Several battles remain ongoing in Liga Bwin as time runs out for the domestic season. Leaders Benfica took a big step towards winning the title, narrowly beating fellow challengers Braga to stay four points clear of an elsewhere victorious Porto.
Vitória Guimarães tightened the battle for 5th place, while Chaves continued their fine recent form with victory over Estoril.
The relegation battle remains one to watch, and sizeable favourites for the drop Santa Clara sent out a message to say they aren’t done just yet. Interim manager and PortuGOAL Figure of the Week Accioly led his team to a stirring if ultimately nervy triumph to keep their threadbare survival hopes alive.
Brazilian-born Danildo José São Pedro Accioly Filho, better known simply as “Accioly”, is a figure synonymous with Santa Clara. Representing the club as a player in two stints between 2006-2008 and 2012 until his retirement in 2019. Straight after, he moved into the coaching setup with the team, stepping into the role of assistant manager to then-boss Joao Henriques.
Accioly remained in the assistant position to Henriques’ many successors. Daniel Ramos, Nuno Campos, Mário Silva and Jorge Simão all took the reins to varying degrees of success, albeit mostly struggles in the case of the latter trio. Simao was the latest to try his hand at the helm, but with Santa Clara languishing in the relegation places for much of this campaign, his time came to an end in late February 2023.
The board left Accioly in the hot seat whilst an appropriate name was searched for in Simão’s stead, and indeed this wasn’t the first time in his spell on the coaching staff that the Brazilian had adopted the caretaker position. Despite a continued bad run of form, Accioly was ultimately chosen as the man to see out the campaign on an interim basis.
Santa Clara’s 2022/23 season has been little short of disastrous. Since their ascension to Primeira Liga in 2018, their worst league placing has been 10th, recorded in their debut campaign back in the top flight. They even qualified for European competition in 2021 after a magnificent 6th place finish.
This context has made Santa Clara’s on-pitch struggles that much more difficult to fathom. Accioly has largely been powerless to arrest the slide, having to negotiate a somewhat ramshackle squad of players desperately low on form and confidence. Relegation has looked inevitable for a number of weeks now, the team resembling something of a shooting gallery for the rest of Liga Bwin with an almost visible acceptance that their fate is already sealed.
Accioly to his credit though has remained steadfast in his attempts to rally his troops and not throw in the towel just yet. There have been marginal gains and thin shoots of recovery appearing in some recent matches, making title contenders Porto work very hard for a recent victory when a whitewash pre-match seemed more likely, whilst the team showed good spirit in battling to a point against Chaves two weeks ago.
The latter unfortunately for Santa Clara was followed by a meek defeat at fellow strugglers Estoril, the manner of which really looked like game over for the Azores side. Indeed, going into Saturday afternoon’s home contest with Gil Vicente, the hosts could have found themselves mathematically consigned to the second tier given a certain combination of results.
Accioly and his men had other ideas though with an uncharacteristically barnstorming display in which they blew away their opponents (for the most part). The manager made some bold selection calls to this end, dropping Allano, Paulo Henrique and the soon to depart Costinha from his starting lineup, freshening things up with Gabriel Silva, MT and Bruno Almeida as replacements.
The changes went some way to paying off with Santa Clara dominant from kick off. The home side should have been ahead as early as the second minute, Gil Vicente keeper Andrew on full alert to deny a shot following a set piece scramble.
Gil Vicente didn’t learn their lesson as Santa Clara made the breakthrough in the 23rd minute with another corner kick causing the problems. Pierre Sagna’s delivery was met by Ygor Nogueira’s close range header for a deserved opener.
Ten minutes later it was 2-0 and this time it was a finely-constructed move from open play. Brazilian midfielder Adriano was involved in the buildup, finding Ricardinho out wide before he himself was in the right place to tap home the resulting cross.
Matheus Babi missed a great chance just before half-time to make it 3-0, which would have been a perfectly fair reflection of the level of performance from Accioly’s beleaguered side.
Babi made amends early in the second period though, confidently slotting home from the spot after Andrew had felled MT in the box.
Santa Clara pressed for more and on a couple of occasions almost stretched their lead, before familiar old frailties reared their ugly head, a quickfire concession of two Gil Vicente goals leading to a very nervy finale. Accioly’s team held firm however, and saw out the game to collect all three points and provide a glimmer of hope in their battle against relegation.
In truth Santa Clara remain odds on for the drop in May, remaining rooted to the bottom of Liga Bwin despite this impressive victory, remarkably their first since November 2022. They are effectively five points off at least the temporary safety mark of the playoff position, but with only three matches remaining this clearly represents a massive ask for Accioly and he will be in miracle worker territory if he can help pull off what would be the greatest of escapes. The manager at least helped inject a fraction of light amongst the gloom, a rare victory for Santa Clara in a season to forget.
By Jamie Farr