Sporting bade farewell to an idol in characteristically chaotic fashion this weekend. Ben Shave has the story, along with the rest of the action from the Portuguese Liga.
It was a moment wrought by the footballing gods. In the closing stages of his final match for the club he had been a part of since 2003, he seized upon the slack defending, ghosted into the area, and calmly slotted the ball into the back of the net. It was a typical goal from an atypical striker, embodying all of his finest attributes as a player – speed, a cool head under pressure, and the instinct that separates a goal from a missed opportunity. As he picked the ball out of the net and trudged back towards the centre circle, you could have been forgiving for thinking to yourself – why the long face?
Simply put, it wasn't supposed to pan out like this.
In the last week of January, a rumour began to do the rounds amongst the Portuguese press corps. It was, like most rumours that appear towards the end of the transfer window, greeted with the type of weary suspicion that becomes the prevalent response after day after day of incessant chatter, of which only a negligible percentage has any grounding in actual fact. But unlike the other rumours, it couldn't be ignored. It was so juicy, so startling, so deliciously unbelievable that looking back on it now, the speed with which the whole story slipped out into the public domain seems fitting, in a surreal sort of way. For after seven and a bit years at the Alvalade, Liédson da Silva Muniz, or Levezinho as he had become known, was on his way out of Sporting.
The story of Liédson's rise from a shelf-stacker in Brazil's industrial heartland to the 6th-highest goalscorer in Sporting history is, by any stretch of the imagination, worth recounting. Combining an amateur career with the mundanity of working nine to five, before leaving his home for the bright(ish) lights of Coritiba, Liédson, who didn't make his professional debut until the age of 23, is, in many ways, a product of his time. It is scarcely conceivable that a player of his ability could slip through the net of the game's modern scouting networks, but slip through he did, only arriving at Flamengo in 2002. After success there and at Corinthians, where he won the 2003 Paulistão, Liédson joined Sporting for a fee of €2 MN in August 2003.
He arrived at a club with a healthy bank balance, following the sales of Cristiano Ronaldo and Ricardo Quaresma, but lacking in attacking depth, following injuries to Marius Niculae and Elpído Silva. Sporting had finished a disastrous twenty-seven points adrift of champions F.C Porto the previous season, and with the likes of Rui Jorge, Paulo Bento and Ricardo Sá Pinto entering their twilight years, the club was drifting into a period of transition. The evolution of sides and the passage of time is an inevitable feature of football, and the management of these forces to ensure a minimum amount of disruption is as vital as it is quixotic an issue for Presidents, Sporting Directors and coaches the world over.
During such times, all that coaches want is consistency from a core of players, whilst the off-field project takes shape – or not, as the case may be. Whether Sporting have fully progressed beyond that last title-winning vintage of 2001/02 is a moot point, but what cannot be debated is the importance of Liédson's contribution during a period largely devoid of silverware. His goalscoring record reads thus: 19, 35, 17, 21, 24, 25, 22, and, for the 2010/11 campaign, 10. As an institution, Sporting might have spent much of this decade in a damaging state of flux, but the stats don't lie: Liédson was a metronomic pillar of stability throughout; you could set your clock to him.
But it wasn't just the goals that endeared Liédson to the Sporting faithful – although the evident delight he took in finding the net against Benfica became a matter of distinct pride – rather it was his willingness to chase hopeless causes, his relentless appetite for success, and the attitude with which he assumed the mantle of a idol during these lean years. When asked what kept him motivated, even during games with nothing riding on them, Liédson declared that he treated every game as if it was his last. Such rhetoric has become a staple of modern footballers, but unlike some, Liédson's words rang true.
In terms of financial prudence, his departure, at the age of 33 and with his physical attributes beginning to decline, is perhaps well-timed. The official line from both club and player has been that Liédson's family wished to return to Brazil, and that the monetary dimension (Corinthians will reportedly increase his wages by €300,000 per year, whilst paying Sporting €2.1 MN for his services) was too good to ignore. Privately, rumours of discontent have emerged. The outgoing Bettencourt administration has been dogged by allegations of internal strife, and whilst it would be a shame if a player of Liédson's standing had been driven to register his desire to get out, it wouldn't come as a total shock.
The final send-off came against Naval on Friday evening, with the sparsely-populated crowd (despite the occasion, just 20,549 made their way to the Alvalade) witnessing yet another chaotic performance from the Lions. Whilst the Figueira da Foz outfit have made great strides under Carlos Mozer, the 3-3 result says more about the problems at Sporting than about the progress made by the club who sit bottom of the Liga. Liédson's 90th-minute equaliser (he also got the opening goal) highlighted the problems that his departure will precipitate.
