As we near the end of the 2015-16 Liga NOS campaign, much has rightly been made of the exciting race for the title. Until a fortnight or so ago, it was a three-horse race for the first time in some years.
As Porto’s title credentials have faded in recent weeks, it now looks certain that the title will be going to the nation’s capital as Benfica and Sporting duke it out. However, there is plenty for other clubs to play for too. None more so than at the bottom-end of the table where any one of seven clubs could still be considered vulnerable.
Relegation is never a pleasant experience to go through, as any fan will tell you. Whereas it perhaps looked cut and dried just a month or so ago, the competition has been blown wide open, with just five games left to play. Here is a look at the clubs involved and what lies immediately ahead of them as they strive for safety.
Tondela (18th - 20pts)
It seems right to start at the very bottom. But in the case of Tondela - playing their first ever season in the top flight (see here) - it seems even more poignant given their change in fortunes over recent weeks.
If you’d have asked most fans of Tondela or other Liga NOS clubs just two weeks ago, they would have told you Petit’s side were certain for the drop. Indeed, until the 28th February (Jornada 24), the club had registered a paltry two league victories. A win at fellow-strugglers, Moreirense, then reignited the flame before two straight losses gave the impression of a flash in the pan.
With relegation looking all but confirmed as Jornada 27 arrived, Tondela then began to turn things around. A 2-2 draw at home to Belenenses was followed by what is possibly the result of the season. A daunting trip to title candidates, FC Porto, on the 4th April yielded a stunning 1-0 upset thanks to a 59th minute Luís Alberto strike. As fans all across Portugal rubbed their eyes in amazement, Tondela began preparing for Jornada 29 which meant the visit of a fellow struggled in União. Spurred on by their recent win at the Dragão, Tondela collected all three points again, this time in the form of an own goal.
And so, Tondela have given themselves a fighting chance to get out of trouble at the last knockings. Whilst still propping up the table, Petit’s men now have 20 points on the board, just three behind 17th placed Académica and, more importantly, six points behind União and safety.
They have a tough run in but, positively for Tondela fans, two of the final five fixtures are against fellow strugglers. Setúbal will host the club on Jornada 31 and Académica are in town on the final day of the season. With games against Braga, Rio Ave and Paços de Ferreira also to come, Petit will be looking at the former two games for points but will hope it doesn’t have to go to the final day of the season.
18th April - Braga (A), 24th April - Setúbal (A), 30th May - Rio Ave (H), 8th May - Paços de Ferreira (A), 15th May - Académica (H)
Académica (17th - 23pts)
It’s been a very disappointing season for Académica as they stare over the precipice in 17th position. And it’s been a case of start as you mean to go on from the men from Coimbra. Sitting three points from safety, they have it all to do.
A run of six losses in the opening five league games and sole Taça da Liga fixture was enough for the board to lose patience with José Viterbo. He was subsequently replaced by Filipe Gouveia and form did improve after an initial defeat in his first game in charge. A run of three wins and four draws in the next seven games in all competitions, gave the fans hope, but wins have become conspicuous by their absence since.
In all, Académica have managed just five league wins all season and not a single one of those has come away from home. Since the turn of the year, the club has managed just three wins in the league - against União, Tondela and Guimarães - but is now in a run of three straight losses.
A large part of the problem can perhaps be ascertained from the fact that Académica’s top scorer this season - three of them to be exact - only have three league goals each. Pedro Nuno, João Real and Gonçalo Paciência are the players who have kept Académica in goals but perhaps the most alarming thing about that is the fact that João Real is a centre-back. At just 21-years-old it was always going to be a tough ask of on loan Paciência to lead the line and this has certainly been the case, despite the undoubted talent the Portugal Under-21 international possesses.
Some good news for Académica fans is that they do have games they will see as winnable in the last five. Mid-table Belenenses provide the next opposition in the nation’s capital and there are also trips to two clubs immediately around them in União and Tondela. Porto is not a game that many will expect the side to get anything from but the fact it’s at home will help to ease worries.
17th April - Belenenses (A), 24th April - FC Porto (H), 30th April - União Madeira (A), 8th May - Braga (H), 15th May - Tondela (A)
União Madeira (16th - 26pts)
As with Tondela, it’s been a tough baptism of fire for União in their first season back in the top flight (click here for more). And yet, in the early rounds at least, it looked as though they would be a tough side to beat.
