Liga NOS 2019/20 finally drew to a close on another dramatic weekend. The league title may have already been settled but there was plenty left to dispute albeit the huge headline fixtures did not carry the weight that fans hoped they would.
Still, the combination of the Lisbon derby between Benfica and Sporting as well as Porto taking on Braga brought about some drama, the latter sneaking into 3rd place at the expense of Lions following 2-1 scores in favour and against the top 3 hopefuls.
Rio Ave grabbed the last remaining Europa League place courtesy of the latest of equalisers by Marítimo against Famalicão. Down at the bottom there was one relegation slot to be filled and it was ultimately done so by Portimonense, whose defeat of already-downed Aves proved insufficient.
In classic fashion it was Tondela who avoided the drop and this time PortuGOAL Figure of the Week Natxo González was the man leading the charge and writing his name into the club’s modern history as the latest “great escape coach” on what is an ever-expanding list.
53 year old Natxo González was hired by Tondela last summer having boasted a solid CV of work in Spain’s second tier with the likes of Real Zaragoza and Deportivo La Coruña. A small cultural adaptation required for the Spaniard working outside of his native country for the first time, his start with the Portuguese side was an inconsistent one. Winning only once at home in 2019 was a record punctuated by some very impressive victories away from home, notably at Famalicão, Rio Ave and Marítimo.
González has shown himself to be very tactically flexible throughout the campaign, using 3-4-3 earlier in the campaign as well as toying with more traditional 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 setups. In this manner he was trying to best utilise the dynamic attacking talent in the team such as Jhon Murillo, Jonathan Toro and Richard Rodrigues, while his acquisition of target man Ronan from Rio Ave in January proved to be a fruitful one both in tactical terms and goal return.
A largely poor 2020 however saw Tondela fans fearing a reliance on the club’s near-legendary refusal to go down from Liga NOS in recent years, but crucial wins against Aves and Braga set them up for one more escape from danger on the final day against Moreirense on Sunday evening.
Needing a victory to confirm their top flight status for another year, or a reliance on results elsewhere to go their way, Tondela did what they do best to produce another stirring triumph in their history to defy the odds once again.
Home side Moreirense had nothing to play for but still approached the match in a serious way, Luther Singh testing Babacar Niasse, deptusing for the injured Cláudio Ramos in the Tondela goal.
Tondela responded with Jonathan Toro having a couple of opportunities but they would get their chance to break the deadlock just before the break as Jhon Murillo’s shot hit the hand of Moreirense defender Abdu Conté. João Pedro calmly sent goalkeeper Mateus Pasinato the wrong way to give González a priceless lead at the interval.
Moreirense came back into the match in the second half as Tondela began to live dangerously, surviving good missed chances from Fábio Abreu and Filipe Soares, but in the 70th minute their luck reversed on them as a deflected Joao Aurélio drive brought matters level. A draw would have been sufficient for Tondela to stay up but naturally the nerves around the team increased, knowing that defeat with results elsewhere standing as they did would relegate the Auriverdes.
With ten minutes remaining González though would produce what would prove a game-winning substitution, sending on Brazilian forward Richard to replace João Pedro. With only minutes remaining, the substitute was felled just inside the area to earn Tondela a second spot-kick. This time Spanish midfielder Pepelu, arguably their player of the season, took on the responsibility and showed no nerves to strike the winning goal.
Jubilant scenes followed on the Tondela bench, amid the backdrop of a very emotional González. Richard very nearly made it 3-1 in the dying stages but it mattered not as another famous Tondela victory did the job in final day dramatics yet again.
As ever in these scenarios the question is where do Tondela go from here and just how many times can they keep pulling the rabbit from the hat at the very last. It remains to be seen whether González has a future in Viseu beyond the next few days but keeping some stability in giving the Spaniard a second season might just prove a calming influence at this chaotic club.
By Jamie Farr