Portuguese giants with much to prove - Europe - ESPN Soccernet
Two of Portugal’s ‘big three’ confront English opposition this week, with Sporting Clube de Portugal going to Everton in the Europa League and Porto playing host to Arsenal in the Champions League. For both clubs, these ties represent the latest in a series of big challenges they’ve faced this season, with varying degrees of success.
José Bettencourt was elected president at Sporting in June, with a landslide 90% of the votes in the run-off against Paulo Cristóvão. Bettencourt’s was a safety-first manifesto, preaching stability instead of Cristóvão’s idea of sexing up the club and installing Sven-Göran Eriksson as coach. The new president kept faith with Paulo Bento, in situ since October 2005 and youth team coach before that. Bento in turn stuck with the side he’d built over his near-four years at the helm, many of them products of the club’s academy who he knew well (Adrien, Daniel Carriço), with a few new signings to keep the current squad honest (Matías Fernández, Felipe Caicedo, Miguel Angulo).
This approach failed dismally, but the warning signs were already there. They had successive second-place finishes, a Portuguese Cup and three Champions League qualifications to look back on, but they had gone as far as Bento could take them and reached a plateau. Sporting’s failure to follow Porto’s example of competitiveness in Europe showed every time they played a genuine giant, when they would retreat into their shells. In last season’s Champions League, Bento’s men took five-goal hidings at home from both Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
The signings were a disaster. Angulo’s lucrative contract was rescinded after just four matches and Caicedo’s loan was cut short. With Sporting down in seventh, out of the Champions League and winless in five league games, Bento resigned in November, and the succession was messy. Bettencourt couldn’t agree compensation with Académica for Andre Villas Boas, José Mourinho’s former assistant, so ended up with the distinctly second-choice (and less than rapturously received) Carlos Carvalhal instead.
Carvalhal’s star has waned markedly since his League Cup win with Vitoria Setúbal in 2008, having had poor spells at Greek side Asteras Tripolis and Marítimo. He was paired with a new sporting director, former player Sá Pinto, and the pair were given finance, topping the January window in the spending charts, including Florent Sinama-Pongolle for €6.5 million.
Yet an initial seven-game unbeaten run gave way to a return to their tepid autumn form following defeat to leaders Braga, and Sá Pinto resigned in mid-January after a dressing-room punch-up with star striker Liedson. He had previous in this area, having been banned for a year as a player for hitting Artur Jorge after the then-Portugal coach dropped him back in 1997.
Sporting are still 21 points from the top with no hope of a Champions League place, which almost certainly means star players João Moutinho and Miguel Veloso will be sold at the season’s end. The gap between Sporting and their rivals was emphasised by their humiliating recent exits from the domestic cups, by Porto (5-2) in the Portuguese Cup quarter-finals and by neighbours Benfica (4-1) in last week’s League Cup semis. Their current lack of confidence and inability to match up to motivated and forceful opponents suggests they will struggle to give Everton the sort of grief that Benfica did in the group stage.