Ben Shave on how Portugal's big guns got themselves geed up - or not - for the return of the Europa League.
Preparação. Préperation. Vorbeiretung. Preperación. Preparation. However you spell it, there are few more important tasks in modern football's congested calendar, which routinely demands upwards of six matches per month. Physical preparation was pioneered by Brazil, in response to the 1966 World Cup, where star player Pelé was booted out of the tournament by the unscrupulous feet of Brazil's opponents. The 1994 tournament was perhaps the apogee of this institutional obsession, with Moraci Sant'anna devising individual training regimes for each player, in order to counter the energy-sapping heat of the American summer.
The progression of modern science has ensured that all professional clubs employ gurus for various physical requirements, but the most important aspect of preparation remains mental. Again, this was a field in which Brazil blazed a trail for others to follow, following their traumatic loss at the Maracanã in the 1950 World Cup final.
The inclusion of a psychologist in their travelling party for the 1958 tournament provoked amusement amongst some chroniclers of the event, but coach Vicente Feola was vindicated: not only by Brazil's eventual triumph, but by his refusal to heed the advice of said psychologist, who recommended that he drop the peerless winger Garrincha from the side, as the Botafogo star's intellect would have precluded him from driving a bus back in Brazil. The implication was clear: knowing what the players are thinking (or not) is all well and good, but knowing how to respond to that is even more vital.
With the return of European competition, four Liga coaches saw the introduction of yet another dimension to their already multi-faceted game plans. Midweek matches have become par for the course, but the physical and mental toll they exert is undeniable, and it seems fair to conclude that their impact is not always positive. Which brings us back to preparação. Send your players too far into their energy reserves, and you risk a slump come Thursday evening. Tell them to hold something back, and you're inviting defeat. The fostering of a winning mentality is immensely valuable to coaches, but such intense concentration is mentally draining. The responses of Paulo Sérgio, Jorge Jesus, André Villas Boas and Domingos Paciência this past weekend were both entertaining and instructive.
Sérgio took his under-fire Sporting side on a trip south, to the Estádio José Arcanjo and Olhanense, who began the match undefeated on home turf in the Liga this season. Sérgio would have been relieved to leave the white hankies of the Alvalade crowd behind him, and when Hélder Postiga crashed a shot beyond Ricardo Batista after 62 minutes to give Sporting a 2-0 lead that was as merited as it was unexpected (that is to say, entirely), he could have been forgiven for turning his mind toward Thursday's trip to Ibrox.
Unfortunately for Sérgio, Sporting's propensity to hit the self-destruct switch with more fervour than a button-bashing 14 year-old playing Grand Theft Auto reared its ugly head once more. This time it was captain Daniel Carriço manning the controls. Since his promotion to the first team in 2008, the youngster has shown himself to be one of the more promising defensive products of Sporting's famed academy for many a year. Unfortunately, there was little evidence of that during a two-minute moment of madness, which saw Carriço first leave Ismaily in acres of space to slot home, before slicing an attempted clearance beyond the despairing dive of Rui Patrício and into his own goal.
Sérgio, who looks increasingly like he's been subject to the type of mental torture that you generally only read about in Andy McNab novels, lost it completely, berating referee Olegário Benquerença and encroaching onto the playing area, an offence which saw him banished to the stands. After vaulting the barrier with surprising ease, he was accosted by a brave Olhanense supporter (Sérgio began his coaching career at the Arcanjo), who presumably wanted to offer some words of consolation.
It was tragi-comedy of the highest order, and encapsulated the storm that surrounds Sporting at the moment. Certain to be fired at the end of the season, Sérgio resembles a doomed captain staying with his ship, with the rest of the crew fleeing around him. Still, off to Glasgow on Thursday.
Following that trial, Sporting will play host to city rivals Benfica, in a Clássico that is already being billed in some quarters as the match that will decide the title. Whilst Sporting were eliminated from the race long ago (indeed, you could argue that they were never in it), the school of thought is that anything less than a Benfica win at the Alvalade next Monday will hand the Liga to F.C Porto.
It's a compelling notion: for all that Benfica are, as coach Jorge Jesus recently put it, 'playing the best football in Portugal at the moment', there is a growing sense that their current unbeaten run (which was increased to thirteen matches with Sunday's routine 3-0 win at home to Vitória de Guimarães) may win them all the plaudits, but none of the silverware. Regular readers will recall that Benfica dropped nine points from their first twelve, and it doesn't take a Turing-sized mathematical intellect to work out that they will likely be ruing this come May.
