The Winning Habit

This Sunday saw Benfica finally lose that winning feeling. Ben Shave has the story, and all the action from round twenty-two in Portugal.

Colonel Gadaffi was just another Cold War relic who – somehow – appeared headed for another decade or so in power. Roy Hodgson was still managing Liverpool. Mention tiger blood to somebody, and you would have been looked at as if you were slightly mad. Yes my friends, the world was a very different place on December 7th 2010, which, until Sunday evening, was the last time that Benfica had taken to the field and not come away with a victory.

Ninety days. Four competitions. Eighteen victories – including three Clássicos and a history-defying triumph on German soil – containing forty-eight goals for and nine against. As runs go, this one wasn't bad. After a stuttering start to the season, the Eagles had, through a combination of scintillating form and sheer bloody-minded determination, dragged themselves back into the title race, onto the verge of two domestic cup finals, and into the last sixteen of the Europa League. Coach Jorge Jesus became fond of declaring that his side were playing the best football in Portugal, and whilst table-toppers F.C Porto were barely putting a foot wrong themselves, he was right.

Your correspondent was at the Estádio da Luz on Sunday February 27th, where he witnessed Benfica get out of jail in impressive fashion against Marítimo. Fábio Coentrão's winner didn't come until the ninety-fourth minute, but as the Luz exploded in a cacophony of noise and Coentrão threw himself into the baying crowd, any other neutrals present would have been forgiven for thinking the same thing as myself at that moment: they might just pull something off, you know.

Of course, by the time I'd travelled a couple of stops on the Lisbon Metro my brain had thrown cold water on such an unlikely idea (Benfica kicked off against Braga eleven points adrift of Porto, with nine rounds remaining), but the way that the Eagles started showed that there were a few who still believed. Backed by a ferocious atmosphere at the Estádio AXA (which unfortunately manifested itself in the ugliest of fashions, with two Benfica players struck by projectiles thrown from the stands - a problem that the Portuguese footballing authorities have let lie for far too long), both sides showed scant regard for their midweek European commitments by pressing with intent and flying into every challenge with gusto. Benfica took the lead on twenty-five minutes, Javier Saviola crashing a shot beyond the grasp of Artur, after the Braga goalkeeper could only palm Carlos Martins' fiercely-struck free-kick into his path.

At that point, those covering the game around the world were readying themselves for a familiar story. Braga had matched Porto physically during their recent encounter at the Quarry, but after falling behind, had found themselves unable to conjure up a way back into the match. Benfica had, as we have already established, been on something of a roll, falling behind mattered little to them at the moment. But we all of us forgot to reckon for the occurrence of football's three greatest equalisers: the unquantifiable wonder goal, the similarly-befuddling error, and – firstly – a blatant bit of cheating.

In chronological order, then. With half-time approaching, Braga's Brazilian wide man Alan and Benfica's defensive midfielder Javi García challenged for a ball that the latter looked better-placed to win. There was, as pundits are fond of saying, a coming together, culminating in the Braga man writhing on the floor in front of his technical area – which exploded in protest, and demanded the red card. Referee Carlos Xistra duly obliged. García's offence? Decide for yourself. I'm still struggling, personally. Jorge Jesus said after the match that the dismissal was decided by the Braga bench, and whilst a man who I witnessed rush down to the corner flag to remonstrate with the linesman just a week previously should perhaps not be viewed as the most objective of arbiters, his rage was understandable; particularly when you consider that he'd also seen a marginal decision go against Franco Jara, who was adjudged to have been offside when he received the ball to score.

From the resulting free-kick, the second equaliser took centre stage. Hugo Viana delivered a deep but innocuous-looking ball, and Benfica's goalkeeper Roberto strode out to claim. Before outlining what happened next, let me say this: Roberto, after a shaky start to his time at the club, has been in excellent form during this run: commanding his area, displaying his considerable reflexes, and generally providing everything that you'd want an €8.5 MN goalkeeper to provide. Unfortunately, he's also capable of this. As errors go, this one was up there with the best (and by best, I do of course mean worst) of them. An enorme frango, as they say in Portugal.

Both teams went into the interval with the closing events of the first half reverberating around their collective subconsciouses, and it was hardly surprising that the second forty-five minutes were played out in slightly more circumspect fashion. Buoyed by their numerical advantage, Braga enjoyed the lions share of the possession, but for all that, it looked as if we were heading for a stalemate.

