Preview of two mouth-watering Primeira Liga clashes
Last week was livened up by the Final Four of the Taça da Liga, with plenty of excitement and controversy as Portugal’s top four teams slugged it out for the first piece of silverware of the season. This weekend the fixture list has thrown up two more appetising matches as four of the top five teams in the Liga NOS go head to head on Sunday.
Sporting host Benfica in the Portuguese capital before leaders FC Porto make the short trip to northern rivals Vitória Guimarães, with the two matches potentially having a big effect on the title race. Wins for Sporting and Porto, for example, will leave the Dragons odds-on to finish top of the pile, but should Benfica and Vitória prevail, the fight to be crowned champions of Portugal will be blown open between the two perennial rivals, with Braga also very much in the running.
The good news for UK viewers is that both matches are being broadcast live on FreeSportsTV on Sunday. Here’s PortuGOAL’s preview of two games that promise fireworks.
Sporting vs. Benfica
Sporting fans were elated one week ago as the Lions successfully defended their Taça da Liga trophy after beating Braga and Porto on penalties, but the Green and Whites were brought back down to earth with a bump in midweek with a dispiriting display and dropped points in a 1-1 draw at Vitória Setúbal.
The sparkling performances early in Marcel Keizer’s reign seem a distant memory, with Sporting displaying neither consistency in results nor cohesiveness in their play since the turn of the year. The Dutchman has also seen his team selections brought into question, such as the inexplicable disappearance of promising youngsters Luís Miguel and Jovane Cabral from the XI and the insistence on picking the largely ineffective Abdoulay Diaby and Nemanja Gudelj.
Sporting have boosted their squad in the January transfer window in terms of numbers at least – whether it corresponds to an increase in quality remains to be seen – with the arrival of Tiago Ilori, Francisco Geraldes, Cristián Borja, Idrissa Doumbia, and Luiz Phellype. But for Sunday’s clash against their eternal city rivals Sporting have plenty of injury doubts with Jérémy Mathieu, Marcos Acuña, André Pinto and Bas Dost all struggling for fitness, while Stefan Ristovski is suspended.
Benfica respond to Lage
Benfica, on the other hand, have hit a purple patch of form since dismissing Rui Vitória and bringing in Bruno Lage as head coach. The former B-team coach has revitalised the Eagles, winning five out of six matches at the helm, with the team especially impressive going forward, showing creativity and incisiveness in a new 4-4-2 formation.
Ljubomir Fejsa and Jonas remain injury doubts for this match, but even if fully fit it is questionable whether two previously cast-iron regulars would return to a starting XI that has clicked with the change of leadership on the bench.
Teenage sensation João Félix increasingly looks a potential star of the future, and has reason to come into the derby full of confidence. The 19-year-old has put together a string of man-of-the-match performances, including a wondrous display against Boavista in midweek, and he scored his first senior goal for the Eagles against Sporting in the reverse fixture at the Estádio da Luz early this season.
Starting Round 20 of the Primeira Liga five points behind leaders Porto, Benfica know that any more dropped points could seriously compromise their chances of reeling in their bitter rivals. And with forward players Félix, Haris Seferovic and Rafa Silva all in sparkling form, it is highly likely the visitors will adopt a positive approach despite being the away side.
The two teams come into the match in different states of spirit, but as Sporting showed last week, matches between Portugal’s top sides are usually tight affairs and difficult to predict. Nevertheless, the two clubs seem to be travelling in opposite directions and Benfica’s superior firepower will edge them to a narrow win. Sporting 0-1 Benfica
😍😍😍— FreeSports 📺 (@FreeSports_TV) January 31, 2019
WOW, check out the #LIVE & #FREE football this weekend on FreeSports
🇮🇹 Napoli v Sampdoria
🇮🇹 Juventus v Parma
🇳🇱 Excelsior v Feyenoord
🇳🇱 PSV v Sittard
🇵🇹 Sporting CP v Benfica
🇵🇹 Vitoria SC v Porto pic.twitter.com/OnhgPziU1w
Vitória Guimarães vs. FC Porto
Luís Castro has followed up the excellent work he did at Porto B, Rio Ave and Chaves with an equally impressive job in Guimarães this season. Castro would surely win the prize for being the politest manager in Portugal, but his likeable demeanour does not detract from a competitive spirit reflected in all his sides’ high-quality football.
Vitória’s players have assimilated the coach’s ideas and are proving an extremely tough nut to crack, even for Portugal’s best teams. The northerners beat Porto at the Estádio do Dragão in spectacular fashion early in the season, coming from two goals down to win 3-2, and have drawn with Braga and beaten Sporting at the Dom Afonso Henriques this season. Even the two recent back-to-back 1-0 defeats to Benfica were extremely tight-fought matches with Castro’s men deserving more than they got on each occasion. Porto will have to keep a close eye of pint-sized striker Tozé, who scored a brace in midweek including a genial winner against Feirense.
That said, Porto come into the match favourites having quickly got over the Taça da Liga disappointment to sweep aside Belenenses 3-0 on Wednesday. Sérgio Conceição has done a magnificent job since taking over coaching duties at his former club, steering Porto to the championship after a four-year hiatus last season and setting a new club record for consecutive victories this season.
The fact he has done so without significant investment speaks volumes about his ability to get the best out of his players and the outstanding form of Jesús Corona is the latest example of Conceição’s motivational and tactical acumen. Corona has been excellent both at right-back and playing in his usual winger role, and like all his team-mates the Mexican looks like he is enjoying his football and is hungry for success.
22 wins, 1 draw and 1 defeat (on penalties) in their last 24 matches is a record that makes Porto heavy favourites, but this is certainly one of the Dragons’ most difficult remaining fixtures of the season. The ever-raucous Vitória crowd will make it a fiery atmosphere, and the hosts may just have enough to halt the Porto machine. Vitória 1-1 Porto.
By Tom Kundert