Benfica's thrilling 4-2 win over Nacional elicited a somewhat unexpected reaction from their coach. Ben Shave reports on a riotous weekend of action in the Portuguese Liga.
Jorge Jesus wasn't happy. As the man from Amadora strode towards the centre circle, making his way towards the players that had just earned him an eighth successive victory in all competitions, he may have looked around him, taken in the cheers of the fans who had remained after the final whistle to applaud a display from their team that had evoked some very happy memories indeed. But still, Jesus didn't look too pleased. He rarely does. Flanked by Sporting Director and club legend Rui Costa, the Benfica coach joined the growing huddle of players, coaches and (somewhere) match officials.
I've never fully understood why, in football, the officials generally stand together following the final whistle, waiting for everyone to shake hands. In one sense, it's nice to see gentlemanly conduct observed in this modern age. On the other, it was, is, and always will be asking for trouble. And sure enough, trouble arrived. Benfica's Argentine forward Franco Jara, who had calmed the nerves of the home supporters with a late fourth, was deep in conversation with Nacional's Luís Alberto, an uncompromising central midfielder who had earned the ire of the crowd during the first half with a bruising foul on Pablo Aimar. He was shown a yellow card, but continued to put himself about in a borderline legal way throughout the ninety minutes.
Perhaps that was what Jara was pointing out to him, perhaps he was going through the post-match niceties, who knows. Because whatever it was, Jesus took exception to it. In a moment, the fiery 56 year-old, known for his terse manner in interviews, came face-to-face with Alberto, before pushing him backwards, making his displeasure crystal clear.
What followed was predictably unedifying. Jesus was restrained by his players and Costa, who took it upon himself to impose some sort of order on the situation by simultaneously hugging and commiserating with Nacional goalkeeper Rafael Bracalli, before mediating in a shouting contest between Jesus and his opposite number, Predrag Jokanović. At one point, Costa holds back a clearly fuming Jesus, who is not so much muttering as bellowing into his colleague's overcoat about, well, who can say?
Enter Jokanović from stage right, with one hand held at head height, utilised as an auxiliary linguistic organ. Costa, a rake-thin figure even in his retirement, attempts to prevent the burly Serbian from confronting Jesus, but it's a futile effort. The two then proceed to discuss the finer points of...who knows...with that surreal air of politeness that often prevails during a heated argument. At one point, Costa glances unintentionally towards the television cameras, which are (naturally) capturing the whole incident from multiple angles, clearly thinks “fuck this” to himself, and leads Jesus away, although not before Jesus manages to get the last word in. You have to get the last word in.
With Jesus safely out of the picture, Costa returns to lead the players off the pitch, and shares a joke with Jokanović – who, it occurs to me now, resembles an amiably savage bouncer from the type of bars generally found in Guy Ritchie films – before the pair go their separate ways. Luís Alberto, the player at the centre of the controversy, is nowhere to be seen.
It was an oddly fitting, if rather unsavoury, way to end a brilliant game of football, with just the right amount of needle throughout. Nacional, buoyed by a recent victory over Porto at the Dragão, hit the ground running, pinning Benfica back down both flanks, with the impressive Diego Barcellos drawing an early booking for Maxi Pereira. But it was the home side who were two up after twenty minutes, some swashbuckling attacking football producing goals from Nico Gaitán then Sidnei.
A Bola recently published an article with the headline 'Sport Argentina e Benfica', illustrating the importance that Benfica's Argentine quartet of Pablo Aimar, Gaitán, Eduardo Salvio and Javier Saviola have enjoyed this season. All four were on song against Nacional, and, along with Fábio Coentrão, conjured up the finest football seen at the Luz since last season's title-winning run.
Benfica were 3-0 up after 51 minutes, and the odds on a long-overdue shellacking were shortening by the second. But Nacional, who had continued to press and harry the Eagles even as they saw the game slip away from them, were duly rewarded with 14 minutes remaining, when the aforementioned Alberto out-jumped Coentrão and headed into a gaping net – Roberto having flown off his line and left himself in no-mans land.
The Spaniard is much improved from his shaky early-season form, but is still capable of veering between the sublime and the ridiculous in a short space of time. He followed the first Nacional goal with a superb save to deny Anselmo, but was again left wanting as the side from Madeira further reduced their deficit moments later, Mihelic finishing off a lightning-quick counter-attack. The crowd, already chilled to the bone by the freezing temperatures in Lisbon, began to voice their agitation, but four minutes later Jara soothed any nerves when he steered his header beyond Bracalli; after a delightful run and cross from Saviola.
