The Journeyman | Saving Sporting: Part 13 – Batalha Blinder

Sporting Lisbon moved into 2022 on a good run of form but trailing the even more impressive SL Benfica and unbeaten FC Porto.

The year began with the sale of striker Gonzalo Plata, who was 21, clearly not progressing and had been surpassed by 17-year-old sensation Philip Cohen. We got £8.5 million for him from Chinese side DL Pro.

We also had Arsenal come in for several of our young wingers on deadline day but scared them off with the asking prices we quoted. Plus, I think they’d be better off staying with us than wasting their potential at Arsenal.

We brought one player in and I think it’s a potentially excellent coup. 20-year-old Chelsea midfielder Billy Gilmour was in the last year of his contract so we offered him a deal and he accepted. And, Chelsea only wanted £1 million to buy him immediately, so we agreed. I think he looks decent and is potentially our second-best centre midfielder behind Daniel Braganca.

The winter rest seemingly did the boys the world of good as they got off to a flyer in 2022. Portimonense came to town and we got a great start as Joelson Fernandes snuck in at the back post to score on 26 minutes. A minute later, the lively Goncalo Meneses then went down the right and put a perfect cross onto the head of Pedro Mendes, who doubled his own tally on 35 minutes. That takes Mendes to 17 goals in 23 games in all competitions, compared to 14 in 40 appearances in the previous campaign.

Meneses was at it again as he floated a free-kick into the box for Eduardo Quaresma to score his first goal of the season. 4-0 up at half-time in the first game after the winter break. I made all three subs with half an hour left, and Portimonense got back into it with a penalty late on as we took off the gas and eased to a 4-1 win.

Next up was Vitoria de Setubal away and, with Idrissa Doumbia recovering from an injury, I gave 19-year-old academy product Goncalo Batalha a first league start in midfield. We were handed an early chance as J Fernandes won a penalty on 12 minutes and Mendes stepped up to smash home his 18th of the season. Setubal got back into it 3 minutes before half-time with a sublime free-kick by Tiago Castro, a striker scoring his first goal of the season against us in his 18th appearance…

But we got our noses in front in injury-time as Batalha picked the ball up inside the area from Fernandes’ pass and coolly steered it inside the far post for his first goal of the club. The second half was relatively quiet until sub Doumbia teed up Batalha, who struck a thunderbolt into the top corner. What a performance from the youngster!

That made it 14 games unbeaten and, later that day, Benfica drew 1-1 at home to SC Braga to leave us level on points with them at the top of the table, then Porto drew 1-1 at Vitoria de Guimaraes the next day.

But we then let that momentum slip with a disappointing 1-1 draw at home to Belenenses, who were doing well up in 5th place. However, we absolutely battered them but just couldn’t score, while they managed to score with only third shot. Very frustrating. The positive was that Gilmour came on and scored a screamer to rescue a point in the last minute.

Another draw followed, but this one was more pleasing as we went to in-form Porto and held them 0-0. We created very little bar a late chance for J Fernandes, while Porto did even less. But we were back to winning ways as we went to Santa Clara and Meneses scored both to extend our unbeaten streak to 17 matches. The result also saw keeper Luís Maximiano pass 600 minutes without conceding a goal.

And that extended to more than 800 minutes as we breezed past Pacos de Ferreira 3-0 at home then Estoril Praia 4-0 away. Jovane Cabral opened the scoring in the first of those games, with what was somehow his first goal of the season despite playing all but 2 of our 22 league games. Philip Cohen also scored as a sub against in that game, while left-back Nuno Mendes, who’s become really good all of a sudden, scored his first for the club in the Estoril game.

Meneses had had a quiet couple of games but he soon made sure we couldn’t forget about him as we entertained FC Moreirense. He took down a lofted pass with a beautiful first touch then bent a shot into the far top corner to get us up and running early on then scored from a lovely Gilmour pass to make it 4-0 late on. That takes him to 10 goals and 13 assists for the season, and he’s only just turned 19.

That win took us to 20 league games unbeaten, but Benfica and Porto were both also in ridiculous form. Benfica slipped to a draw against Marítimo, which put us level on points, but Porto were on fire and still unbeaten after 24 matches. They sat 3 points clear heading into March 2022.

Meneses’ fine form earned him his first personal accolade, winning the Player of the Month for February. While I won my second Manager of the Month award of the season.

Dubious cup progress

We booked our place in the Taca de Liga Final for the first time on this save by defeating Moreirense 3-1. I rested some of our starting eleven, giving chances to some of our youngsters and they duly delivered.

This was right-back Daniel Fernandes’ first game since his 5.9 aberration and he responded superbly by scoring the opener in the 8th minute. Philip Cohen bagged his 5th of the season and Sebastian Coates made it 3-0 just before the break. But Batalha – a few days after his 2-goal exploits over Setubal – was again superb with 5 key passes and playing an 8.0, while Gilmour made his professional debut. Unfortunately, Benfica won the other semi against Porto.

The final was a few days later and they battered us, with Asensio scoring in the first minute and a penalty in the first few minutes of the second half.

Every time I play Inter Milan they get a penalty. I don’t understand it. And yet again,taking them on the Champions League, they got a penalty after 9 minutes and bloody Lukaku scored it. It’s ridiculous.

They doubled their leadin the second with banjamin Mendy crossing for Alvaro Odriozola to score. We got one back through Doumbia then they scored a third as, for some reason, Odriozola was marking the goalkeeeper from a free-kick – I have no idea why he was even there. Having scored one all season, he now had three. Brilliant.

P Mendes, meanwhile, has come down with a case of the Andraz Sporar’s. After scoring 18 goals by January he’s now 7 games without a goal. Why does this keep happening to my strikers?

In other news, our Under 19s just thumped Man United’s 5-0 in the Youth League, so the future could be very bright at Sporting!

Join us next time to see if we can overcome Inter at home (unlikely) and see how another three-way battle for the Portuguese title plays out.

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