A few days ago, his own fans were booing him, now Óscar Cardozo is the toast of the Luz. Ben Shave reports on the Lisbon derby and all the latest action from Round five of the Liga ZON Sagres.
They say that a week can be a long time in football. In the case of Óscar Cardozo, five days is nearer the mark. Following Benfica's subpar start to the 2010/11 campaign, the Paraguayan has been singled out for particular criticism in some quarters. Never the most mobile of players even when at 100%, the man known as 'Tacuara' (translated from Guarani as 'big cane') has often looked woefully short of match sharpness, having spent much of his summer in South Africa. Despite Jorge Jesus consistently asking for players returning from the World Cup to be given time to gain fitness, the pressures that surround a club of Benfica's stature ensured that last season's top scorer was expected to hit the ground running. When his form failed to materialise, the rumblings of discontent soon began. Should the club have cashed in on the rumoured €30m summer offer from Shakhtar Donetsk? Cardozo received the backing of his manager and teammates, but for the fans, the only thing that mattered was the goals, and a return of one from the opening four matches was simply not good enough.
Last Tuesday, Benfica entertained Hapoel Tel Aviv in their first Champions League group stage fixture, and Cardozo began sluggishly, squandering a number of decent opportunities. The whistles and boos began to ring out, directed towards a player who, lest we forget, found the back of the net twenty-six times in the Liga last season. After sixty-eight minutes, Cardozo's response came. Maxi Pereira's shot was deflected into his path by Vincent Enyeama, and the Paraguayan nonchalantly slotted home with his weaker right foot, a typical Cardozo finish. However, instead of wheeling away in celebration, he walked slowly towards the celebrating fans, with a single finger raised to his lips. The gesture and its meaning were unmistakeable, and immediately following the final whistle, Cardozo apologised to the fans through the media. Despite this exercise in damage limitation, Cardozo took to the field for Sunday's Lisbon derby surrounded by controversy. The match itself could hardly have been more important for Benfica- anything less than a win would virtually eliminate all hopes of retaining their title.
Ninety minutes later, normal service had been resumed. After loping onto a through ball, skinning the Sporting defence and crashing a strike against the post, Cardozo opened the scoring after just thirteen minutes, stabbing home from the crowded penalty area. Another typical Cardozo goal, but this time the celebration was more crowd-friendly, and Benfica were off and running, dominating for the rest of the first half. Sporting, who had been in Europa League action on the previous Thursday, were unable to gain any sort of foothold in the game, and found Coentrão, who had been pushed forward into midfield by Jorge Jesus, impossible to deal with. Much of the criticism levelled at Benfica this season has bemoaned their inability to recapture the attacking form of 2009/10, but on Sunday evening, they looked to be a force once more. The pièce de résistance came just three minutes into the second half, with Cardozo again the executioner. Roberto's long ball forward was headed down by Tacuara into the path of his partner Saviola, and the Argentine's instant return pass was met by Cardozo, who deftly placed the ball over the outstretched Patrício and into the net. It was a goal of simple brilliance, the move completed in under ten seconds, and it ensured a victory for Benfica, despite Liédson's narrow miss soon after.
Cardozo left the field to rapturous applause at the end of the game, and captain Luisão was quick to dedicate Benfica's victory to the Paraguayan. The press continued the resurrection, with Monday's A Bola reporting that Cardozo's total time in possession during the game was sixteen seconds, a remarkable statistic given that he could conceivably have scored five goals. Record led their Tuesday edition with the declaration that Cardozo was the best Benfica striker of the last thirty years, citing his goal scoring average, which currently stands at 0.66 per game. Tacuara has found the net fifty-nine times in eighty-nine outings for the Eagles, and as one fan put it to me today: “when I hear something against Cardozo I just ask how much it would cost Benfica to get another player that scores so much. That usually ends the discussion.” Quite.
