval, Porto continued to pile on the hurt, and Alan's 90th minute strike for Braga only served to rub salt in the (multiple) wounds. We all know what happened after that- Benfica seized the initiative and took the title, despite Braga's best efforts. Most Liga observers will point towards that evening in February of this year as the turning point in the battle for the 09/10 Championship, the moment where the Braga bubble was finally, brutally, burst.
Someone who wasn't a protagonist in that mauling was Givanildo Viera de Souza, better known as Hulk. The burly Brazilian missed a large chunk of the 09/10 campaign as a result of a suspension, handed down by the Liga Sagres disciplinary panel after a brawl in December of 2009; a brawl which took place in the bowels of the Estádio da Luz following a particularly ill-tempered meeting between Benfica and Porto. Hulk spent three months on the sidelines, whereupon the sanction was (in yet another example of Portuguese football's chronic lack of efficiency) reduced to a mere four games. Mull that one over for a second. Hulk returned to action on the 28th March, and was impressive for the remainder of the campaign, leaving many Porto fans pondering what might have been.
Back to Saturday evening. Having negotiated the numerous obstacles that National Rail and Transport for London had placed in front of me, I began watching and taking notes on this most crucial of games. Upon reviewing said notes for this article, I was struck by the number of occasions Hulk pops up. Struck, but not especially surprised, for his performance on Saturday was nothing short of stupendous. Having rattled the crossbar after Luis Aguiar's delicious free-kick had put the visitors ahead on sixteen minutes, Hulk barrelled past Elderson, towards the byline and, displaying an admirable deftness for a player of his build, switched onto his right foot and delivered a precise cross for Varela to head home from close range.
Throughout the ninety minutes, Hulk exerted a powerful influence on what was a game to remember. Having created Porto's equaliser and watched Lima's unstoppable strike push Braga ahead once more, Hulk again took the match by the scruff of its neck. Cutting inside from his inverted winger position, he flicked the ball towards Alvaro Pereira, received it via a wonderful return backheel from the Uruguayan, coolly transferred it onto his left foot, and hammered a shot past Felipe. Braga, who had twice taken the lead only to be pegged back each time, were deflated, and seven minutes later the home side found the winner. Varela, an impressive counterpart for Hulk on the left flank, latched onto the ball after a fine run from Falcao, stepped beyond the Braga defenders and crashed his second of the night past poor old Felipe.
Not only was it a fine example of how effective the tactic of deploying 'inside-out' wingers can be, it was a performance which erased any remaining doubt that FC Porto are the team to beat in Portugal this season. Braga were vastly improved on their display at the Dragão last February, but despite remaining competitive for the entire game, were simply outdone by a number of match-winning performances from Porto, Hulk's chief amongst them. We'll never know what would have happened if he had been available for more of last season, but with his number twelve in this sort of form, André Villas Boas looks well-placed to bring the title back to the Dragão.
Round 4 Talking Points:
Defending champions Benfica opened the Round with a performance that put them right back to square one following the home win against Setúbal in Round 3. Travelling to Manuel Machado's Guimarães is never the easiest of tasks, but at half time Jorge Jesus had every right to be feeling optimistic. Although his side had been caught out on the counter attack with a fine move begun by João Ribeiro and finished (with a cheeky flick over the onrushing Roberto) off by Edgar, the Eagles had rallied and were good value for their equaliser, which came after Nilson failed to connect with a corner and Saviola steered the ball home. With Guimarães looking rattled, the stage appeared to be set for a morale-boosting fightback. However, fate had other ideas for Benfica. Although they were denied a clear penalty when Carlos Martins was tripped up just inside the box, it wasn't just referee Olegário Benquerença (who issued no less than seven yellow cards to Benfica) who was holding them back. I've said it before, but Benfica simply aren't the force that they were last season, and as the chances came and went, the sense that Guimarães would snatch winner increased. It came with seven minutes remaining: a fabulous cross from Bruno Teles caused chaos in the away defence, and substitute Rui Miguel muscled his way beyond David Luiz to head home. Replays indicated that Roberto was once more at fault, having ventured into goalkeeping no-man’s land, where he could neither connect with the cross nor the header from Rui Miguel. Benfica begin their Champions League campaign with a home encounter with Hapoel Tel Aviv on Tuesday evening. You get the sense that a defeat there, combined with a loss in Sunday's Lisbon derby, could put Jorge Jesus on the brink.
Whilst the travails of Benfica continue to make the headlines, Lisbon's other giants remain some way short of their best form. After a dramatic win in Europe and a less than dramatic victory at Naval, Sporting returned from the international break with a seemingly winnable home game against Olhanense. However, as in Round 2 against Marítimo, Paulo Sérgio's men failed to create chances against limited but determined opposition, with Liédson in particular guilty of wasting two great opportunities. In the end, Daúto Faquirá's side comfortably held off the Lions, despite creating very little going forward. They remain undefeated this season. As for Sporting, they continue to lack consistency. Although the departures of João Moutinho and Miguel Veloso were a clear indicator that the club was entering a rebuilding phrase, they look some distance behind Porto and Braga, along with their city rivals.
One of the longest transfer sagas of the summer came to an end last week, as the Brazilian striker Kléber was reinstated to the Marítimo squad, marking his return to the club where he impressed last season. Although the youngster had been loaned to the Madeira side by Atlético Mineiro of Brazil, he had returned to his parent club over the close season, with a move to FC Porto seemingly imminent. However, Marítimo demanded compensation for the early annulment of the loan agreement, the transfer stalled, and the player was caught in limbo until a meeting last week with President Carlos Pereira. Kléber made an immediate impact, with a well-taken goal that was enough to salvage a home draw against ten-man Paços de Ferreira, but the result does little to ease the pressure on his manager, Mitchell van der Gaag. After a late surge into the European places last season, expectations have been raised at the Estádio dos Barreiros. However, results thus far have not met said expectations, and van der Gaag was forced to deny that he had been asked to leave by Pereira following Sunday's post-match meeting. If the Dutchman is still in the job this time next month, I'll be surprised.
Round 4 Results:
Vitória Guimarães 2-1 Benfica, Sporting 0-0 Olhanense, FC Porto 3-2 Braga, Marítimo 1-1 Paços de Ferreira, Portimonense 3-1 Rio Ave (just 1 point and 1 goal from 4 games for Rio Ave), UD Leiria 2-1 Nacional, Académica 3-0 Naval, Vitória Setúbal 0-0 Beira Mar.
Round 5 Fixtures:
Olhanense-Portimonense, Vitória Guimarães-UD Leiria, Rio Ave-Académica, Naval-Vitória Setúbal, Beira Mar-Marítimo, Paços de Ferreira-Braga, Benfica-Sporting CP, Nacional-FC Porto.
Ben writes regularly for IBWM, but if you would like to read more from him please visit cahiers du sport.