A 2-1 opening day win at home to Madeiran rivals, Marítimo, gave the fans cause for optimism, despite then losing game 2 to the club’s other local rivals, Nacional, by a solitary goal. A run of three draws in games 3, 4 and 5 restored the faith but it was clear goals would be tough to come by. Just two goals in those opening 5 matches told a story and 4th round elimination in the Taça de Portugal to Liga 2 side, Aves, didn’t do much for morale in the camp.
That said, there have been some important victories this campaign - 6 in the league overall. They have managed to take maximum points off of fellow strugglers, beating the likes of Tondela, Boavista and Marítimo (the double). There was also a surprise upset of Sporting, 1-0, on 20th December. On the 12th March Norton de Matos’ side travelled to the Dragão and cause no end of problems for a Porto side who, at that point, were still very much in the hunt for the title. It resulted in a 3-2 loss but a five minute Danilo Dias brace saw the Madeirans struggle back from 2-0 down before ultimately losing 3 minutes from time.
The main worry for União staff and fans alike will be the absence of a victory since beating Madeiran rivals, Nacional, back on 23rd January. Since that point, the record isn’t pretty and reads 7 defeats and 3 draws. The side will need goals to survive and Danilo Dias has managed 7 this campaign, backed up by Toni Silva and Amilton (3 apiece).
The remaining five fixtures are a mixed bag for the Madeirans. A trip to a title-chasing Sporting will not be one Norton de Matos looks at with rose-tinted glasses. Rio Ave have been in good form this season and Paços de Ferreira are not an easy side to beat either. However, games against Académica (home) and Boavista (away) could well see União gain the points they need for a second successive top flight season.
17th April - Paços de Ferreira (H), 24th April - Sporting (A), 30th April - Académica (H), 8th May - Boavista (A), 15th May - Rio Ave (H)
Boavista (15th - 26pts)
I recently penned a piece on Boavista’s season here. Os Axandrezados have struggled in their second season back in the top flight, following their two division promotion in the summer of 2014. This season has seen the departure of Petit to Tondela, with former player and coach, Erwin Sánchez, taking over the hot seat in December.
As I documented previously, goals have been Boavista’s biggest downfall, i.e.: there just haven’t been anywhere enough of them scored. In fact, only União have scored fewer league goals (20) than Boavista (21). Sánchez has looked to rectify this issue but the fact remains that Zé Manuel remains the side’s top scorer this campaign with just 4 goals.
Defensively, things have been a lot better. Boavista have conceded just 35 league goals this season and, indeed, you’d have to go all the way up to 5th place Arouca to find a club that has conceded fewer. Paulo Vinícius, the former Braga and Leiria centre-back, has been a welcome addition to the defence this season and Mika, who was so impressive last season, has reclaimed his spot as the club’s number one between the sticks.
The fact remains that Boavista have managed only 6 league wins this season. Shockingly, only 2 of those have come at the Bessa. As anyone trying to avoid relegation will know, rule one is to win your home games. Boavista haven’t done that but they do have two more games left to play which they will see as winnable.
Boavista have one of the kinder run in’s of all the struggling teams, with only cross-city rival, Porto, perhaps being cause for concern. That, however, does not come until the final day of the season. And so two mid-table opponents in Estoril and Belenenses will be seen as winnable games. And fellow-strugglers, Moreirense and União, will be games Erwin Sánchez will look at with particular relish and a belief that 6 points are obtainable. Having already lost to União in the league this season, Boavista will need to make sure they defeat the Madeirans as the head-to-head records count come into play.
16th April - Estoril (A), 24th April - Belenenses (H), 30th April - Moreirense (A), 8th May - União Madeira (H), 15th May - FC Porto (A)
Moreirense (14th - 29pts)
Miguel Leal’s side find themselves looking nervously over their shoulders with five games to play, in 14th place and just 6 points clear of the relegation zone. A total of seven league victories this season has been just enough to keep his side out of the thick of it for the best part. However, the club cannot rest on its laurels yet.
One of the undoubted success stories at Moreirense this season has been the Azorean winger, Iuri Medeiros. The 21-year-old Portugal Under-21 and Olympic international has weighed in with 7 league goals this campaign (9 in all competitions) and has also acted as a supply line to top scorer, Rafael Martins, who has managed 14 goals. And this is what has set Moreirense apart from many of their fellow strugglers. They have players who can score goals. They also have the young Ghanaian striker, Emmanuel Boateng, to call on when needed. The 19-year-old is in his first season with the club and has managed a pair of league goals, mostly from the bench. He has also notched a further goal in the Taça da Liga.
