Last night's Derby de Lisboa presented the season in microcosm for both participants. Ben Shave has been listening to Talking Heads.
The Cambridge University Press (other dictionaries are available) defines a rearguard action as “to try very hard to prevent something from happening when it is probably too late to prevent it.” In footballing terms, the phrase evokes images of Internazionale's massed ranks of defensive players (which is to say, all of them) hurling themselves at Barcelona's potshots, through balls, and forward runs.
The precursors to a footballing rearguard action are readily identifiable: a red card, a lead for the away side, the inexorable progress towards the final whistle, an increasingly irritable crowd. All of these were present and correct in Monday's Derby de Lisboa, which closed out Round 20 in the Portuguese Liga. Benfica, the away side, had survived an onslaught from opponents and eternal rivals Sporting Clube de Portugal to enter the half-time break with a 1-0 lead. The loss of centre-back Sidnei on the stroke of the interval combined with Sporting's aggressive attacking during the final ten minutes saw the spectators – and this correspondent – brace themselves for a second half dominated by the home side, who had actually begun to worry their opponents after going a goal behind.
But this is Sporting, the 2010/11 vintage, and the normal rules simply don't apply. After throwing not just the sink but most of the Acme Kitchens stockroom at Benfica as the first half sped to a close, the Lions second half display contained...nothing. Nada. Zero. The home side had the majority of the possession (58%) but simply failed to capitalise in any meaningful way. As the chants from the increasingly gleeful travelling support echoed around the rapidly emptying Alvalade, and as Sporting's players extinguished their not exactly extensive well of ideas, the match, which had begun in breathless fashion, petered out towards what was, in the end, a wholly unsurprising conclusion.
It is this absence of surprise that will be worrying Sportinguistas in the days and weeks to come. After a season that could charitably be described as chaotic, few expected a victory on Monday evening. That in itself implies that something has gone seriously wrong at the club, but let's not deviate from the present, otherwise we'll be here all day. Sporting supporters, 34,000 of whom filled the Alvalade to the closest it's been to capacity for some time, created a fine atmosphere before kick-off, but once Eduardo Salvio slipped a low shot past Rui Patrício to give the Eagles the lead after just sixteen minutes, the silence returned, punctuated by regular cries of 'BENFIIIICA, BENFIIIICA, BENFIIIICA.'
Such is the status quo at the club these days. Sporting huffed and puffed for the remaining seventy-five minutes, but despite enjoying a man advantage for the entire second half, were unable to trouble Roberto in any meaningful fashion. Sidnei's dismissal, after picking up his second yellow card in five minutes, threatened to be fatal, but by the final whistle, it had largely been forgotten. Sporting veered between circumspect funnelling of the ball around the midfield and aimless long passes into the 'danger area', but irrespective of method, the result remained the same.
After the match, Benfica coach Jorge Jesus told the press that he still believed the club could overhaul Porto, who with ten rounds remaining are eight points clear at the top. His confidence is justified on paper: Benfica have now won ten consecutive matches in the Liga – fifteen in all competitions – with their last domestic defeat coming against Porto, way back in early November. With a Clássico at the Estádio da Luz on the horizon, the Eagles can conceivably cut the gap to five points, and whilst it's difficult to envisage the Dragons slipping up twice more in their nine other fixtures between now and May 16th, Jesus deserves great credit for engineering a fightback of this magnitude.
The outspoken coach was under immense pressure during the early part of the season, but has constructed a siege mentality around the squad, as well as encouraging the blossoming talents of Eduardo Salvio and Nico Gaitán in particular. The summer signing from Boca Juniors was superb on Monday evening, and has formed a devastating partnership with Fábio Coentrão down the left wing, a partnership which yielded both goals for Benfica.
Whilst the Eagles continue to march on, the path is less clear for Sporting. The power vacuum at administrative level means that Paulo Sérgio (who was absent from the touchline last night after his dismissal at Olhanense last weekend) will remain as coach, but with a new regime expected to be implemented for next season, the sense of inevitability about his departure has been present for some time now. The players, many of whom are also likely to be departing for pastures new come the summer, have picked up on this, and despite the presence of tangible goals to fight for – the Europa League, the Bwin Cup (where they meet – who else – Benfica in the semi-finals next week), and European qualification for next season – Sporting appear to be suffering from a collective malaise, particularly in the Liga. It looks increasingly as if not even a rearguard action could save them now.
