Sporting and Estoril Praia surprise Liga
22 April ~ Easter Sunday saw Benfica claim their 33rd league title (Porto have 27, Sporting 18) with a 2-0 win over struggling Olhanense in front of 64,000 at the Luz in Lisbon. Club president Luís Filipe Vieira dedicated the title to the supporters – according to a UEFA report published last week, 47 per cent of Portuguese fans are Benfiquistas, while there are reputedly six million around the world – and to the two Benfica legends that passed away recently: Eusébio and Mário Coluna. Coach Jorge Jesus in turn thanked Vieira for showing faith in him.
Indeed, JJ's reputation was in tatters at the end of last season when two seemingly inevitable prizes (league and cup) and a very doable one (Europa League) were all squandered. Luckily, Vieira did not bend to public pressure; the current season as a whole – the quality of Benfica's play has been generally excellent – and Sunday's clincher have effectively "resurrected Jesus", to borrow one of the many biblical references being rolled out in the local media.
But he can achieve even more in the coming weeks. Juventus await in the last four of the Europa League, while they meet Rio Ave in the Portuguese Cup final and the same team in the League Cup final, if they get past Porto in the semis.
About a mile and a half away is another, highly unexpected, success story. Sporting finished seventh last season, the worst position in their history. But a new president, the populist Bruno de Carvalho, and coach, Leonardo Jardim, formerly of Sporting Braga and Olympiakos, seem to have stopped the rot and given them a new lease of life.
The refreshing thing about Sporting, however forced it might be due to financial constraints, is their faith in academy-nurtured players, with half a dozen or so in the starting line-up for any given game. These include assured young midfielder William Carvalho, being chased by several major European clubs, if the Portuguese sports media can be believed.
On the other hand, neutrals have been annoyed by their incessant, now virtually institutionalised, whinging. In March, De Carvalho presented a case for the team having been "defrauded of seven points" by bad refereeing decisions – a highly partisan view, obviously. But this combativeness has helped to give the club and team some much needed steel and a deserved runners-up spot.
Based a short distance west along the coast from Lisbon, Estoril Praia secured fourth place on a shoestring budget under the exciting young coach Marco Silva. Rumours have put Silva at Benfica or Porto next season, but he would do well to heed the salutary lesson of Paulo Fonseca, who jumped from last season's sensation, Paços de Ferreira, to Porto and was soon exposed as being way out of his depth.
The fortunes of Paços, coached since February by Jorge Costa, have nosedived since their best season ever, when they finished third; they are fighting now to avoid the drop. Another underperforming northern team are Sporting Braga, who appear to have wasted several seasons' momentum and can only finish sixth at best, outside the European places.
But the great losers this time around have been Porto. They went out of the Champions League early on and were trailing Benfica and Sporting in the league when their hapless coach Fonseca was replaced in March by B-team coach Luís Castro, though he has fared little better. The team capitulated to Sevilla in the Europa League quarter-finals, were knocked out of the Portuguese Cup in the semis by Benfica, and limped to third in the league, which will mean a preliminary round to get into the Champions League proper.
Talk is of an end to the era of Porto hegemony in which they have won 14 of the last 20 titles. They will be looking for a new coach in the summer and will need to make an extensive overhaul of a very uneven squad if this season is to prove no more than a glitch. Phil Town