Sporting lead city rivals Benfica going into their derby, with Porto close behind
4 March ~ Saturday’s sold-out clássico between Sporting and Benfica comes at a moment when the Primeira Liga is the closest it’s been in years. Around this point, the race is invariably down to two clubs, in recent seasons Benfica and Porto. This time there are three in it, with Sporting leading the charge.
In the close season Jorge Jesus, who had just coached Benfica to a second consecutive title, moved down the ring road to Lisbon neighbours Sporting, amid much controversy. He had an immediate effect on the perennial underachievers (their last title was 2001-02), primarily toughening them up mentally. They dropped just four points in the first 13 games and took top spot after eight, relinquishing it only twice since then.
Benfica, on the other hand, lost three and drew one of their first 13, at one point dropping to eighth, eight points behind Sporting. Their coach, Rui Vitória, drafted in from Vitória de Guimarães to replace Jorge Jesus, looked shaky and there were question marks over his future at the club. But he rode the storm and got Benfica playing attractive, effective football that has pleased the fans and made up ground on the leaders.
The Eagles have the league’s top scorer in Brazilian striker Jonas whose 26 goals have put him at the head of the pack vying for Europe’s Golden Boot. They also boast the best footballer in Portugal at the moment, the Argentinian winger and playmaker Nico Gaitán, and arguably the league’s best young player, midfielder Renato Sanches, just 18 but already a fixture in the team.
Sporting’s Algerian striker Islam Slimani, the league’s second top scorer with 18 goals, has put contractual differences with the club behind him to become their most influential player, with admirable support from a strong midfield in Portuguese internationals Adrien Silva, William Carvalho and João Mário alongside Costa Rican Bryan Ruíz.
Sporting have already beaten Benfica three times this season: 1-0 in the Supertaça, 3-0 in the league and 2-1 in the Portuguese Cup. In the cup tie at the end of November, Slimani was caught on camera elbowing Greek midfielder Andreas Samaris in the head. Benfica lodged a complaint post-match and the case went to the Federation’s Disciplinary Committee.
True to Portuguese tradition in matters of justice, three months later we’re no nearer a decision on the incident. In an (apparent) show of magnanimity and an attempt to calm off-field tension ahead of Saturday’s game, Benfica president Luís Filipe Vieira came out this week and said that if Slimani is to be suspended, he wouldn’t want it to be for this match. In a Facebook post of over 1,000 words, Vieira’s Sporting counterpart, the incendiary Bruno de Carvalho, responded: “I didn’t know if I wanted to ask for his immediate beatification, or propose him for the next Nobel Peace Prize.”
The controversy has given the clássico some extra bite, as if any were needed. Going into the game, things are nicely poised at the top: Sporting lead on 59 points to Benfica’s 58, while Porto are lurking close by on 55. Porto have a tough visit to Sporting Braga this weekend, but if they win that, and Sporting and Benfica draw, it’ll be 60, 59, 58 and all to play for with nine games remaining. Phil Town