EuropeBen ShaveComment

Change is a four letter word

EuropeBen ShaveComment

The Portuguese Liga resumed with both sides in the relegation zone under new stewardship. Their performances illustrated the pros and cons of changing your coach. Ben Shave has the story, and all the action from Round Fifteen.

"Fighting spirit, organisation, and quality." "There are still sixteen rounds remaining." There is, as the old saying goes, more than one way to skin a cat, but when the feline in question is the mounting of an escape campaign from the relegation zone of the Portuguese top flight, subtlety and cool-headed analysis of the situation can only get you so far. Sometimes you're better off rolling up your sleeves and skinning...OK, enough of the animal cruelty. I'm a cat person, this has gone far enough. The point of that stretched to breaking point analogy is that in Portugal, the season reached its halfway point this weekend, and there were two outstanding candidates for relegation: Portimonense and Naval. Apart from their unfortunate position in the table, the two sides have also shared an enthusiasm for managerial changes, Naval in particular. President Aprígo Santos appointed his third coach of the season over the festive period, in Carlos Mozer.

A Brazilian who spent seven years at Flamengo before joining Benfica in 1987, the centre-back soon became an idol amongst fans of the Eagles for his no-nonsense approaching to defensive work. During two seasons at the Luz, Mozer won a national title, and a runners-up medal in the 1989 European Cup.  He then moved to Olympique de Marseilles, at the time a rising power in the European game. Three successive titles followed, and although Mozer in the close season that preceded the clubs's now-tainted Champions League win, his contribution was a central part of the success experienced by the club at the height of the Bernard Tapie era.

Mozer returned to Lisbon, where he added a further Liga title and Taça de Portugal to his bulging CV with Benfica, before winding down his career in Japan. His connections with the Lisbon club continued into his fledgling coaching career, as he was selected by José Mourinho to be part of his technical during the Special One's short-lived tenure at the Luz. Mourinho's intransigence over the appointment of Mozer (the preferred choice of Benfica's hierarchy was Jesualdo Ferreira) is an indication of how much faith the current Real Madrid placed in the Brazilian, and whilst his time at the Luz is now remembered for the famous stand-off with Manuel Vilarinho and subsequent departure, it should also be noted that Mourinho and Mozer masterminded a successful run of games, culminating in a 3-0 win over Sporting.

Once Toni (the preferred choice of new President Vilarinho) had been installed, Mozer appeared to have given up on the managerial dream, instead becoming part of Sport TV's commentary team. A pair of brief spells with Grupo Desportivo Interclube (Angola) and Raja Casablanca (Morocco) in 2006 and 2009 saw the Brazilian dip his feet once more, but to little fanfare. When the news of his joining Naval broke, Mozer was an employee at TVI, where he was carving out a reputation as one of Portugal's more interesting pundits. For President Santos, Mozer is undoubtedly the last throw of the dice: Naval went into 2011 rock bottom, with just five points to their name. Victor Zvunka and Rogério Gonçalves had shouldered the blame, but in truth the squad was ill-equipped to challenge for even a mid-table spot in the Liga.

Most of the above is applicable to Portimonense, who sacked Litos (the man who took them to the top flight for the first time in twenty years) a few days before Mozer was appointed. His replacement was Carlos Azenha, with whom the contrast could not be greater. In an illustration of how far the tentacles of Benfica, Sporting and Porto's influence reach into Portuguese football, Azenha was given his first break in coaching as assistant to current Benfica coach Jorge Jesus at Vitória de Setúbal, back in 2000. After moderate success Jesus departed for Estrela da Amadora, with tensions between the two revealed years later by Azenha, who described Jesus as "the only person in football with whom I do not speak." An articulate, learned man with an Architecture degree and experience teaching at University level, Azenha then spent the next decade under the tutelage of first Toni (yes, the same Toni who replaced Mourinho and Mozer) and then Jesualdo Ferreira (yes, the same Ferreira that Mourinho refused to accept as his assistant, keep up at the back), abroad and then at FC Porto.

His first foray into head coaching was an abject failure, with Setúbal dismissing him just four games into the 2009/10 campaign, following an 8-1 loss at Benfica (who else?) and then a 4-0 humbling at home to União de Leiria. Thus, the arrival of Azenha at Portimonense was greeted with a certain level of scepticism by many observers, myself included. So the stage was set for two relative novices, one Benfica to the core, the other with close ties to Porto, to begin the new year at new jobs. Can you guess which of them produced which quote at the beginning of this piece?

It was Azenha who declared, somewhat disingenuously, that his side had plenty of matches remaining to save themselves. Fair enough on paper, but as Friday's 4-3 home loss to Setúbal proved, Portimonense are in deep trouble. For all their pretty approach play, the Algarve side seemingly always find a way to shoot themselves in the foot, particularly at the back. This weekend it was the turn of FC Porto loanee Hugo Ventura to carry the can. With his side leading 2-1 at half-time, the young goalkeeper inexplicably fluffed his lines when coming for a Ney Santos cross, and instead of catching the ball he flapped it into the net, with nobody challenging nearby. It was, simply put, an atrocious error, and it precipitated a malaise amongst the Portimonense side that was painful to watch. 2-2, then 3-2, then 4-2 down, with Ricardo Pessoa's injury-time penalty coming far too late to alter matters. Fifteen games, Carlos.