Whilst the mistakes from Rui Patrício and Evaldo that led to Naval's first and third goals respectively can be attributed to lapses in concentration, the extent to which Sporting still rely on Liédson's predatory instincts was laid bare once more. The two centre-forwards charged with filling the void are Hélder Postiga (three Liga goals this season) and Carlos Saleiro (just the one). The continuing fine form of Jaime Valdés provides a measure of comfort to Paulo Sérgio – who not for the first time this season received the dreaded white hankies from the crowd – but Sporting's failed attempt to secure the deadline-day signature of Kléber from Atlético Mineiro was a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that, simply put, this is a squad lacking in goal threat.
The Lions are about to embark on a crucial period of their season, and over the next month will face Rangers in the Europa League and Benfica in the Liga, as well as tough trips to Olhanense, Nacional and then Benfica again in the Bwin Cup. The supporters might have temporarily laid aside their grievances in order to pay their respects to a departing idol, but that won't last. The wolves are at the door.
Round 18 Talking Points
In fairness to Naval, their performance at the Alvalade was the latest in a string of impressive displays under the tutelage of Carlos Mozer. Although they remain bottom of the Liga, Naval are no longer cut adrift as they were before Christmas, something due in no small part to the continuing poor form of their closest competitors, Rio Ave and Portimonense. The former have now lost five straight Liga matches, with the latest coming at the Dragão, where Silvestre Varela's early header was enough to secure a 1-0 victory for Porto. Rio Ave are, on paper, better than their position in the table suggests, but circumstances have conspired against Carlos Brito and his men, who host Portimonense next weekend in what looks to be a must-win encounter for both sides.
In acute contrast to the fighting spirit being shown by Naval, Portimonense appear to be headed inexorably for a swift return to the Liga de Honra. The dismissal of Litos and hiring of Carlos Azenha as coach was a gamble that has yet to yield any tangible results, with a pitiful 1-0 home loss to Paços the latest setback for the Algarve club. Rui Vitória's side are in the midst of a seven-game unbeaten streak, but the total absence of anything approaching 'home' form (their last points at the Estádio Algarve came in early November) looks like it will do for Portimonense, barring a fightback of extraordinary proportions. A series of delays in renovation work on their own Estádio Municipal in Portimão has forced the club to relocate to the Estádio Algarve – some sixty kilometres away – but whilst this has undoubtedly had an impact on support, Portimonense are already propping up the bar at the last chance saloon.
Many expected Beira Mar to be drinking partners of their fellow Liga new boys in the aforementioned emporium of despair, but as has previously been covered in this column, the side from Aveiro are looking very much at home in the Liga. Their latest outing was a knock-down drag-out thriller at Académica, where Leonardo Jardim's men fell behind twice before Leandro Tatu eventually snatched a late equaliser. 3-3 it finished, and whilst neither coach will be overjoyed at the standard of defending, the executives at Sport TV (who chose to broadcast the 0-0 snoozefest between Vitória de Guimarães and Nacional) will surely have been cursing. Beira Mar sit 9th in the table, and with survival looking increasingly certain, attention can perhaps be turned towards sorting out the financial uncertainty which still hangs over the club.
After a midweek victory at the Dragão in the Taça de Portugal semi-final first leg, Benfica notched up their twelfth consecutive victory in all competitions with a 2-0 win at Setúbal. The Eagles were made to work for the three points, but two moments of quality from their Argentine diaspora eased them ahead of Manuel Fernandes' side. Nico Gaitán volleyed home after a peach of a pass from Javier Saviola on the stroke of half-time, and Franco Jara came off the bench to seal the victory, with a move that he instigated and finished with a fine scissor-kick.
After the match, Jorge Jesus bullishly declared that “we are playing the best football in Portugal”, and there are few who would dispute that claim. Porto have an eleven-point advantage, but with a game in hand for Benfica – as well as a Clássico at the Luz – to come, there has been a perceptible shift in momentum towards Lisbon. It's too early to declare that we have a title race after all, but Benfica have done all that they can to maintain the pressure on Porto, although it remains to be seen if they will be rewarded for their efforts.
Round 18 Results
Sporting 3-3 Naval, Marítimo 1-2 Braga, Portimonense 0-1 Paços de Ferreira, Académica 3-3 Beira Mar, União de Leiria 0-2 Olhanense, Vitória de Guimarães 0-0 Nacional, F.C Porto 1-0 Rio Ave, Vitória de Setúbal 0-2 Benfica.
Round 19 Fixtures
Nacional-União de Leiria, Olhanense-Sporting, Paços de Ferreira-Marítimo, Naval-Académica, Rio Ave-Portimonense, Benfica-Vitória de Guimarães, Braga-F.C Porto, Beira Mar-Vitória de Setúbal.
As well as writing for and co-editing IBWM, Ben runs a Portuguese football blog, Cahiers du Sport. You can follow him on Twitter @cahiers_dusport.