But as those of you sitting at the front will know, there's still another equaliser to come, and a fine one at that. After seventy-eight minutes, Braga's substitute midfielder Marcio Mossoró, an all-action presence since his introduction after the interval, sent a ball across the pitch to Hélder Barbosa, and continued his run inside, receiving a return pass from his fellow substitute. The diminutive Brazilian controlled, looked up, and sent an absolute pearler beyond the despairing dive of Roberto. It was a goal that Dennis Bergkamp – master of the understated side-foot finish – would have been proud to call his own. Instead of unleashing a screamer, Mossoró picked his spot, and drifted the ball lazily into the back of the net.

As well as securing a vital three points for his team, it represented something of a watershed moment for José Márcio da Costa, who was the driving force behind Braga's superb run in the 2009/10 campaign, and without whom they saw the title slip away. A long-term injury sustained at the Estádio da Luz kept Mossoró on the sidelines, and he has struggled to cement a first-team place since returning last Autumn, but his manic celebration (for which he was booked, naturally) showed just how much it meant to him. Braga held out for the remaining twelve minutes, and the curtain came down not just on a frantic game of football, but Benfica's epic run, and – in all likelihood – their last remaining hopes of retaining the title. As Charlie Sheen might say, that's #notwinning.

Round 22 Talking Points

Watching comfortably from their vantage point fifty-odd kilometres south were F.C Porto, who the previous evening had tightened their grip on the Liga with a 2-0 home victory over Vitória de Guimarães. The Dragons controlled the majority of the match, but found themselves unable to breach the away side's back line, which dropped ever deeper as a valuable away point drew ever closer. But just as the home crowd were beginning to show signs of discontent, Porto talisman Radamel Falcao opened the scoring after a latching onto a peach of a through ball from James Rodríguez. The two Colombians – starting together thanks to the suspension of Hulk – showed an understanding that will have pleased André Villas Boas (and any watching members of the Colombian coaching staff).

The return of Falcao in particular is hard to overstate in terms of its importance. The centre-forward has received less acclaim than his Brazilian teammate, but for my money is more important to Porto's game. His uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time and manufacturing space out of the tiniest cul-de-sacs are assets that are prized in any league, and if the Porto hierarchy have any sense, they will move heaven and earth – or perhaps Hulk – to keep him.

Most sides could do with a striker that possesses the predatory instincts of Falcao, but watching Sporting's 1-0 win at home to Beira Mar on Sunday evening, the contrast in finishing was painfully clear. Director-General turned coach José Couceiro elected for an attacking 4-3-3-ish formation, which saw two Chilean playmakers (Jaime Valdés and Matías Fernández) selected, with just André Santos holding in midfield. It was a calculated risk, with Beira Mar (who also had a debuting coach – Rui Bento having replaced Leonardo Jardim, who resigned last weekend) always likely to set up for a draw.

Sporting huffed and puffed but were unable to capitalise on their dominance, with even the presence of the aforementioned Chileans not enough to thread a path through the resilient visitors. The evening reminded me of another visit to the Alvalade – that of Marítimo, back in late August. On Sunday, as then, Sporting needed a penalty kick to secure the three points; on Sunday, as then, it was Fernández who converted with aplomb. That ended a run of eight matches without a victory for the Lions (the joint-worst streak in club history), and gave Couceiro a platform of sorts on which he can perhaps build. 3rd place and qualification for Europe has become the mantra at the club, with the impending elections set to usher in a new administration. The six candidates have been promising the earth (along with Frank Rijkaard and Zico as coaches), but for now, it's one game at a time.

Another club with history on their minds on Sunday were Rio Ave, who with their 1-0 victory at Marítimo secured their fourth consecutive victory, their finest-ever run in Portugal's top flight. It may be a modest record, but Carlos Brito has rejuvenated a group of players that were rock bottom not so long ago, and deserves credit for doing so. Perhaps the most impressive feature of this latest win was that it was secured without the presence of veteran hitman João Tomás, who had contributed thirteen of Rio Ave's twenty-one Liga goals prior to this latest round of fixtures. Tomás will return from suspension next weekend (Rio Ave host Sporting) and with his side now eleven points clear of the drop zone, and just six back from Guimarães in 5th, Brito can perhaps start to look up the table instead of over his shoulder.

Round 22 Results

Académica 0-0 União de Leiria, F.C Porto 2-0 Vitória de Guimarães, Marítimo 0-1 Rio Ave, Vitória de Setúbal 0-0 Olhanense (new coach, same goalscoring problem for Setúbal), Sporting CP 1-0 Beira Mar, Sporting Braga 2-1 Benfica, Paços de Ferreira-Naval, Portimonense-Nacional.

Round 23 Fixtures

Beira Mar-Paços de Ferreira, Rio Ave-Sporting CP, Vitória de Guimarães-Vitória de Setúbal, Naval-Marítimo, Nacional-Académica, Benfica-Portimonense, União de Leiria-F.C Porto, Olhanense-Sporting postponed until March 27th.

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.