The Journeyman | Saving Sporting: Part 14 – Bizarre Title Battle

Sporting Lisbon’s chances of a third straight Primeira Liga title looked unlikely going into the last few months of the season. Despite being only three points behind off the top of the league we faced a tough task toppling the unbeaten FC Porto.

However, things started well in March as we won five consecutive league games without conceding a goal. The first was away to Penafiel and, having not scored in 30-odd games all season, Jovane Cabral went and scored in the first minute then scored an absolute screamer with the outside of his right foot to put us 2-0 up in the first few minutes of the second half. The other winger Goncalo Meneses notched the third for his 11th of the season.

Speaking of screamers, we scored two in the next game at home to FC Famalicao. The best was Sebastian Coates’ opener which, for a centre-back, was just ridiculous. Then Idrissa Doumbia picked up the ball 30 yards out, turned and spanked it into the top corner. Pedro Mendes then ended his 13-hour goal drought and bagged his 19th of the season thanks to some brilliant play by Meneses down the right and some decidedly dodgy goalkeeping to wrap up a 3-0 win.

We then went away to SC Braga and were two-up inside 13 minutes through Meneses and Eduardo Quaresma. Braga then had Naci Unuvar sent off and we strolled to a 4-0 win with two goals just before the break from Meneses again and Mendes.

Lowly Boavista at home followed and another winger scored a brace for the third game in a row, this time it was Joelson Fernandes’ turn with Daniel Braganca getting the other. Braganca took centre stage by scoring both goals in a 2-0 win at home to Vitoria de Guimaraes.

Awesome Asensio

That great run of form teed up a must-win game at SL Benfica – which was a mighty tough test. Benfica once again scored very early against us, yet again through Marco Asensio. We got level through a superb Cabral solo strike, only for Asensio to go down the other end and score again. And he sealed a magnificent performance by scoring an absolute screamer from 30 yards to kill us off after 39 minutes. David Neres added another in the second half and we fell to a disappointing 4-1 defeat.

The result basically killed off our title chances, leaving us level on points with Porto who now had two games in hand. But we were still 4 points clear of Benfica.

The title race somehow gets interesting

However, the next day Porto went and suffered their first defeat of the season 1-0 at 15th placed Aves, meaning there was still a little ray of hope. Their conquerors were our next opponent and we duly thumped them 4-0 with Cabral collecting a hat-trick of assists. But Aves somehow had 64% of possession, which was a bit of a strange one!

Annoyingly Porto then played Rio Ave at home and only beat them with a 93rd minute winner, which put them back on top of the league with a game in hand.

I’d decided to 17-year-old Engish striker Philip Cohen a run of games at the end of season as Mendes’ form had tailed off. He’d scored against Aves and got us off to a flyer with a goal and assist early on at Rio Ave (yes, we were just copying Porto’s fixtures) for a 2-0 win. Then Porto went and lost again, this time away at Marítimo, meaning we were level on points with two games to go.

We played first again up against – you guessed it – Marítimo, who were flying high in 4th. And we struggled to get anything going. I went attacking, through Goncalo Batalha on in the hole behind Cohen and we eventually got an 81st minute winner through another sub, J Fernandes to pile the pressure onto Porto. Concerningly, his namesake Rodrigo broke his leg in the match and was ruled out for up to 5 months.

Porto won their game 2-1 at home to Portimonese and that sent us into the final game of the season – for which there was the customary 14 day wait, which I really don’t understand – locked on the exact same record. Porto were top because they’d beaten us 2-0 at our ground early in the season then we drew 0-0 at their place.

Ridiculous final day

Of course, we were playing Portimonense away while Porto were away to Belenenses – having failed to win their last three games. I wasn’t confident but just hoped we could hold up our end of the bargain.

And we certainly did that, as Cohen got us off to a flyer, Braganca scored a penalty, then Cohen added a second and Ronan Darcy scored a screamer to send us in 4-0 ahead. So we were winning and Porto were level at 0-0.

That was until the 62nd minute when I saw the latest scores flash up Angel Torres scoring for Belenenses, and all of a sudden we were in with a chance. Cabral immediately went down the other end and added a fifth but as he was doing so Shoya Nakajima scored an equaliser for Porto.

One goal for Porto would swing the title their way but as I counted the minutes down it just never arrived and Porto, inexplicably, threw the title away with another failure to win away from home. That meant a third successive title success for Sporting Lisbon!

Promising youngsters and lots of interest

We limped out of the Champions League at the first knockout round stage as we drew 0-0 at home to Inter after they beat us 3-1 in the first leg.

Away from the first team, our Under 23s side won their Premier League with English striker banging 23 goals. Cohen, by the way, has become a superb striker in the last few months and bagged goals while Mendes struggled for form late on in the season.

Worryingly going into the summer a whole host of our young players are wanted by teams across Europe. Braganca is being courted by Dortmund despite just signing a new contract and Rodrigo Fernandes is wanted by Real Betis – although his injury may curtail that. While the likes of Man United, Inter and Chelsea want young winger Bruno Tavares and right-back Daniel Fernandes.

I still don’t really understand how we managed to win this title. I thought it was gone at the end of February, and definitely assumed it was dead when we got thumped at Benfica. But, as they say, football is a funny old game and Porto will be absolutely kicking themselves for throwing it away.

I need a little time to process this so I’ll leave the season review until the next blog. I hope you’re enjoying this unexpectedly successful Sporting save!

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