The game was, in many ways, illustrative of Benfica's season so far. A combination of sublime attacking football and a tendency to switch off when ahead means that Jesus – never the calmest presence on the touchline at the best of times – must wake up each morning with another cluster of grey hairs greeting him. His stress manifested itself in the most unfortunate of ways following the final whistle, and with the Liga's Disciplinary Committee yet to make a decision on whether to open an inquiry, the coach may yet find himself on the receiving end of a lengthy ban.
The officials neglected to mention the incident in their match report, and whilst that may seem an oversight of unforgivable proportions, Vitor Pereira (head of the Liga's Arbitration Commission and a former referee himself), confirmed that to the press on Tuesday. Given how crowded the centre circle was, I'm inclined to believe him. Both Benfica and Nacional have remained silent over the incident, the implication being that all concerned would rather move on. Rui Costa in particular.
Round 17 Talking Points
It was something of an ill-tempered weekend in the Liga, with a total of 4 red cards and 52 (yes, that's fifty-two) cautions issued in the eight matches. Leading the way was Rio Ave's 3-2 home loss at the hands of Vitória de Guimarães, which saw the Vila do Conde side finish the match with eight players, referee Bruno Paixão having, well, lost his head completely. The official awarded three penalties, and whilst all were justifiable to various degrees, it was his glut of first-half yellow cards that forced him into the three dismissals, two of which could have been avoided if Paixão had instead chosen simply to have a stern word. Éder Monteiro was guilty of two bookable offences, but Vitor Gomes and Saulo had their afternoons cut short in the most frustrating of fashions.
For their part, Rio Ave subseqently released a carefully but strongly-worded statement condemning Paixão's performance, and calling for an emergency meeting between the Presidents of the Liga and the Arbitration Commission. At the time of writing, no response has been forthcoming, and whilst Rio Ave's angst is understandable, it is unlikely that their voice alone will be sufficient to implement a full enquiry.
The other red card came Braga's 2-2 home draw with Vitória de Setúbal, where the away side saw Brazilian Ney Santos issued two bookings in six minutes. Neither was particularly harsh, in what was a game where the balance of power shifted hands perceptibly either side of the interval. In the first half, Setúbal were excellent, causing Braga problems at every opportunity, and whilst it took two defensive errors (including an absolute shocker from Rodriguez) to give them the lead, they were fine value for it. Having been whistled off the pitch, Domingos Paciência's side produced a spirited second-half fightback, capped by a spectacular equaliser from young Brazilian wide man Guilherme, recalled in from a loan spell at Vizela earlier in the season.
Paciência experimented with an unfamiliar 4-4-2 formation, with Alan and Hélder Barbosa out wide, and Vandinho partnered by Hugo Viana in the centre of midfield. A combination of injuries and departures (nine at last count during this window) has forced the young coach to adapt, and given the circumstances, to be one point from the European places at this stage of the season is a laudable achievement.
Speaking of laudable achievements, Sporting's win at Marítimo to close out the round was as unexpected as any of the weekend's results. Paulo Sérgio opted for an aggressive 4-3-3 formation, but his side were largely insipid during the first half, as Marítimo (unbeaten at the Estádio dos Barreiros since late September) kept them at arms length. The breakthrough came on the cusp of half-time: Simon Vukcevic crossing for Alberto Zapater, who headed beyond Boeck for his third goal in two matches. The Spaniard has had a difficult couple of seasons since leaving Real Zaragoza, but at his best is a classy midfielder capable of imposing himself on matches.
He did so against Penafiel in the midweek Bwin Cup win (coming off the bench to grab a brace), but was far more impressive last night. His second goal, taken with perfect precision, killed the game just as it looked as if Sporting may crumble under the relentless pressure from Marítimo. Much credit must also go to goalkeeper Rui Patrício, who pulled off three outstanding saves with the score still at 1-0.
Round 17 Results:
Paços de Ferreira 1-1 União de Leiria (Paços still infuriatingly inconsistent), Olhanense 2-1 Académica, Sporting Braga 2-2 Vitória de Setúbal, Rio Ave 2-3 Vitória de Guimarães, Beira Mar 0-1 Porto (an awful, awful game decided by a Hulk penalty), Benfica 4-2 Nacional, Naval 1-1 Portimonense (Naval coach Carlos Mozer criticised Portimonense's “anti-football”, but both these sides are looking doomed), Marítimo 0-3 Sporting.
No Liga fixtures this coming weekend, as the Bwin Cup group stages conclude. They return of February 6th as follows:
Porto-Rio Ave, Vitória de Guimarães-Nacional, Marítimo-Sporting Braga, Portimonense-Paços de Ferreira, Sporting-Naval, Académica-Beira Mar, União de Leiria-Olhanense, Vitória de Setúbal-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.