Sunday, March 1, 2015

FC Porto 3-0 Sporting: Dragons nullify Sporting on Tello's night

FC Porto and Sporting entered this match with five points separating them and with both teams needing a win. On one hand, Benfica had effectively destroyed Estoril the day before and put a seven-point distance between themselves and the Dragons. On the other hand, Sporting were just one point ahead of Braga in the fight for the next season's last Champions League place. The promise of an entertaining match was made.

But the game played out somewhat differently from what might be expected. Having yet to lose against either FC Porto or Benfica this season, the Lions' coach Marco Silva chose not to replicate the successful strategy that had granted the Verde e Brancos an impressive 3-1 win at the Dragão for the Portuguese Cup last October.

  • Sporting's compact back four

Sporting's more expectant approach was somewhat counterbalanced by the high positioning of their back line, playing 10-15 yards in front of their own penalty box, an approach complemented by the fact that all four elements in the Lions' defence were deployed very narrow - apparently in an attempt to stifle FC Porto's centre.

Sporting's plan seemed to be completed by a more expectant approach and a seeming over-reliance on FC Porto's tendency to make mistakes in possession, particularly through their centre-backs. The first two half-opportunities came from Sporting - and exactly through the expected fashion. After that, Sporting seemed to evaporate offensively as FC Porto started piling on the pressure.

  • FC Porto's issues down the centre and ironic goal

Without Óliver Torres, the Dragons' coach Julen Lopetegui went with Evandro to take the Spanish wunderkid's place, meaning Herrera played closer to Casemiro than usual. The midfield match-up was almost man-to-man marking, with Herrera on William Carvalho, Evandro on Adrien and Casemiro on João Mário - and vice-versa, naturally.

The Dragons had some initial issues with the build-up play, as Brahimi looked like the team's only out-ball, with both Herrera and Evandro unwilling to get the ball from their centre-backs. On the defensive side of things, Herrera and Evandro were not looking too secure either, playing too far apart and thus forcing Casemiro to move out wide - which made it look like Sporting could create some danger down that route, particularly with Montero, João Mário and Nani all thriving in that space.

As Sporting progressively faded, FC Porto ended up scoring 31 minutes into the match with can only be described as the antithesis of their tactical blueprint: Maicon hit it long in the direction of Jackson Martínez, who, with a little flick, played Cristian Tello in for the Spanish's first goal of the evening. On English shores, this would be designated as typical route-one football.

  • Sporting go missing, FC Porto at full throttle

Marco Silva's team seemed ill-prepared for the possibility of conceding a goal and apparently without a plan B. Things surely didn't look rosy as the Dragons kept attacking in waves and looked more purposeful on the ball. That much was further stressed as FC Porto came out stronger out of the gates for the second half and Tello benefited from another lovely assist from Jackson Martínez, with Sporting left-back punished for his terrible positioning and reading of the game.

Silva reacted immediately with Slimani and Capel coming on for Montero and Carrillo (meaning Nani acted as no. 10 and João Mário alongside William Carvalho), but nothing came of it. In fact, it was FC Porto that kept coming at the vulnerable lions, with Jackson now finding pockets of space between the opposing centre-backs but also between the centre-halves and the full-backs. With Sporting a tad more proactive and more balanced up front, the Dragons' midfield found the space they had been craving for some probing passes behind the Lions' back four.

Tello would round up his evening with a hat-trick after Herrera followed in Jackson Martínez's footsteps and provided a direct through-ball that completed Jonathan's torment of a match. Iván Marcano would hit the woodwork with a powerful header in an attempt to increase the final scoreline, but it ended up unchanged up until the final whistle.

  • Conclusion

An anaemic display from Sporting that cannot certainly be blamed exclusively on Thursday's Europa League match against Wolfsburg. Despite the difference as far as players are individually concerned, the team did not seem prepared to what FC Porto had to offer, the huge space behind the Lions' defence proving deadly for the team led by Marco Silva - and given the team played the whole time with such a high defence, it had be to under the coach's instructions.

FC Porto, on the other hand, ended up achieving a very good result and a decent cushion in order to guarantee direct access to next season's Champions League - and still be within touching distance of Benfica. Still, there remain some issues that look hard to get rid of, namely the defence's shakiness when things are more tightly contested and the little protection provided by the midfield. Also, the fact that the team rely heavily on Brahimi to provide the out-ball should not be overlooked either, especially as the season enters its defining stages.

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