The Journeyman | Saving Sporting: Part 10 – Another Tight Title Battle

Despite being 12 points clear in January, Sporting Lisbon somehow suffered a small dip in form that took the Primeira Liga title race to the final day for the second successive season.

A 4-0 victory over FC Porto in the previous post should have had the team brimming with confidence, but a number of factors resulted in the opposite happening. Not least, was several players becoming unhappy with not getting new contracts and making their feelings known.

The first of these was striker Andraz Sporar, who let his lack of happiness over a lack of a new contract and an injury affect his free-scoring record of the first half of the season. Having scored 16 goals by the end of November, the Slovenian then went 13 matches without a goal until early March.

We tried and failed to get some money for him, mainly as my board wouldn’t allow him to leave for the amount teams were willing to offer but also because he rejected a contract from Chinese club Tianjin TEDA who’d offered £15 million.

But not to fear, because Tianjin were intent on spending money on our players – and lots of money at that. First up was midfielder Eduardo Henrique, who’d had a good season with 4 goals and 5 assists but we couldn’t turn down an offer for £25 million. Also, it gave us an opportunity to hand more game time to youngster Rodrigo Fernandes.

They then came in for right-back Valentin Rosier, offering £15 million for a player who’d also played fairly well this season having grabbed 4 assists. However, the money was too good to turn down. Interestingly, the duo will be playing alongside Daniel Sturridge at Tianjin.

This took our bank balance over £100 million for the first time. However, it did leave us seriously short at right-back as our transfer deadline had passed and we weren’t able to register any youngsters for the first-team squad. That left Joao Oliveira as our sole right-back and Cristian Borja as our only left-back for the remainder of the season.

League form dips

We followed up the big Porto win with a narrow 1-0 win at SC Farense thanks to a Jovane Cabral goal just before half-time, drew 0-0 at home to Rio Ave, and another 1-0 win at Estoril Praia thanks to a first-half goal by striker Pedro Mendes.

We weren’t scoring many but we were stopping opponents from doing so as a 2-0 win over CD Tondela took us to nine consecutive matches without conceding. But that ended with the 2-2 draw with Real Madrid, then we suffered a first league defeat of the season with a 1-0 loss at Moreirense FC. We had 21 shots to their 4 and they scored with their first shot on target in the 49th minute.

Joelson Fernades led us to a 1-0 win over Pacos de Ferreira then we came from behind twice to beat CD Santa Clara 3-2 away, with Mendes scoring in the first half then Sporar getting back into the goals by scoring twice late on.

But we were frustrated by Vitoria de Guimaraes with a 1-1 away draw, which took us into a huge game against SL Benfica. Benfica had been on a great run of form, largely inspired by the signing of David Neres from Ajax for £21.5 million. And that told as they thumped us 3-1 despite us taking a 5th minute lead through Rodrigo Fernandes.

This meant that after the 4-0 victory over Porto we’d only scored 12 goals in 12 matches in all competitions and Porto and Benfica were quickly closing in on us at the top of the league.

But we bounced back to form and goals as we hammered Desportivo des Aves 4-0 at home with goals from Rafael Camacho, Sebastian Coates, Wendel and Daniel Braganca, who had been in excellent form all season. Then we went away to Vitoria de Setubal and also won 4-0 with goals from Braganca, Cabral, Wendel and Idrissa Doumbia.

Another 4-0 win at Belenenses SAD, thanks to a Joelson Fernandes opener, a Jovane Cabral brace and Sporar, was sandwiched by a 1-1 draw at home to FC Famalicao and 0-0 at CS Marítimo, in which we had one highlight all match despite having 21 shots.

Benfica had two games in hand and won both to take them one point behind us, while Porto won theirs to move three points behind us. Both had been on ridiculous winning runs over the last few months to slash the gap at the top.

We were away to Portimonense SC, Benfica were at home to CD Santa Clara, and Porto were at home to 5th-placed SC Braga.

Benfica got off to a flying start, scoring after just 4 minutes through Julian Weigl and raced into a 4-0 lead inside 37 minutes. So they were guaranteed to be picking up three points while we were struggling to create anything in a typically flat performance.

