Portugal's unbeaten duo go head to head
11 May ~ The traditional meeting point for celebrating the title for fans of Benfica or Sporting is the roundabout in central Lisbon named after the Marquês de Pombal, responsible for rebuilding the city after the devastating earthquake of 1755. Going into last weekend’s games it looked more than likely that Benfiquistas would sooner or later be gathering there; someone had even daubed a red "Reserved" on the plinth of the statue of Marquês de Pombal that looks down the Avenida da Liberdade towards the River Tagus.
Benfica were four points clear of arch rivals FC Porto (both are still unbeaten in the league this season) with just three games left, two of them at home to theoretically weaker opposition: Estoril and bottom club Moreirense. The former, themselves challenging for a Europa League place, didn't roll over though; they put in an accomplished performance on Monday to earn a 1-1 draw that has created a huge sense of self-doubt for the leaders.
Before the game, Benfica coach Jorge Jesus said that there would be no tinkering, that he would put out the "strongest" line-up for the rest of the season, even if those players had been through the mill recently to qualify for the Europa League final. After the game, he denied that fatigue had contributed to the setback, but this was demonstrably not true as Estoril had run them ragged in the second half and could easily have taken all three points.
The always combative Uruguay full-back Maxi Pereira did his best to play down the sudden uncertainty: "We’re going to Porto and we’re going to be champions." That is Benfica’s next challenge. Ahead of the Amsterdam meeting with Chelsea they go to Porto’s Estádio do Dragão today for what has become a crunch game, with the reigning champions now only two points adrift.
Porto have trailed their Lisbon enemy since early March and even their most ardent followers were largely resigned to missing out on a third consecutive title, such was Benfica’s apparent invincibility. It is by no means a foregone conclusion that Porto can snatch it, but at least now they have it within their grasp. And they have a superb home record that suggests Benfica will have their work cut out in the upcoming clássico: only two points dropped and four goals conceded in 14 games.
If Benfica win today, they will be clinching the title at the home of their bitterest rivals, which always has a special flavour. A draw or a win for Porto, however, will take the decision to the final day when they visit the season’s surprise package Paços de Ferreira. The difficulty factor of that game will depend on whether or not Paços have already secured what is a very likely third spot and the corresponding Champions League place. All in all, it’s shaping up to be a breathtaking finale. Phil Town