Sporting Lisbon had ended 2023 in wonderful fashion, going 34 matches unbeaten in all competitions and winning their opening 14 league games in their bid for a fifth successive Primeira Liga title.
A flurry of transfer bids arrived in January, primarily for star man Daniel Braganca and in-form winger Goncalo Meneses – scorer of a wonderful overhead kick last time. It’s worth another look here…
Braganca – who has now officially become a Sporting Lisbon legend – had bids from Spurs, Man United and Barcelona and I demanded a minimum £150 million, which is easily what I’d have to pay to replace him. And they soon all disappeared. While Meneses had derisory bids from Chelsea and Dortmund that I flat out rejected.
We did ship out a few backup players and signed a couple of decent prospects but there was minimal activity in the transfer window. That was until deadline day, when I noticed Luka Jovic was transfer listed at Real Madrid so we put in a cheeky loan bid and he signed to provide a bit of backup until the end of the season.
However, one of those prospects Marjan Stevanovic became Sporting’s youngest ever player when I brought him on in a cup game against Porto at the ago of 16 years and 54 days, and my coaches are raving about how good he could be.
Benfica, however, continued sold two of their best players to Spurs, who gave up on Meneses and signed Marco Asensio along Federico Valverde for a combined £143 million. I dread to think how much money Benfica must have now, all I know is they’ve brought in nearly £900 million in transfer sales over the last 5 seasons.
A lovely start to 2024
2024 got off to the perfect start as we thumped Academica Coimbra 4-0, thanks to a Meneses brace and a first goal for the club for young striker Filipao, then eased to a 2-0 win over FC Famalicao. Meanwhile, Benfica drew at home to Boavista, lost their game in hand at Belenenses SAD, then drew 1-1 at Estoril Praia, who scored a 92nd minute equaliser. And that gave us a nice little cushion at the top.
A couple more wins followed before a big game away to FC Porto, preparations for which were hampered by Philip Cohen being ruled out for 4 weeks. It was a drab game in which the hosts dominated but our defence held firm to earn a hard-fought 0-0 draw. The winning record was gone but we were now 27 matches unbeaten in Primeira Liga.
But we were back to winning ways with a 4-0 thumping of Vitoria de Giumaraes, in which 17-year-old Czech striker Karel Knakel, deputising for Cohen, scored his first goal for the club. He took great confidence from it by then netting a hat-trick as we thrashed Rio Ave 5-2, scored the winner in a 1-0 win at Estoril Praia and laid on Joelson Fernandes for the only goal against Pacos de Ferreira. Like Cohen, this kid looks really special.
Benfica double header
Heading into March, the fixture scheduler was up to its weird tricks again as it threw up two big top against second Lisbon derbies in the space of three days. Win both and we’d more or less wrapped up another league title. Lose both, and the power would shift firmly into Benfica’s hands.
But things did not go well. We were appalling at Benfica, got dominated and lost 2-0. Then Benfica scored from their first attack in our home game – becasue of course they did. We played pretty poorly throughout and looked like collecting another defeat until Cohen popped up in the last minute to slam home an equaliser. It was a very lucky point but one that could prove crucial as it keeps us 8 points clear having played one match more.
A Benfica bottle job
We bounced back with a 3-0 win at home to Braga, in which Braganca scored a hat-trick including two free-kicks from at least 30 yards out. Both were absolute screamers that sum up exactly why the club views him in legendary status.
The next day, Benfica went and drew 0-0 at Vitoria de Guimaraes and then lost their game in hand 2-1 at FC Famalicao – how they were so good against us and then so bad in these games baffles me! Anyway… that put us 10 points clear with 6 games remaining.
Next up we secured a relatively routine 3-1 win at home to Portimonense, and the next day Benfica bottled it again as they drew 3-3 at Rio Ave, only rescuing that point with an 89th minute equaliser by winger Umbaro Embalo. We were now 12 points clear with 5 games to go – surely a fifth title was ours?
An international break followed, in which Dario Jansen, Dino Valek and Karel Knakel all made their international debuts for Holland, Croatia and Czech Republic respectively, then a proud moment for Sporting as our academy product Goncalo Meneses finally made his debut for Portugal and scored on it. Then, the very next day, this happened. I think this is the first time I’ve seen this from one of my own players on FM.
The bottling then become contagious as we went away to Familicao and lost our second league game of the season. A 1-0 loss with the opponents obviously scoring from their first shot… But we bounced back with a comfortable 3-0 win over GD Chaves thanks to goals from the league’s top scorer J Fernandes, a Braganca penalty and Jansen’s 8th goal of the season.
That meant a point from a trip to Gil Vicente would seal the title and we did so in style. Cohen got things started with a trademark powerful strike, the hosts equalised only for Eduardo Quaresma to poke us back in front from a free-kick unusually delivered by Jansen. But the Dutch centre-back took control in the second half by scoring twice, although the second was a Christian Bismarck shot that hit him on the leg while he was lying on the floor. A strange goal but they all count and Jansen’s performances earned him the April Player of the Month which, strangely, was only the second time we’d won it all season.
And that success sealed a fifth successive title for Sporting Lisbon!
The season rounded out with a bizarre 0-0 draw against Penafiel in which we had 45 shots but couldn’t score then, after a 15-day wait, won 2-0 on the final day at Academica Coimbra with J Fernandes opening the scoring to take his tally for the season to 20.
This is only the second time a side has won five successive Portuguese titles, after FC Porto completed the feat from 1995/95 to 1998/99. But this latest title made me the first manager ever to win five Primeira Liga.
Adding to that, Daniel Braganca once again smashed the record for best average rating – cementing his place as a true Sporting Lisbon legend.
In other news, we got knocked out in the first knockout round of the Champions League 2-0 on aggregate against Bayern Munich.
On a more positive note, our Under 23s won their Premier League led by 12 goals apiece from Brazilian duo Ronald and Filipao and goalkeeper Stoyan Ivanov keeping 20 clean sheets in 27 matches. And the Under 19s also won their league with Knakel scoring 18 goals in 23 matches. However, he was beaten to top scorer by Setubal striker Luis Vaz who scored 32 in 26 – he’s getting scouted immediately.
And speaking of youngsters, the youth intake we’d been promised was a “golden generation” turned out to be far from it. All we got was another 5-star potential goalkeeper, which we don’t really need, and a potentially half decent striker.
Join us next time as we review Season 5 in Portugal, look back at our best performers through the campaign, and take a look at what else happened around Europe.