When fans start holding up banners asking for goals, its a bad sign. Sporting's dismal form at the Alvalade this season is just the tip of the iceberg. Ben Shave reports, and rounds up the action from Round 6 of the Liga ZON Sagres.
As Daniel Carriço, the twenty-two year old centre-back recently appointed captain of one of Portugal's três grandes, trudged towards the rapidly emptying stands of the Estádio José Alvalade and began to dolefully applaud the fans who had spent the last thirteen minutes whistling and jeering their team; one of the few remaining supporters hammered his message home. As the cameras panned across the stadium, he held up a white banner with a single capitalised word emblazoned across it: GOLOS. As in give me some to celebrate, you fools. Whilst Carriço himself was not one of the main targets, the current state of affairs at Sporting leaves little room for specificities. When it comes to whistles, jeers, and banners, anyone will do.
Meanwhile, down on the touchline Carriço's coach Paulo Sérgio was facing the increasingly raucous and unpleasant music. The bald facts are these: after six rounds, Sporting lie in 8th place, with a total of eight points. Although five of these have been won at the Alvalade, the fans have witnessed just two goals, and one of those was an injury-time penalty. Sporting have not scored in the first half at the Alvalade since August 5th, and that was in the Europa League. In the Liga Sagres, you have to go all the way back to April to find a first half goal at what should by rights be a fortress. On Sunday evening, the home side began strongly, creating openings against a Nacional team seemingly content to absorb pressure. But the goals did not come. At half-time Liédson, the naturalised Brazilian who has led the club's front line since 2003, was substituted, along with Yannick Djaló, perhaps the most promising product of the club's famed youth system who has yet to depart for pastures new. According to Sérgio, the decision was “purely technical”, but the newspaper O Jogo reported on Monday that the two had exchanged heated words in the dressing room, and were withdrawn as a result.
Whatever the reason, it looked to have done the trick when, just after the hour mark, substitute Carlos Saleiro put the Lions ahead with an acrobatic finish following a beautiful delivery from Simon Vukčević, the burly winger who was one of few players to respond to an increasingly tempestuous crowd. It was only a single goal, but to the fans, it would have to be enough. Three points would see their side climb to fifth, above their hated rivals Benfica and into the European places. It wasn't a solution, but it was a start. That start lasted about fifteen minutes. A Nacional corner was punched high but not away by Rui Patrício, and the Sporting defence snoozed as the ball was headed back into the area, finding Danielson, the centre-back signed this summer from Paços. His swivelling, fluid finish was almost as impressive as Saleiro's, and it was more than enough to send the Alvalade into apoplexy. Nacional held on, and Sporting's woes continued.
So much for facts, now for the conjecture. Sporting's current malaise is not their worst, that dubious honour goes to the trophy-free period between 1982-1995, but there is little doubt that the club has fallen behind Benfica, FC Porto, and in recent times Sporting Braga. The reasons for this are varied, but the lack of a goalscorer has been the most prominent, particularly in the last year or so. Liédson was a striker with rare predatory instincts, but was below part last season, and 2010/11 looks set to be just as disappointing for the veteran. Saleiro might have found the net last night, but that was his first goal since March, and only his third in the green and white of his hometown club. Hélder Postiga is a tireless worker, but again, has never been mistaken for being prolific.
Former captain João Moutinho provided a creative and goalscoring outlet, but his departure over the summer, along with that of Miguel Veloso, hints at another set of problems, both financial and personal. The José Eduardo Bettencourt administration has presided over an era of financial mismanagement, with the club currently operating at a loss and with extensive liabilities. This has been exacerbated by a haphazard transfer policy, which has seen the likes of Florent Sinama-Pongolle signed at ludicrously inflated rates, at the expense of either the youth system or cheaper talent from other Portuguese clubs. Moutinho was described as a “rotten apple” by Bettencourt, a reference to his reported clashes with Director of Football Costinha. If today's O Jogo story is to be believed, Bettencourt has a few more malcontents on his hands.
Saleiro, himself a product of that aforementioned youth system, which has given us Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani (just to name three) was in a suitably chastened mood as he faced the cameras last night. “We deserved to get booed. Now we have to work hard every day to change our luck. I believe a win could change everything.” Sporting fans will be praying that he is right.
Round 6 Talking Points:
Whilst Sporting continue to tread water, Benfica are slowing slipping into gear. A 1-0 win over struggling Marítimo might not sound like much, but it represents a second consecutive victory for the Eagles, and more importantly, will be remembered as a game where they could, nay should, have had more. Cardozo, Saviola and Gaitán all missed golden opportunities, and goalkeeper Marcelo was undoubtedly the outstanding performer for the home side. However, he was powerless to prevent the winner, which was scored by Fábio Coentrão, with a beautifully precise half volley. The Portuguese international appears to have taken to his new role on the left-hand side of the midfield diamond, and his impressive performances were rewarded on Monday with a contract extension. The twenty-two year old is tied to the Luz until 2016, but if he's still there then, I'll eat my hat. This kid is going places.
Someone else going places is Victor Zvunka. The Frenchman was yesterday relieved of his duties as Naval coach by President Aprígo Santos, who cited a poor start which has seen the Figueira da Foz outfit pick up just four points from their opening six games. The final straw came on Friday evening, where Naval were thoroughly outclassed by Sporting Braga, who turned on the style to win 3-1 at the Quarry. Zvunka can feel a little aggrieved at the shortening of his tenure, but his functional style of play, combined with an unfamiliarity with Portuguese footballing culture, meant that he was always onto a loser. Naval's most recent home game (a dour 0-0 draw with Setúbal) attracted just 712 fans, a woeful figure even by their low standards, and Zvunka paid the price. The return of Fábio Júnior, a talented but troublesome forward (he only returned from Brazil after going AWOL a couple of weeks ago) should boost the side's chances going forward, but the unforgiving nature of the Liga ZON Sagres ensures that Zvunka won't be around to see it. His replacement is (at the time of writing), former assistant Fernando Mira.
Another coach on the brink is Carlos Brito at Rio Ave. A shocking start had seen his team pick up just two points from five matches. They looked set for another one away at União de Leiria, but in the 94th minute, disaster struck. Carlão charged down a soft clearance, sprinted through on goal, and was brought down by the veteran keeper Paulo Santos. The striker picked himself up to convert the penalty, and left Rio Ave crestfallen. They remain bottom on goal difference, and next Sunday's home date with Marítimo (who lie just one place above them in the table) already looks like a relegation six-pointer. The result of that match will likely determine the fate of Brito, who is in his third spell at the Vila do Conde club. His previous tenures were marked by promotion and unprecedented top-flight success, but the twin losses of Fábio Faria (to Benfica) and Sílvio (to Braga) have been keenly felt. For Leiria, the three points move them up into the refined environs of mid-table.
Round 6 Results:
Sporting Braga 3-1 Naval, Académica 3-1 Guimarães (Académica up into 2nd place, two superb goals from Sougou and Laionel), Marítimo 0-1 Benfica, FC Porto 2-0 Olhanense, UD Leiria 1-0 Rio Ave, Portimonense 1-0 Beira Mar, Sporting CP 1-1 Nacional, Vitória Setúbal 1-0 Paços de Ferreira.
Round 7 Fixtures:
UD Leiria-Académica, Olhanense-Vitória Setúbal, Rio Ave-Marítimo, Nacional-Portimonense, Naval-Paços de Ferreira, Benfica-Sporting Braga, Beira Mar-Sporting CP, Vitória Guimarães-FC Porto.
Ben writes regularly for IBWM, but if you would like to read more from him please visit cahiers du sport.