The major problem Moreirense have is in stopping goals at the other end (47). Only five other clubs have conceded more goals than Moreirense this season and two of those are in the relegation zone. On four occasions this season, the side has conceded four or more goals in a game - the worst of which was a 1-6 thrashing by Benfica.
There have been some impressive performances this campaign though. A 2-0 win over Paços de Ferreira was followed up by 1-0 win at an impressive Rio Ave side. They have also managed two draws with Braga and a 2-2 home draw with FC Porto early in the season.
The last five games present a reasonably kind fixture list for Moreirense and one that they will feel capable of getting enough from to stay up. Granted, the next game is the visit of Sporting, but games against Nacional, Boavista, Guimarães and Marítimo will give the players, staff and fans cause for optimism.
16th April - Sporting (H), 24th April - Nacional (A), 30th April - Boavista (H), 8th May - Guimarães (A), 15th May - Marítimo (H)
Setúbal (13th - 29pts)
What a difference selling your star striker can make to a side. If ever there was proof of that, then Setúbal are it. Quim Machado’s side had been chugging along quite nicely this season, losing only five games, until the departure of South Korean, Suk, to FC Porto on 15th January.
The pacy striker had scored 11 goals in all competitions for Setúbal (9 in the league) before his departure, and it’s safe to say that he has not been properly replaced. This has seen the club win just one game since - a 2-1 victory over Académica way back on 22nd January.
It is, of course, not fair to lay the responsibility all on the shoulders of one player. But the stats don’t lie and Machado’s men have managed just 9 goals in the last 12 games since Suk’s departure. The main goalscoring threat has rested on André Claro in the aftermath. The 25-year-old Portuguese has managed 12 goals in all competitions this season (11 in the league), but the last of those came back on 21st February. Since that day, Setúbal have managed to score in just one of six games. More bad news for Setúbal fans is that only Académica (52), Marítimo (55) and Belenenses (59) have conceded more goals in the league.
Even more worrying for Quim Machado is the run-in that his side has - arguably the most difficult of any of the struggling clubs. There are two trips to Lisbon to take on both of the title-chasers: Benfica and Sporting. There is also a trip to face 4th placed Braga as they look to try and perform a serious overhaul of Porto. Tondela at home is a real opportunity for the side to earn much-needed points and stop the rot. The season then ends with a home game against Paços de Ferreira.
Overall, you’d have to say that Setúbal have it all to do to try and keep their heads above water this season. They need goals and quickly. They also need to learn how to defend and keep it tight at the back or there is a very strong possibility that they will be playing Liga 2 football next season.
18th April - Benfica (A), 24th April - Tondela (H), 30th April - Braga (A), 8th May - Sporting (A), 15th May - Paços de Ferreira (H)
Marítimo (12th - 32pts)
The final featured side here is Marítimo who find themselves sitting 12th on 32 points. For many that may represent safety, however they are still only 9 points clear of the drop zone and it’s been far from a convincing season for the Madeirans.
One thing in Marítimo’s favour is that they know how to win at home. Os Verde-Rubros have emerged victorious in 6 home league games this season - more than any other side in the bottom half of the table. However, just 3 wins on the road doesn’t make pretty reading for the club’s fans.
Impressive wins against Rio Ave and Porto have been complimented by a superb run in the Taça da Liga which has seen Marítimo make the final against either Benfica or Braga. Nelo Vingada took over mid-season from Ivo Vieira and has had to cope with the loss of one of the club’s best players in Marega. As with Suk at Setúbal, the French-born Mali international joined FC Porto in January and his pace in attack is a big loss for the side. It is perhaps testament to Marega that he remains the second top scorer for the side this season, some three months after leaving (7 in all competitions - 5 in the league).
With Marega’s departure, goalscoring responsibilities lay with Brazilian, Dyego Sousa, who has notched 11 in the league already. And he has been complimented by Edgar Costa on the left who has 4 league goals. And it’s having goalscorers in the side that will give Vingada’s side hope they can avoid being sucked into the drop zone with five games to play.
It’s very much a mid-table run-in for Marítimo with games against Guimarães, Arouca and Estoril. There is the small matter of a home game with Benfica in the penultimate fixture of the season, before a trip to play Moreirense on the final day of the campaign. With only one win in the last five games, it remains to be seen whether the Madeirans will have enough about them to secure top flight football next season.
17th April - Guimarães (H), 24th April - Arouca (H), 30th April - Estoril (A), 8th May - Benfica (H), 15th May - Moreirense (A)
by Paul Gellard