The Journeyman | Saving Sporting: Part 18 – Fixture Schedule Chaos

Sporting Lisbon moved into March 2023 still unbeaten in Primeira Liga and, for the first time in this save, having progressed past the first knockout round of the Champions League. That, in addition to playing catch-up from the World Cup in December, meant a packed schedule that included 9 matches in 21 days and twice having to play 2 games in 3 days.

However, the fine league form continued with a 3-1 win over then second-placed Pacos de Ferreira, which put us 7 points clear of them with five games in hand.

Two rival clashes

More likely challengers SL Benfica and FC Porto also had games in hand and were up next either side of an international break. During that, academy product left-back Nuno Mendes made his Portugal debut and scored on it, which is weird given he hadn’t scored in 40 games for us this season!

Before the international break was a trip to Porto, in which Joelson Fernandes gave us the perfect start with a powerful drive on 4 minutes, only for Porto to equalise 15 minutes later.

Porto probably had the best of the match but it stayed 1-1 until Mendes got forward down the left and put a great cross in for Goncalo Meneses to nick the winner with 7 minutes remaining.

Then it was the Lisboa derby as we entertained local rivals Benfica. The visitors got a great start as Ross Barkley picked the ball up 30 yards out and unleashed an unstoppable shot that flew into the top corner. They were dominating us s I gave the boys a rollocking at half-time.

We came out much improved and creating chances, and finally converted one as Philip Cohen nipped in to convert from a Meneses pass to equalise. Then 3 minutes later, the English striker was played in on goal by Daniel Braganca and coolly converted for his 22nd goal of the season – which sets a new club record.

We held on for a vital 2-1 win that sees us remain unbeaten after 23 matches and puts us 10 points clear with 3 games in hand on FC Famalicao. More importantly, we’re 14 points ahead of Benfica having played the same number of games and 16 clear of Porto, who still have 3 games in hand on us. So the title is very much still in the balance if we slip up in a couple of matches – and that could easily happen given we have to play 11 league matches, along with Champions League games, in the next two months.

Fixture schedule plays its part

For example, we had a match against CD Santa Clara just two days after the big win over Benfica and our entire team was either knackered or carrying knocks. And I was concerned when we conceded from an indirect free-kick early on. But we soon responded through Cohen then he won a penalty that Daniel Demaj converted. And we kicked on in the second half through Cohen’s second – his 24th of the season – and J Fernandes.

And the sheer intensity of the fixture schedule caught up with us as we struggled to a 1-0 loss – our first of the campaign – at Vitoria de Guimaraes. Porto went and won all of their games in hand and were miraculously now just 4 points behind us. But we got back to winning ways with a 2-0 win at home to Santa Clara then 3-0 at Boavista – in which academy product centre-back Filipe Ferreira scored his first senior goal. That win was important as Porto drew at Marítimo on the same day so we moved six points clear.

We continued the streak of wins by beating Estoril Praia 3-1 away thanks to two absolute screamers by young German midfielder Christian Bismarck. And then a huge 1-0 win over Portimonense, in which I made eight changes due to a ridiculously packed schedule of three games in five days, thanks to Croatian holding midfielder Dino Valek’s first goal for the club. Then a 2-0 home win over Academca Coimbra thanks to a Cohen brace taking him to 27 goals for the season.

Another home game saw us take on Braga 2 days after a Champions League match as our ridiculous schedule continued to throw up challenges. And we slipped up with a 0-0 draw then again as we drew 1-1 at Portimonense – mainly because our players were knackered from playing an outrageous 9 games in 21 days.

Huge title decider

But, the neutrals would be happy as that set up a title decider as we took on FC Porto at home in the penultimate league game of the season. We were 2 points clear so needed a win to prevent a fourth successive final day decider.

And luckily, the boys bounced back to their best on the big occasion. Cabral got us rolling before Braganca picked the ball up 30 yards out and smashed a left-footed strike beyond the keeper to have us sitting pretty 2-0 up at half-time. And it stayed that way until the 89th minute when Cohen smashed home his 29th goal of the season to seal a 3-0 win.

Sporting Lisbon wrapped up their fourth successive title! And we ‘celebrated’ the title with a 2-1 win over Penafiel, in which young centre-back Patrick Reikersdorfer scored his first goal for the club. We finished on 87 points with 1 defeat all season, just 14 goals conceded and scored exactly 2 goals per match.

Champions League excitement

The second round of the Champions League saw us drawn with Chelsea, which was probably the best option in a strong quarter-final lineup. We were at home first, in a match that was just three days after the league win over Santa Clara. It was a pretty quiet game with Chelsea bossing 62% of the possession, but they didn’t do anything with it and we nicked a goal through Meneses to claim a narrow 1-0 win.

Then the polar opposite of that game followed in the second leg. Chelsea won a penalty that Erling Haaland converted after 10 minutes then we won our own and Braganca equalised 9 minutes later. And we were looking OK going towards half-time only for Eduardo Quaresma to score an own goal in the final minute. Then, in injury time, Fikayo Tomori – a hero of my recent 24 Hours In FM save – brought Cohen down clean through on goal and was rightly sent off.

Meneses dragged us back level in the game 7 minutes into the second half and I thought we were good. But then Callum Hudson-Odoi made it 3-2 on the night and we were leading on away goals. But we made the tie safe as Meneses bagged his second of the night to earn us a 4-3 aggregate win.

Things got a whole lot more difficult as we stepped into the semi-finals as the surprise package. We were up against Real Madrid which in itself was a tough enough job, but it was made even more difficult by the first leg at Santiago Bernabeú, ridiculously, being two days after the Portimonense league game.

Madrid started well as Kylian Mbappé scored a wondergoal, running from deep inside his own half into our box to score. I went massively on the defensive and that solidified things, and we even went and equalised through Dario Jansen after 25 minutes. We kept things tight all the way up until Madrid were given a “very harsh” penalty on 85 minutes, which Mbappé converted. But I was delighted with a performance in which we had 56% of possession and a result that at least gave us a chance in the second leg.

We again had very little recovery time for the second leg but made a great start as Braganca scored a penalty on 38 minutes. But Madrid got themselves back into it as Eden Hazard scored 10 minutes into the second half. We did well to prevent them from creating much but just couldn’t create the chances to get ourselves back into the tie and went out with a respectable 3-2 aggregate defeat.

End of season Cup Final

The season ended with the Taca de Portugal Final against Porto, who we’d beaten in the Taca de Liga and just a few weeks ago to seal the league title.

It was a very tight affair with not much between the teams and we played out a fairly drab 0-0 draw. I threw on youngsters Marcio Barreira, Valek and Demaj and they added a bit of energy that proved pivotal in extra-time. Cohen was first to strike, getting on the end of Barreira’s cross to drill home his 29th goal of the season – and just look at the main image above to see how good this kid already is at 18!

We continued to push and our main man Braganca stepped up to score and create a third for Dario Jansen. We’d completed the treble of league and both cup competitions, plus the Supertaca season opener!

Join us next time as we review our fourth and best season in Portugal and take a look around the rest of Europe.

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