It was a disappointing week for Portugal’s three Champions League participants, with Porto, Sporting and Benfica all losing, albeit by a single goal against strong opposition.
Sporting fans must be getting tired of “moral victories”. The Lions were denied a positive result against one of Europe’s top teams yet again as a late goal by Mario Mandzukic completed a Juventus comeback in Turin.
Sérgio Conceição and Rui Vitória selected young goalkeepers with no Champions League experience for Porto and Benfica respectively, and while both Mile Svilar and José Sá acquitted themselves well for the most part, each made a mistake that cost a goal.
Jorge Jesus received much criticism for his Champions League record at Benfica, and his chances of improving it at Sporting have been sparse given the unfavourable draws the Lions have been dealt the last two years.
Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund stood in Sporting’s way last season, and this year the task was just as difficult with the Lisbon club placed in a group containing Barcelona and Juventus.
That Sporting have lost 6 games against these giants (Real Madrid x2, Dortmund x2, Barça and Juve) is not hugely surprising. However, each and every one of the defeats has been by a single goal and it is difficult to deny that with a little bit more luck Jesus’ side could have obtained different results.
The best performance in this half dozen toughest of tests came at the Santiago Bernabeu last season, where Sporting were leading after largely outplaying the European Champions until the dying minutes, until Cristiano Ronaldo and Álvaro Morata cruelly turned it around.
Yesterday at the Allianz Stadium, Sporting again took the lead, thanks to an Alex Sandro own goal, only for Miralem Pjanic to equalise for Juventus with a terrific free kick. Sporting appeared to be holding on relatively comfortably, until Mandzukic’s late intervention brought on a familiar sinking feeling.
In the pre-match press conference before Porto took on RB Leipzig in Germany, coach Sérgio Conceição was asked if he would surprise onlookers again with his team selection, as he had done to good effect in the previous Champions League match against Monaco, with the inclusion of Sérgio Oliveira.
“I’m not paid to pull off surprises, I’m paid to select the best team possible,” was his response.
He subsequently pulled off an even bigger surprise as Iker Casillas was relegated to the bench and José Sá started between the sticks for Porto. Just eight minutes were on the clock when Sá made a hash of a regulation save, spilling the ball and allowing Willi Orban to open the scoring for the Germans.
Porto equalised soon afterwards through the rejuvenated Vincent Aboubakar, and truth be told José Sá was solid for the rest of the match. It was through no fault of his that Porto eventually went down 3-2, the closeness of the scoreline masking a below-par performance by the Dragons who were always second best.
Would it have been different if Casillas had started? We will never know, but Conceição – who insisted it was “a technical decision, and if I had to choose the starting XI again I would choose the exact same players” – has had to endure a torrent of criticism for the decision. Curiously, many of those criticising him are the exact same analysts who lavished him with praise for his surprise selection in the previous Champions League match.
Mile Svilar sets record
While events in Leipzig may have signalled the beginning of the end of a great goalkeeping career, back in Lisbon, an 18-year-old custodian took to the pitch for his first high-profile match.
Belgian teenager Miles Svilar became the youngest ever goalkeeper to start a Champions League game, as he lined up for Benfica against Manchester United in the Portuguese capital.
After several rushes from his line to clear impending danger and some sharp saves, things were going well for Svilar, and you got the impression the local press were preparing their “Heir to Preud’homme!” headlines, alluding to the young ‘keeper’s compatriot who shined so brilliantly for the club in the 90s. Not least because Benfica were inexistent as an attacking force, seemingly content to soak up pressure or simply unable to mount any real threat against the English giants.
Alas, the fairy-tale start to Svilar’s career on the big stage did not materialise as he badly misjudged the flight of a Marcus Rashford free kick and/or his own position, taking a step backwards as he caught the ball, unfortunately for him and for Benfica, inside the net for the only goal of the game.
Upon the final whistle a visibly upset Svilar mouthed an apology to the fans, while holding up his hands, and was consoled by his compatriot Romelu Lukaku and others.
“This is the sort of goal only a great goalkeeper will concede, a goalkeeper who is not afraid to come off his line,” offered Mourinho after the match. “This kid’s a beast, a phenomenon. The Benfica president better prepare a big briefcase because they’re going to pay a lot of money for him.”
Svilar himself insists the mistake will not halt his progress. “I should have done better on the goal but there’s nothing I can do about it now and I’m not going to let it affect me,” he said. “It’s part of my development. I’m ready to continue and I hope to do better in the future.”
That immediate future will be playing for Benfica against Desportivo das Aves on Sunday, with Benfica coach Rui Vitória emphatically saying he will retain his starting spot.
By Tom Kundert