Another remarkable final weekend in the Liga NOS saw the triumphant survival of Tondela, their second stunning escape from the drop in a row.
Tondela only made their top-flight debut in 2015/16 and it looked to be a very short stay, before a stunning turnaround in form, catalysed by a famous win at the Estádio do Dragão. Favourites for the drop again this time around, the Viseu side pulled off arguably an even greater escape with a 2-0 win over Braga on Sunday, benefitting from Arouca’s 4-2 defeat at Estoril to preserve their Primeira Liga status by one goal!
Jamie Farr tells the story of Tondela’s season and incredible escape from what looked like certain relegation.
Tondela’s 2016/17 campaign began on far from ideal footing, as a tumultuous pre-season saw an extreme turnover in the playing staff. Only nine members of the previous heroic survival effort stayed with the club, losing star striker Nathan Júnior amongst others. Inevitably, with the mass exodus and a host of brand new players entering the club, Tondela found the beginning of the league campaign exceptionally tough. As winter approached the new squad was struggling for cohesion and Petit was offering his resignation to the club president, but this was refused largely based on the superb job he had done in 2015/16. However, as the team’s poor form persisted, Tondela and Petit finally parted ways.
In came Pepa, himself struggling through the fledgling stages of the 2016/17 season having already been sacked by Moreirense. Like Petit before him, Pepa had a bloody-minded resolve and insistence Tondela could survive once more, although he took some time instilling such a mentality to the players, winning only one of his first twelve matches in charge.
Murilo and Murillo double act
In an oddly mirroring fashion to last season though, Tondela’s form completely turned around in March and April. Like last year they seemed dead and buried for much of the season but Pepa’s introduction of Brazilian Murilo (pictured left) helped changed the dynamic of the team. They were able to operate in a fluid 4-3-3 / 4-4-2 system, with Murilo and on-loan Benfica winger Jhon Murillo (pictured right) able to buzz around and use their pace to stretch defences and create spaces.
With January loan signings Heliardo misfiring and Amido Baldé ruled out due to a heart condition, this was somewhat forced but overall the team became evidently more confident, earning creditable draws with Marítimo and Paços Ferreira.
April began with a dispiriting 2-0 home defeat to Estoril and after a 2-1 reverse at Vitória Guimarães, the writing looked on the wall for Tondela with only six matches to play, bottom of the table and 5 points from safety, factoring in Moreirense’s superior head to head record. However, as had happened last season the team’s fortunes reversed in the home match with Europa League-chasing Rio Ave, in which Tondela triumphed 2-1 at the Estádio João Cardoso to instil some hope amongst the players and fans alike. Every game became a must-win for Tondela and they responded accordingly, barring a 1-0 defeat at Boavista in the final match of April.
After just three wins in the team’s first 28 Liga NOS matches, Tondela won five of their last six. A truly astounding turnaround in results.
A key figure in the team’s late surge was another Benfica loan signing, Pedro Nuno, who came into his own in May, scoring two fantastic goals in the penultimate game of the season, a 2-1 victory away Arouca which would ultimately massively swing the pendulum Tondela’s way. Nuno, signed from Segunda Liga Académica in December by the league champions but instantly loaned to Tondela, was initially pushed out to the wings at times by Pepa, but flourished in his more natural position of central attacking midfield.
The tension on the final day was palpable as Tondela, Moreirense and Arouca all faced the possibility of joining Nacional in relegation to Segunda Liga. Arouca seemingly had the simplest task, simply avoiding defeat away at Estoril would be enough for them to stay up while Moreirense knew victory over a below par and demotivated Porto side would secure Primeira Liga football next year. Tondela on the other hand knew only victory against Braga would give them hope, although they would still need other results to go their way, and they started the game nervously.
Braga, also with nothing to play for, pressed the team in the early stages of the first half as Tondela struggled to impose themselves on the game. All the while there was a festival of goals occurring in Estoril, the hosts leading Arouca 3-2 by the break. Tondela grew into the match as the half went on however and deservedly led at half time, Heliardo prodding past Matheus.
Meanwhile Moreirense had managed to distance themselves from the danger zone, ultimately prevailing 3-1 over Porto, despite a brief scare when the Dragões pulled the score back to 2-1 through Maxi Pereira, which at the time had left Moreirense in the precarious position of knowing one more goal conceded to Porto would mean relegation.
With all the matches played simultaneously, midway through the second half, with their head-to-head records identical, Arouca were losing but were still in the driving seat over Tondela in goal difference terms. That all changed as Tondela skipper Kaká headed in for a 2-0 lead, and Estoril stretched their advantage over Arouca to 4-2, prompting wild celebrations in Viseu from those glued to their mobile phones. Suddenly Tondela were out of the relegation zone – for the first time all season – thanks to a one-goal advantage over Arouca, and it was a lead they never relinquished. Arouca will join Nacional in Segunda Liga next season, paying the price for a terrible collapse in form in the second half of the campaign.
Tondela 2-0 Braga highlights
Pepa will surely be rewarded with control of the team next season but they must endeavour to avoid the mass exodus of players they endured last summer. In both of their Primeira Liga campaigns they have been playing catch up with other teams, needing longer to gel in the season.
That said, they are likely to lose their most prized assets, with loan stars Pedro Nuno and Jhon Murillo unlikely to continue with the Auriverdes, while Cláudio Ramos, one of the best goalkeepers in the division and a huge part of Tondela’s Primeira Liga history, is reportedly set for a switch to Belenenses. Next season is likely to be a struggle again, but the iron clad mentality the club has shown in the past couple of years could well see Tondela do what they have to do to remain in the big time.
by Jamie Farr