Round 20 Talking Points
The other derby of the weekend took place in Portimão, where Portimonense hosted regional rivals Olhanense, playing out an entertainingly feisty 1-1 draw. As well a clash between the Algarve's two leading sides, the match also marked Portimonense's return to their own stadium, after a series of delays to renovations on the Estádio Municipal precipitated an extended relocation to the Estádio Algarve, a full 60km from Portimão. Whilst this state of affairs shouldn't be used to mask the side's numerous failings, the cavernous surroundings of the 30,000-capacity stadium were not exactly conducive to the type of rousing atmosphere that a relegation battles requires.
Buoyed by a near full house, Portimonense took the lead through Lito after half an hour, and it took a late penalty from Djalmir to secure a share of the points for Daúto Faquirá's in-form Olhanense. Faquirá declared afterwards that a draw was the fairest outcome, whilst Carlos Azenha – who handed in his resignation last week only to see it rejected by President Fernando Rocha – criticised the performance of referee Hugo Miguel. Such anger is reflective of his side's position – Portimonense are without a win in the Liga since September 26th, sit eight points from safety, and are in all likelihood headed back to the Liga de Honra. For Olhanense, the draw sees them slip back to 8th, in the middle of a six-team cluster separated by just four points.
Heading that group are Paços de Ferreira, who moved into 5th with an impressive 2-1 win at an injury-depleted Braga on Sunday evening. In a league where the majority of away sides are set up simply not to lose, Paços are a breath of fresh air: employing an aggressive 4-2-1-3 formation with a pair of galloping Brazilian full-backs in Maykon Araújo and Baiano. Ahead of those two were captain Manuel José and Venezuelan Mário Rondon, with a pair of Benfica loanees (David Simão and Nélson Oliveira) playing through the middle. Paços blitzed Braga in the early stages, and were 2-0 up after just eighteen minutes.
Spearheaded by Porto loanee Ukra, the Arsenalistas proceeded to control the remaining seventy minutes, but were only able to pull back a single goal. Coach Domingos Paciência cut a concerned figure on the touchline, as Braga continued their run of poor home form. The Minho club have been hampered by injuries all season long, and their ongoing European commitments are stretching the squad to breaking point – Paciência was forced to call upon six players from satellite club Vizela for last week's trip to Lech Poznan. With the emergence of Paços and Olhanense, as well as the usual strength of local rivals Vitória de Guimarães, Braga face a real battle to secure European football next season.
Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of the terrible flooding that hit Madeira, and both the island's top-flight clubs marked the occasion. Nacional, who were not in competitive action having played their fixture with Porto in late January (the game was rescheduled at Porto's request) took part in a fundraising event, whilst Marítimo offered free entry to all victims of the flooding for their home match against Beira Mar, which they eventually won by a Baba goal to nil. That was one of five matches containing two or less goals this weekend, as the Liga appeared to take their collective foot off the gas. With two-thirds of the season completed, and only the destination of the title all but decided, many sides are bracing themselves for that final push.
F.C Porto 3-0 Nacional, União de Leiria 0-1 Vitória de Guimarães, Portimonense 1-1 Olhanense, Académica 0-1 Rio Ave (two points from a possible eighteen for José Guilherme at Académica, who resigned on Monday), Vitória de Setúbal 1-1 Naval, Marítimo 1-0 Beira Mar, Sporting Braga 1-2 Paços de Ferreira, Sporting CP 0-2 Benfica.
Round 21 Fixtures
Vitória de Guimarães-Académica, Paços de Ferreira-Vitória de Setúbal, Olhanense-F.C Porto, Rio Ave-União de Leiria, Beira Mar-Portimonense, Benfica-Marítimo, Nacional-Sporting CP, Naval-Sporting Braga.
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.