Benfica were imperious on Saturday, and whilst Fábio Coentrão opined yesterday that 'Porto will eventually drop points', the accuracy of his and Jesus' statements are arguably irrelevant, such is the size of Porto's lead and the bulldozer-esque manner in which the Dragons are grinding out results. Sunday evening saw André Villas Boas and company visit the Estádio AXA and Braga, a fixture that resulted in a 1-0 win for the hosts last season. Given the continued absence of Radamel Falcao, and Braga's slight return in recent weeks, Benfiquistas (and those who just want an exciting title race) had reasons to be hopeful – for forty-four minutes anyway.
Braga began the game with scant regard for their upcoming schedule, flying into tackles and generally denying Porto's creative players the time and space to weave their attacking patterns. Fernando Belluschi in particular received some uncompromising treatment, in a foul-filled first half that saw Duarte Gomes issue a remarkably restrained three yellow cards. This was not ideal preparation for a midweek fixture, but it was certainly fine entertainment, ably backed by an atmosphere that was bubbling over with tension.
Paciência deserves credit for the way his side unsettled Porto, but for all their commitment, Braga failed to test Helton, and once Nico Otamendi curled a shot beyond Artur following the home side's failure to clear their lines, the outcome appeared inevitable.
Otamendi added a second with just over twenty minutes remaining, and soon the Quarry was filled with Olés and chants of Campeões from the travelling hordes. The latter may have been somewhat premature, but going into the final third of the season Porto will, depending on the Derby de Lisboa, have between an eight and eleven point-lead. Whilst Villas Boas may not acknowledge it in public, Porto travel to Seville safe in the knowledge that the title is theirs to lose. Now that's preparation.
Round 19 Talking Points
At the other end of the table, the weekend saw the bottom two sides swap places, as Naval overcame local rivals Académica 3-1 in their first home win since March 2010, whilst Portimonense slumped to their fourth defeat since the new year at Rio Ave. With coach Carlos Azenha submitting his resignation after just five matches in charge, Portimonense look inexorably headed towards relegation. Whilst the likelihood remains that Naval will join them, the coastal club are putting up an admirable fight under Carlos Mozer.
Having been 2-0 up at half-time, Mozer's heart must have sank when Modou Sougou converted a penalty for Académica, but there was to be no collapse, as Naval held their nerve before subsitute Giuliano made sure of the victory four minutes from time. Rio Ave's victory means that Naval remain four points from safety, but with matches against the side from Vila do Conde and Vitória de Setúbal (who insert Beira Mar result here) still to come, their fate increasingly appears to be in their own hands.
Having taken just a single point from and scored a single goal in their opening four matches of 2011, União de Leiria left Madeira with an unlikely three points, after their hard-fought 1-0 victory over Nacional. It was a performance that lacked flair, but Pedro Caixinha was eager to emphasise the battling qualities displayed by his team, and his new forward line in particular. The arrival of João Silva on loan from Everton, and the permanent signature of Fabrício from II Divisão side Operário appear to be shrewd moves, and given the gap left by the departure of top scorer Carlão (who joined Kashima Antlers during the January window), vital ones as well.
Leiria are currently 5th on twenty-eight points, and given the lack of consistency displayed by those around them, are well-placed to mount a European challenge. Caixinha is keeping his feet on the ground though, declaring that their first target of the season – survival – had been achieved.
Another side on the up are Paços de Ferreira, who left it late to down Marítimo 1-0 at the Mata Real. Mário Rondon's 90th-minute winner sparked scenes of jubilation amongst the sparse crowd, with Rui Vitória's side now unbeaten in five Liga outings. Three of those five matches have been victories, all of which were secured in the final ten minutes of play, which speaks to the stamina and dedication of Vitória's squad, a mixture of youthful loanees and veterans. The Castores are just two points off Leiria, and with the likes of Nélson Oliveira, Pizzi, and creative wide man David Simão all finding form, Vitória has plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the remainder of the campaign.
Round 19 Results
Nacional 0-1 União de Leiria, Olhanense 2-2 Sporting CP, Paços de Ferreira 1-0 Marítimo, Naval 3-1 Académica, Rio Ave 2-0 Portimonense, Benfica 3-0 Vitória de Guimarães, Sporting Braga 0-2 F.C Porto, Beira Mar 0-0 Vitória de Setúbal.
Round 20 Fixtures
F.C Porto 3-0 Nacional (already played), União de Leiria-Vitória de Guimarães, Portimonense-Olhanense, Académica-Rio Ave, Vitória de Setúbal-Naval, Marítimo-Beira Mar, Sporting Braga-Paços de Ferreira, Sporting CP-Benfica.
As well as writing for and co-editing IBWM, Ben runs a blog on Portuguese football, Cahiers du Sport. You can follow him on Twitter @cahiers_dusport.