Fans of Portugal’s three teams participating in this season’s Champions League experienced very differing emotions this week.
Porto put in a sparkling display to dispatch Monaco in their own back yard, a spirited Sporting stretched Barcelona at Alvalade, while Benfica fell to a calamitous 5-0 thrashing against Basel.
Meanwhile Cristiano Ronaldo did what he has spent a career doing: proving his detractors wrong by scoring goals with sumptuous efficiency.
Sérgio Conceição has Porto purring
Four years without a trophy and forbidden from buying players after falling foul of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules, the future did not look bright for FC Porto at the end of a disappointing 2016-17 season, especially after being knocked back in their efforts to appoint Marco Silva to replace outgoing coach Nuno Espírito Santo.
Facing mounting criticism from the club’s demanding fans, historic president Pinto da Costa turned to a former Porto favourite in his playing days, Sérgio Conceição. The choice now appears a masterstroke. The Dragons ripped apart last season’s Champions League semi-finalists Monaco in France to get back on track in Group G, this on top of a record of 7/7 wins domestically.
Using largely the same squad as last season, the Dragons are unrecognisable from Nuno’s overly cautious, stodgy side. The new coach has quickly transformed them into a slick, fast-moving, vertical, relentlessly attacking outfit.
His impact on individuals is just as startling, the likes of Yacine Brahimi and Vincent Aboubakar producing their best football in a Porto shirt, while Moussa Marega is hitting performance levels few believed possible. Even Sérgio Oliveira, who has barely played for three seasons and had not played at all this campaign prior to Tuesday, put in a display of consummate quality against Monaco.
With Conceição at the helm, there are reasons for optimism at the Estádio do Dragão after all.
Sporting’s summer recruits shine
In Portugal when a team buys new players they are called reforços which literally translates as “reinforcements”. As we all know, all too often they are anything but. For an apposite example, one need only look at Sporting’s business in the summer of 2016, when apart from Bas Dost, the ten other new faces brought to Alvalade were authentic flops.
The Lisbon club learned from its mistakes. All the newcomers this time round have settled immediately and have strengthened the Lions considerably – as attested by a record of 8 wins and 3 draws in 11 matches before tonight’s encounter against Barcelona.
Against one of the favourites to lift the Champions League, Sporting put in a strong, tactically disciplined display, and with a little bit of luck could have come away with a share of the points. Sporting’s home-grown players William Carvalho and Rui Patrício gave another demonstration that they can mix it with the very best, but the Portuguese team’s top three performers were all summer recruits.
Centre-back Mathieu played like a man keen to make a point, the French centre-back feeling he was not treated well when leaving the Catalan giants. Not for the first time this season Mathieu was imperious in defence while effectively lending his weight when venturing further up the field.
Midfielder Battaglia was given the unenviable task of trying to control Messi, and so effective a job he did that his Argentine compatriot was barely seen all night. Bruno Fernandes continued his excellent form, constantly demanding the ball, taking risks and trying his luck when given half a yard of space, a rarity by the well-marshalled Barcelona defence. It was Fernandes who came closest to scoring for Sporting, his fierce close-range effort forcing Stegen into a sharp save.
Sporting truly did bring in reinforcements this summer.
Benfica’s disinvestment not so clever
In stark contrast, on the red side of Lisbon the summer transfer activity has severely weakened Benfica coach Rui Vitória’s hand. As is his wont, the manager steadfastly refused to blame a series of poor displays and indifferent results this season on the fact that he lost four key players, Ederson, Nelson Semedo, Victor Lindelöf and Kostas Mitroglou, none of whom have been replaced by players with anything approaching the same quality.
Truth be told, he doesn’t have to – it’s all too evident – after the embarrassing collapse in Switzerland tonight laid bare the fragility of his squad. With zero points on the board after two Champions League matches and a double-header against Manchester United coming up, the tournament is as good as over for the Eagles.
Vitória’s target will be to stay in touch with Porto and Sporting, both stronger outfits than last season, in the Liga NOS until January, when badly needed reforços will surely have to be brought in.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s "poor form"
Given his astonishing consistency, it is surprising how frequently Cristiano Ronaldo faces criticism for a perceived dip in form. So relentless is his goal-scoring that going two or three games without a goal is deemed as “evidence” enough for a legion of scribes to start announcing his decline.
His two brilliant finishes against Borussia Dortmund yesterday made it a barely believable record of 411 goals in 400 games for Real Madrid. Not bad for a player who in recent years has apparently been on the wane.
By Tom Kundert