I voiced my displeasure at half-time, yet it failed to have much of an effect until we won a penalty in the 57th minute. Unfortunately, Sporar – who was already having a terrible game – stepped up and I wasn’t able to change it to the dependable Braganca, and Sporar unsurprisingly hit it straight at the goalkeeper. That dropped him to a 5.8 rating so we immediately replaced him with Pedro Mendes.

We moved onto ultra-attacking and, for a change, it worked as that man Mendes got in on goal and coolly converted to hand us a vital lead. Our reliable defence again held firm at the most important time, despite Portimonense managing 11 shots, and we held on for a huge 1-0 win.

Sporting CP were Primeira Liga winners again!

Sporar somehow finished the season as the top scorer in Portugal with 19 league goals, ahead of Benfica’s Carlos Vinicius and SC Farense’s Pedro Henrique, who both scored 14.

Benfica had a host of the best performers, as Julian Weigl was the best player in the league with a 7.53 rating and Rafa got the most assists with 19. But Cabral claimed the most player of the match awards with 7 and Luis Maximiano was well clear in the Clean Sheets category with 24. Indeed, we only conceded 14 league goals all season.

Portuguese Cup Final

Two weeks later, we faced off against Benfica in the final of the Portuguese Cup. Benfica were very much the favourites given their recent run of form and as they’d recently beaten us in the league.

We got off to a good start as Braganca put us ahead from the penalty spot, only for Benfica to go straight down the other end and equalise with their first shot of the match from Rafa. It was a very even game with Benfica having 18 shots to our 16, but neither team could convert again through regular time and a period of extra time.

That took us to penalties and, unsurprisingly, it was that man once again Sporar who missed the vital penalty. Coates also missed our fourth penalty to hand the Portuguese Cup to Benfica.

Season Review

Sporar led the goalscoring charts with 21 goals, despite only scoring 4 times since November. Mendes followed him with a decent return of 14 goals, followed by Braganca, Cabral and Wendel with 9, Camacho with 8 and Coates with 7.

Cabral led the way with 12 assists followed by Acuna, who’d only played 19 league games through a serious injury that ruled him out for 4 months, with 8 assists. Camacho and Oliveira got 6 assists and Joelson Fernandes got 5.

Braganca, Coates and Doumbia led the way with an average rating of 7.28, followed by young Eduardo Quaresma, who’ll be our starting centre-back next season, on 7.24 and Cabral with 7.23. Interestingly, we only had one red card all season courtesy of Acuna, which is always good to see.

This led to Doumbia taking home the Fans’ Player of the Season award with 35% of the vote, followed by Coates (29%) and 22-year-old Braganca (27%), whose excellent form has already earned him a new contract. Doumbia, however, wants more than £50k a week, so a new contract could be a big ask. Eight of our players were also acclaimed to be part of a “Golden Generation” at Sporting.

Pleasingly, 15 of our first-team players are now Portuguese with only six foreigners. However, that could all change as we’ve just snapped up a whole host of Brazilian youngsters from an extensive scouting expedition across South America.

A look across Europe

Barcelona, who hired Jurgen Klopp at the start of the campaign, won La Liga with 94 points, two clear of Atletico Madrid, while Real Sociedad finished in third well clear of Real Madrid. Madrid sacked Zinedine Zidane on their way to losing 12 matches and finishing with just 68 points, one clear of sixth place. Juventus again claimed Serie A, only losing 3 times to finish 6 points clear of Napoli while Inter dropped to fourth behind Milan.

Manchester City claimed top spot in England with 89 points, 5 clear of Chelsea. Liverpool dropped to third and all three of the promoted sides were relegated. Interstingly, Callum Wilson was the top scorer in the league with 18 goals, followed by Alexandre Lacazette and Chris Wood, and N’Golo Kante got the most assists with 13.

But there was a surprise in Germany, where Borussia Dortmund won the league by 2 points from RB Leipzig and FC Bayern dropped to 4th. In France, PSG won a 4th consecutive title but only by 3 points from Olympique Lyonnais.

In Europe, Manchester was dominant. Firstly, United won the Europa League with a 3-2 win over Tottenham Hotspur in the final. Then City took home the Champions League with a 2-0 victory over PSG with goals from Rodri and substitute Son Heung-Min.

Join us next time as we look to promote a few of the exciting young players already at Sporting into the first-team ahead of a second defence of the Primeira Liga.

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