Sporting Lisbon’s unexpected assault on the Liga NOS title boiled down to six season-defining matches against teams around us at the top of the league.
In these games, we face reigning champions and Lisbon city rivals Benfica away, two home games against FC Porto – who’d won the title 10 times in the last 17 campaigns with Benfica winning the other 7 – relegation threatened Boavista, third-placed SC Braga and fourth-placed CD Marítimo.
Match 1 – Benfica away
The big run of games began with a short trip to old rivals Benfica. We had a full squad to choose from as Marcos Acuna had returned from European suspension and Eduardo Henrique was back from injury.
We began the match excellently as holding midfielder Idrissa Doumbia stepped up to score his 7th goal of the season after just 8 minutes. We switched up to a Cautious approach then Benfica lost striker Dyego Sousa to injury on 22 minutes, and they replaced him by bringing Adel Taarabt on up front. That tells you a lot about the quality of this Benfica side, who bizarrely left youngster Florentino Luis and winger Andrija Zivkovic on the bench.
The hosts enjoyed 54% of possession and managed 12 shots with 9 on target but couldn’t find a way through our stupidly impressive defence, which has still only been breached 9 times all season. Young winger Jovane Cabral came off the bench to finish Benfica off with an 89th minute goal on the counter attack – getting this run of games off to a 2-0 winning start.
21-year-old goalkeeper Luis Maximiano played a 7.1 – which is the FM equivalent of a 9.0 for a goalkeeper. He’s kept 11 clean sheets in his 12 league games for the club, with the only three goals conceded coming in the same match. He’s kept a total of 17 clean sheets in 23 matches in all competitions. Pretty impressive!
This put us 23 points clear of Benfica, while Porto won 3-0 on the same day so we remained 7 points clear of them, 8 ahead of Braga and 9 clear of Maritimo, who had been mightily impressive all season.
Match 2 – Porto at home
Three days later we were back in action with a huge O Clássico derby against FC Porto. However, we did so without starting left-back Cristian Borja, who picked up a knock in the win over Benfica. He’d started every league game so far and we didn’t really have a viable backup so I moved regular right-back Valentin Rosier to the left and started Joao Oliveira on the right. Other than that, we were unchanged.
A relatively even first-half started brightly with both sides enjoying chances, but it soon tailed off and quickly advanced to half-time at 0-0. We, however, managed to collect four first-half bookings. And those immediately had its toll as Luciano Vietto got himself sent off in the first minute of the second half. What an idiot.
That meant we were well up against it and had to go a little more defensive, and we weren’t helped by being denied a late penalty. Porto unsurprisingly dominated the game, racking up 21 shots with 15 on target and made it tell by grabbing a late winner through Vincent Aboubakar. That inflicted our first league defeat of the season but our second against Porto, who also dumped us out of the Taca de Portugal, and put them within 4 points of us.
Match 3 – Boavista at home
Vietto’s red card and a booking collected by Marcos Acuna meant we went into the game against Boavista without both our first choice wingers. That meant 21-year-old Jovane Cabral and 19-year-old Rafael Camacho stepped up in their places – and I’m seriously questioning Vietto’s place in the team as a result.
We struggled to create much in this match but eventually got the vital goal as Andraz Sporar rose highest and directed a great header into the far corner from a Cabral corner on 69 minutes. Our resolute defence stood firm for yet another 1-0 win. The game also saw us hand a debut off the bench to 17-year-old winger Joelson Fernandes, who has emerged from nowhere as a fine prospect who could easily step up as a first-team player next season.
Annoyingly, Porto backed up their win over us by smashing Benfica 5-2 – which prompted the latter to sack manager Bruno Lage, who’d won the league the previous season – so we remained 4 points clear at the top.
Match 4 – Braga away
Next up was a trip to third-placed Braga, which we went into with a very tired squad. And that showed as we limped to a 0-0 draw, with Vietto and Acuna in particular having very poor games as Braga had 14 shots to our 6. However, yet another clean sheet was one positive to take from a game in which our only real chance was a long range effort from Wendel.
Porto had kept their run going with a 5-0 win at Boavista thanks to 4 goals from Moussa Marega, which put them within just 2 points of us.
Match 5 – Marítimo at home
The next big match was at home to Marítimo, which was preceded by two league games. First up was a 4-1 win over Desportivo de Aves, and a few hours later Braga kept their good form going by securing a 1-1 draw at Porto. We then went to Portimonense and won 2-0 with goals from Pedro Neto and Doumbia, while Porto beat Desportivo 3-0 away the previous day.
Marítimo had been top of the league for a decent amount of the season, largely because they got several games ahead of us early in the campaign, but were now in 4th ahead of Benfica.
We played poorly in the first half and went behind on 39 minutes through a goal from an indirect free-kick but got back level through a lovely long-range strike by Acuna one minute later. Acuna then got injured three minutes after the break but his replacement Cabral put us in front from close range on 58 minutes. However, we were unable to hold on and Joel’s 82nd minute equaliser was deserved after a poor Sporting performance.
Porto beat Portimonense 1-0 to close the gap to 2 points again, and worryingly Acuna is ruled out for up to six weeks with a fractured lower arm.
Match 6 – Porto away
We bounced back from the Marítimo draw with a 4-0 win at Pacos de Ferreira with goals from Eduardo Henrique, Doumbia, Sporar and Neto. The three points secured qualification for the Champions League.
A couple of hours later Marítimo did us a massive favour by beating Porto 1-0. That meant a win at Porto, which seemed unlikely given we’d already lost twice to them this season, and the title would be ours. Although I’d absolutely take a draw.
Acuna remained out injured, while the majority of our backup players had already played an Under-23s game so were ineligible and we only named five subs. However, we made a great start to the game with Camacho turning in from close range after Sporar rose highest to a corner. But that lead was cancelled out shortly before half-time as Alex Telles converted a penalty conceded by Borja.
We got back into the lead just five minutes after half-time as Sporar got threaded through on goal by Henrique and coolly slotted home. As it stood, we were set to claim the title on Porto’s turf, but like true champions they bounced back to equalise through Mateus Uribe. Porto were on top for the remainder of the match but couldn’t find a way through as we went more defensive, leaving us five points clear with two games remaining.
We drew VfL Wolfsburg in the second knockout round of the Europa League, with the first leg to be played in Germany. I decided to rotate things a little to keep players fresh for the league, including 18-year-old Rodrigo Fernandes starting in midfield.
Fernandes is now wanted by Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool, Inter and Juventus, so he’s obviously got great potential, has been turning in regular 10.00 training performances and we could struggle to hold onto him and he won’t sign a new contract, although his current deal does run until 2023.
We did very well to come away with only a 1-0 defeat and Wolfsburg should have won far more comfortably as they managed 26 shots to our 5. But our defence once again held firm to give us a fighting chance in the second leg.
More exciting youngsters
Aside from the matches, we also had our first youth intake at Sporting come through, which offered up a few decent young prospects. The pick of them is left winger Márcio Barreira and right winger / striker Goncalo Meneses.
Speaking of youngsters, our Under-23 squad won their league led by 23 goals from 19-year-old Ecuadorian striker Gonzalo Plata.
Join us next time as we look to secure the Liga NOS title and look back on a first season with Sporting!