Thursday, October 24, 2013

Will Sunday be the next step up for Sporting?

After an international break that confirmed the inevitable play-off spot for the Portuguese national team, a cup weekend that further enhanced the idea that both FC Porto and Benfica are not yet firing on all cylinders and a disappointing week in the Champions League, the Portuguese league is finally back for what is now being touted as a very important match - FC Porto v Sporting, at the Dragão.

After yet another disastrous season - with numerous coaches at the helm - that yielded a mere sixth place in the final table and the absence from European competition, Sporting seem to have found last March the president the club were looking for in 39-year-old Bruno de Carvalho. The latest chief executive has indeed tried to steer the Lisbon-based club in the right direction and negotiate the several ill-fated pieces of business from the previous management(s).

Following Godinho Lopes' ruinous transfer wheeling-and-dealings, it was necessary to "limpar a casa", as the Portuguese saying has it - to clean the house up, discarding hefty, unnecessary wages and investing in cheap players with something to prove, as well as tying up the contracts of young promises of the renowned - but lately dismissed - club's academy.

That is why Sporting parted ways with Miguel Lopes (who had just been purchased from FC Porto in exchange for the perennially absent Marat Izmailov), Evaldo, Tiago Ilori, Boulahrouz, Bojinov, Pranjic, André Santos, Onyewu, Schaars, Gelson, Elias, among several others. Cash-strapped for a few years now, it was now surprise that their transfer expenditure was as little as €2.8m (according to the reliable, including bargains such as Vítor from Paços de Ferreira and goalscoring machine Fredy Montero from Seattle Sounder, but also the excellent Jefferson from Estoril.

  • A systematic approach

More importantly, Carvalho hired Leonardo Jardim as the man to pave a (hopefully) luminous way for the team. The Madeira-born Jardim was unemployed at the time, after getting the sack at Olympiakos - despite the very good results he was getting - and was just waiting to be grabbed by one of the grandes.

Jardim, of course, had already been at Braga, where he had achieved great results on a shoestring budget, when compared to the usual three powerhouses in Portugal - including a streak of 15 league wins, before leaving in the wake of a quarrel with the mercurial club president António Salvador. His trademarks consisted of an almost impermeable defence and quick breaks. The final third place in the table was totally deserved.

The coach was also brought in for his praiseworthy work with youngster, something the club were teeming with. After getting rid of much of the deadwood (mostly to free transfers, admittedly), Sporting finally had a well-balanced squad, filled with young players with great potential and some others that had previously been around the block a few times. The usual eleven that Sporting play nowadays includes former academy graduates Rui Patrício, Cédric, William Carvalho, Adrien Silva, André Martins and Wilson Eduardo, most of whom were traditionally undesirable, in one way or another. 

As it turns out, not only do these players manage to fend for themselves and get the necessary results, but they also act as evidence that the academy is heading towards the right direction and gives young wannabes something to aspire to - not neglecting the fact that it is much cheaper and less risky for the club.

  • The curse
During Paulo Bento's reign, Sporting were something of a bête noire for FC Porto, particularly when it came to cups. Jesualdo Ferreira, the Dragons' coach for most of that time, surely must feel relieved to see Paulo Bento ruling the Portuguese national team and away from league duties. However, since Bento resigned, Sporting's successes against FC Porto have been far and between - with just one win (Izmailov's one-man show back in 2010) in the past ten league meetings. At FC Porto's turf (whether the Dragão or Antas), things get even worse, with a single notch chalked up on the win column over the past ten years - way back in 2007, a match where Miguel Veloso staked his claim to fame with a spectacular display. The trip to Porto is usually fraught with perils, as far as Sporting is concerned.

Despite the latest sub-par performances, FC Porto still sit atop the league, two points ahead of Sporting and five from Benfica. While the draw in the Lisbon derby cannot be considered a bad result, it's the draw at home against Rio Ave that helps explain the difference between Jardim's men and the team led by former Paços de Ferreira coach Paulo Fonseca. However, it may take a few years for Sporting to enjoy such an advantageous set of conditions.

  • The numbers
Sporting's first match of the season seemed to be following an all too familiar plot : Playing at home against recently promoted Arouca, the team quickly found themselves trailing after Bruno Amaro's goal. However, unlike previous seasons, Jardim's charges did not put their hands down and romped to a comfortable 5-1 win, setting the tone for the matches so far. Indeed, Sporting now boast the best attack, with 19 goals scored, and the best defence, together with Sunday's opponents.

Interestingly enough, the Lions have won all their matches away - scoring at least twice when playing away from home -, whereas FC Porto have won whenever they have played at home so far (Champions League not included). 

  • The tactics
The stats presented above may well be explained by Leonardo Jardim's usually reactive approach. When playing in front of their supporters, Sporting are still considered a grande, and a draw at the Alvalade is usually a good result for smaller teams. Conversely, when those same teams play in their own grounds, they tend to be more proactive and therefore open up a bit more, which usually plays right into Sporting's hands. With Paulo Fonseca's FC Porto in something of a predicament following negative results and pale displays, a win against Sporting is a must and the Portuguese champions will surely want to wrest control of match from the hands of Sporting - with Jardim probably be all too happy to oblige.

In this particular contest, Sporting seem to have the upper hand in more ways than one. Contrary to what happened under Vítor Pereira, FC Porto now often look more inclined to attack down the wings, through Licá, Alex Sandro and Danilo, a trait that they share with the Lions. Since the Dragons will most likely be tilting forwards in search of the crucial first goal, Sporting will probably benefit from a lot of free space behind FC Porto's full-backs. 

This means that FC Porto's former strong suit - the dominance down the centre - should not punish Sporting, who still look a bit light in the middle of the park, with Adrien Silva and William Carvalho often looking insufficient for the tasks at hand, particularly given the team's clear weak spot: The centre-backs.

As the match against Zenit clearly showed, FC Porto centre-backs struggle with mobile forwards such as Montero. To make matters worse, Carrillo thrives on open spaces down the wings and Wilson Eduardo's diagonal runs towards the penalty box should mean that Otamendi and Mangala will have their hands full.

If Josué (usually deployed on the right and lately apparently unwilling to drift inside) ends up getting permission to invade the centre, Sporting could be facing some difficulties, even more so if FC Porto pressure Sporting's initial build-up stage (both centre-backs and William Carvalho are not the swiftest movers of the ball). On the other hand, the Lions will be looking to find acres of space whenever FC Porto's pressure fails (as has often been the case) and will likely have their chances to be happy.

All of this should make for a very interesting match, with FC Porto desperate for a win and a convincing display, and Sporting probably playing for two results. Still, a better chance to beat the Dragons at their own ground might be hard to come by in the near future.

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