The other Carlos, the one who called for "fighting spirit" from his players, had a rather more enjoyable debut weekend in the Liga. His Naval side travelled to high-flying Vitória de Guimarães, and although Mozer had declared that he expected victory, few really thought his team capable of doing what FC Porto and Benfica had found impossible: leaving the Afonso Henriques with three points. Yet that is exactly what happened. Implementing a 4-1-4-1 formation, with former Benfica youth player Manuel Curto screening the defence with impressive calm, Mozer pulled off what will be remembered as one of the upsets of the season, particularly given that right-back Carlitos was dismissed with half an hour remaining. By then Naval were already 1-0 down, and although it took a moment of clumsiness from Bruno Teles to hand them a penalty (converted with venom by Fábio Júnior) there was nothing fortuitous about the manner in which the Figueira side seized all three points. A neat flick from Godémeche released substitute Gomis, who sent in a low cross that was only half-cleared by Guimarães. The ball fell to Marinho, a forward who never scores, but his delicate half-volley looped over Nilson, and the three points headed back to the coast.

Two new coaches, two different declarations to the press, two very different results. Perhaps there's only one way to skin a cat after all.

Round Fifteen Talking Points:

Porto maintained their eight-point lead over Benfica with a 4-1 victory at home to Marítimo highlighted by a spectacular brace from the Colombian Freddy Guarín, who has seized the opportunity presented by Fernando's spell out injured with both hands. His first was a rocket from quite staggering distance, leaving Marcelo with no chance whatsoever. Guarín's stunned expression as he celebrated said it all: this goal (scored with a Jabulani, by the way) was one to treasure. His second wasn't bad either, a curling left-footed effort with gently sailed over poor old Marcelo. Whilst the Colombian is not as defensively-minded as Fernando (indeed, he played as an attacking midfielder during his pre-Porto days at St Etienne), and would therefore offer less security when the stakes are high, he looks increasingly comfortable alongside João Moutinho and Fernando Belluschi in the Porto midfield. Technically adept and, as we have seen, more than capable of contributing a goal or two, the Colombian will certainly provide a most welcome selection quandary for André Villas Boas.

Benfica were equally comfortable at Leiria, and it was only thanks to the heroics of Gottardi in the home goal that the score remained 1-0 until the 80th minute. Javier Saviola gave the Eagles the lead just before the half hour mark, crashing home from close range after a nifty header across the box from his compatriot Eduardo Salvio. Benfica then commenced a protracted onslaught on the Leiria goal, with Gottardi (signed over the summer from Brazilian lower league side Juventude de Caxias) pulling off a string of eye-catching stops. The inevitable came with ten minutes remaining, as Nico Gaitán stabbed home after Óscar Cardozo's knock-down. The Paraguayan (who had been pulling himself inside out in an attempt to score all evening) put the icing on the cake seven minutes later, and Benfica extended their winning run to five matches.

That Benfica had the undesired consequence of increasing their Lisbon rivals' comfort in 3rd place, four points back. Sporting overcame Braga 2-1 at the Alvalade in what was a breathless ninety minutes, even if all the goals came inside the opening twenty. The home side raced into a 2-0 lead thanks to Diogo Salomão and Jaime Valdés, two summer signings who are becoming increasingly central to Paulo Sérgio's plans. Salomão recently saw his release clause raised, and his improvised pirouette finish showed exactly why the Sporting hierarchy are placing such faith in the young winger. Valdés, again taking up a free role just behind the front two, finished cooly just two minutes later, after Liédson had latched onto a slack back pass. Braga might have folded, but after Paulo César sneaked in at the near post to meet Alan's cross, Domingos Paciência's men mounted a rousing series of attacks on the Sporting goal. Lions fans would have recalled the 3-2 loss at the hands of Guimarães with trepidation, but their side held out for a confidence-boosting victory.

The remaining three matches produced just a single goal, scored by Olhanense centre-back Maurício. It was enough to give the Algarve club a commendable win at Rio Ave, their first victory since the end of October. Whilst their form trailed off towards the end of 2010, coach Daúto Faquirá deserves great credit for what he has achieved in Olhão: a report in A Bola highlighted the fact that Olhanense are, with the exception of FC Porto, the most improved club compared to this time last season.

Results:

Portimonense 3-4 Vitória de Setúbal, FC Porto 4-1 Marítimo, Sporting CP 2-1 Sporting Braga, Rio Ave 0-1 Olhanense, Nacional 0-0 Beira Mar, Académica 0-0 Paços de Ferreira, Vitória de Guimarães 1-2 Naval, União de Leiria 0-3 Benfica.

Round Sixteen fixtures:

Portimonense-Sporting Braga, Vitória de Guimarães-Olhanense, Sporting CP-Paços, Nacional-Rio Ave, Vitória de Setúbal-Marítimo, União de Leiria-Beira Mar, FC Porto-Naval, Académica-Benfica.

As well as co-editing and writing for IBWM, Ben runs a Portuguese football blog, Cahiers du Sport. You can follow him on Twitter @cahiers_dusport.

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