Round 5 Talking Points:
Benfica-Sporting might be the most high-profile derby in Portugal, but it wasn't the only local encounter being played this past weekend. Friday's opening fixture saw Olhanense host Portimonense, in what was the first top-flight Algarve derby since the 1989/90 season. Whilst the Southern region is known primarily for its tourism industry, football took centre stage as the packed Estádio José Arcanjo witnessed a cracking match; featuring a red card, a penalty, and a goal from my favourite underachieving winger, Paulo Sérgio. His neat finish from Lulinha's low cross was enough to give Olhanense the lead going into half time, but the visitors wasted a number of presentable chances to draw level before the break. Portimonense continued to threaten, but were handed a tougher task when Pedro Silva (on loan from Sporting) shoulder-barged the lightweight Sérgio and the referee correctly awarded a penalty, which was converted emphatically by Djalmir. The visitors were dealt a hammer blow with fifteen minutes remaining when Ivanildo was harshly sent off for apparently striking Carlos Fernandes off the ball. The result leaves Daúto Faquirá's unbeaten side in third place, following an impressive start that has seen them concede just a single goal. Portimonense slip to thirteenth, but both Algarve sides have reasons to be optimistic about their chances of survival.
Following their midweek mauling at the hands of Arsenal, Braga looked set to deliver the perfect response with their trip to Paços de Ferreira, but were pegged back by a pair of late strikes in what was an entertaining encounter at the Mata Real. The sizeable away contingent had plenty to celebrate after Moisés bundled home from a corner early on, and once Luis Aguiar had smoothly converted ten minutes into the second half, the Arsenalistas looked home and hosed. But Paços, buoyed by their unusually numerous and vocal home support, hit back with a thunderous strike from Baiano on seventy minutes, and laid siege to Felipe's goal for the remainder of the game. The reward finally came in injury time, when summer signing Javier Antonio Cohene Meireles rose above the weary Braga back line and headed home the equaliser. Braga remain in the European places, but with Wednesday's exertions clearly taking a physical toll late on, one does have to question whether this squad can maintain a challenge on two fronts. Paços look set to be this season's draw specialists: four of their first five matches have ended with honours even.
Benfica have made waves in recent weeks with their outspoken criticism of the standards of officiating in the Liga. Whilst much of this can be attributed to an element of sour grapes (there were no complaints following Sunday's victory), Monday's meeting between Nacional and FC Porto contained a couple of worrying decisions, or lack thereof. Whilst no one could dispute that João Aurélio did indeed block Alvaro Pereira's cross with his arm, conceding the free-kick which led to Porto's opener (an own goal from the same Aurélio); Bruno Paixao's inability to spot a clear handball from Rolando inside the Porto penalty area was at best baffling and at worst, worrying. Paixao made matters worse ten minutes later when he awarded the away side the softest of spot-kicks, booking Tomasevic for the kind of holding on Varela that is technically illegal, but which goes unpunished on nine occasions out of ten. To clarify: I'm no conspiracy theorist (or Benfica fan for that matter), but the officiating overshadowed what was an otherwise routine 2-0 win for Porto, despite Falcao missing the penalty. That result puts the Dragons four points clear of second-placed Guimarães, who won their third match in a row 1-0 at home to Leiria.
Round 5 Results:
Olhanense 2-0 Portimonense, Beira Mar 1-1 Marítimo (two points dropped by the home side), Vitória Guimarães 1-0 UD Leiria, Rio Ave 2-2 Académica (Daniel Addy sent off for the second time this season), Naval 0-0 Vitória Setúbal (four consecutive games without a goal for Setúbal), Paços 2-2 Sporting Braga, Benfica 2-0 Sporting CP, Nacional 0-2 FC Porto.
Round 6 Fixtures:
Sporting Braga-Naval, Académica-Vitória Guimarães, Marítimo-Benfica, FC Porto-Olhanense, UD Leiria-Rio Ave, Portimonense-Beira Mar, Sporting CP-Nacional, Vitória Setúbal-Paços de Ferreira.
Ben writes regularly for IBWM, but if you would like to read more from him please visit cahiers du sport.