7 November ~ With this week’s European commitments out of the way, the countdown to today’s FC Porto v Benfica clássico is well and truly under way. In the last couple of decades, games between the two clubs have become Portuguese football’s main attraction as Porto have built on stability and astute management to usurp Benfica as the country’s top team, if not club; in those 20 years, Porto have won 13 titles to Benfica’s four. Historically it’s all pretty even: of the 216 clássicos between the clubs, in all competitions, Porto have won 82, Benfica 81. The last time they met was in the Supertaça (Portugal’s Community Shield) in August, which Porto won 2-0.
Porto are currently top of the Liga with a seven-point lead over their southern rivals after only nine games, and there are those that believe a win for Porto will clinch the championship. This scenario is not too far-fetched, in fact, given the quality of Porto’s play under former Mourinho disciple André Villas Boas and the dip in Benfica’s after last season’s charge to the title. Realistically, the other clubs chasing are doomed to be also-rans; Guimarães and Sporting, at the head of the pack, are already ten points off the pace.
Missing the departed Angel di Maria (Real Madrid) and Ramires (Chelsea), Benfica suffered three defeats in the first four league matches but have since picked up. They’re coming off five straight Liga wins and an hour of excellent football against Lyon on Tuesday which saw them take a 4-0 lead before the worrying late collapse that let Lyon back into a game that finished 4-3. In their favour, they do have two of the Liga’s most in-form players: the left-sided dynamo Fábio Coentrão and the irreverent creative midfielder Carlos Martins (four assists on Tuesday). Also in Benfica’s favour will be five days of rest after Lyon.
Porto will have three after their Europa League draw with Besiktas. They’re undefeated and have dropped just two points in the Liga. Key for them will be the rampaging forward Hulk and the sublime winger Varela who have 13 league goals between them. The whole of the Benfica team have managed only 13, and their top scorer, Cardozo with three, is injured.
The football aside, eyes will be on the team coach and the 2,500 benfiquistas travelling to the Dragão. Benfica sent a delegation to meet the iinister of the interior in October to seek assurances on safe passage – to all grounds, but principally to the Dragão. The team coach was stoned by portistas when it arrived there before the league game last May, and the club has threatened that it will turn round and head back to Lisbon if something similar happens this time. There will be 750 police officers on duty in and around the ground today to try to ensure that it doesn’t. Phil Town