Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Has Portugal's 'Holy Trinity' crumbled?

Only a decade on from their last championship, Sporting are in the doldrums. A review of league tables over the past ten years suggests that the Leões are a fading force and that Portugal's 'Big Three' is becoming an out-dated concept. 

On a morning on which Sporting's Fito Rinaudo declared that 'it is difficult to get up and go to training' with his side not challenging for honours, there seems no better time to consider the decline of the Verde-e-Brancos and its knock-on effect on the Primeira Liga.

A glance at league finishes between 2002 and last season tells its own story, with the third-placed team in the Primeira Liga increasingly adrift of the eventual champions. A quick crunch of statistics reveals that between 2001/02 and 2006/07, the team finishing third trailed the champions by an average of 10 points. Figures relating to the same gap between 2007/08 and 2011/12 show that those propping up Portugal's top two in the last five years have lagged behind by 17 points on average - an extra seven points a season.

An under-performing Sporting is no doubt contributing to this growing phenomenon and a look at the current league table confirms that the idea of a 'Big Three' in Portugal is becoming out-dated: Sporting languishing in mid-table while Benfica and Porto fight it out at the top.

If we rewind to 2001/02, it was all so different. Sporting were champions, the free-scoring Brazilian Mário Jardel spearheading a side that had an intoxicating blend of youth (e.g. Hugo Viana and Ricardo Quaresma) and experience (e.g. Paulo Bento, João Pinto and gnarled centre-half André Cruz). Under the steady hand of Romanian coach Lazslo Boloni, Sporting finished five points clear of Boavista and looked destined to enjoy continued success.

Those days are now nothing but sepia-stained memories, as Sporting face up to a very different reality. Currently, they reside in 10th spot in the league - a massive 34 points behind their cross-city rivals. The Leaos may well be paid-up members of the traditional 'Big Three', but - if we include this term's debacle - they have only lived up to their billing once in four seasons. On that occasion (in 2010/11) they finished third, but still trailed 36 points behind the champions, Porto.

As mentioned, a Sporting of some description does currently sit third in the Primeira Liga, but it comes in the form of northerners Sporting Braga. Braga are enjoying a purple patch in their history and are perhaps the greatest beneficiaries of the green-and-white slump down in Lisbon, this year sampling the delights of playing Champions League football for the first time. Though Braga command more limelight, however, they still seem some way from casting themselves as one of a 'Big Three' - and currently trail Benfica by 18 points.

Which brings us back to the absence of a competitive Sporting and whether they can re-assume their traditional role in Portuguese football.

The roots of Sporting's current problems aren't hard to trace. Godinho Lopes' disastrous tenure as chairman has perhaps been the biggest single factor and, though he has now resigned, the club are still picking up the pieces from his rein. The recent lack of stability in Sporting's boardroom has certainly been mirrored in their dug-out: current coach Jesualdo Ferreira the ninth incumbent of the hotseat at the Alvalade since Paulo Bento was fired in 2009. Having no strategy has seemingly been the strategy at Sporting and some of their financial dealings have been desperate: Daniel Carriço sold to Premier League Reading for well under a million Euros and Portuguese international Joao Pereira leaving for Valencia last summer at a cut-price €3.5m.

This instability and mismanagement has certainly affected what happens on the pitch where Sporting's players have been underperforming for far too long. There are exceptions to the rule, such as goalkeeper Rui Patricio, but Sporting's first team currently seems geared to sucking the life out of its genuine talents. Striker Ricky Van Wolfswinkel is perhap the biggest example - the Dutchman having gone from worldbeater to confidence-dry disaster zone in less than a season. Peruvian André Carillo is another who currently flatters to deceive, while former Barcelona prodigy Jeffrén rarely plays, let alone shows the ability that sees him valued in the €12m bracket.

Perhaps Sporting's best bet of digging themselves out of their current mess comes, unsurprisingly, in the form of their academy. The early careers of Ronaldo, Figo, Nani and Paulo Futre were forged at Sporting and if the present crop of NextGen talent is anything to go by, more stars of the future nestle up their sleeve. England-born Eric Dier is one such leading light and the 18-year-old's performances since breaking into the first team represent one of the few bright sparks in an otherwise gloomy season. Wonderkids João Mário and Bruma are also tipped for the top and Sporting need to develop and harness this next wave of talent, while ensuring they don't 'cash in' too early on such young gems.

With chairman-elect Bruno de Carvalho set to inject fresh impetus, the signs are that Sporting will improve. However, they certainly have ground to make up if Portugal's 'Big Three' is to be anything other than a catchphrase; perhaps players, such as Rinaudo, can motivate themselves in the knowledge that the gap between Sporting and their traditional rivals is currently growing wider by the year.