On Friday night Liga NOS leaders FC Porto host third-placed Sporting in a massive six-pointer that could have huge ramifications for the title race.
If Porto prevail, it will surely put an end to Sporting’s hopes of lifting the crown. A draw will keep a 5-point buffer between the two sides, but will open the door for Benfica to make ground on the Dragons – the Eagles receive Porto in Lisbon in April – while an away win will blow the championship wide open.
Why back Porto?
Porto have been magnificent at home this season, with 11 wins and a draw from 12 games, so they are the favourites to secure victory, especially as they have looked the better of the two teams in all three meetings between the two rivals in 2017/18, albeit only winning one of those clashes, with the other two finishing 0-0 at 90 minutes. As if that was not intimidating enough, Porto have won 8 of the last 10 games they have played against Sporting at the Estádio do Dragão.
More impressive still is the fact that Porto remain unbeaten at home and away in the league so far this season. With a mere 10 games to go, there is a very real possibility that Conceição’s side could finish the season as invincibles. That would see them match the stunning achievement of Andre Villas-Boas’ 2010/11 team, featuring the likes of Hulk, Radamel Falcao, Fredy Guarin, Joao Moutinho and Nicolas Otamendi. That side won 90% of their games and drew the rest, and Porto are on course for a similar record this time around, albeit they have a series of tricky away games to negotiate, ending their travels with trips to Benfica, Marítimo and Vitória Guimarães. Get through those games unscathed and we should have another unbeaten title winner on our hands.
Moreover, Sporting are without star man Gelson Martins after he was sent off in unusual circumstances on Monday night, while Dutch goal machine Bas Dost and regular right-back Piccini remain injury doubts. Yet, it is perhaps the form (or lack of it) of Jorge Jesus’s side that is the biggest concern for Sportinguistas, with only 5 wins in the last 11 matches for the Green and Whites and the recent victories against Tondela and Moreirense only earned in stoppage time.
Why back Sporting?
Despite their patchy form, Sporting have put together a five-game unbeaten run of their own and have only been beaten once on the road all season. Moreover, the sheer willpower shown to constantly dig themselves out of holes when all seems lost suggests Friday’s showdown will represent a stern test for Sérgio Conceição’s men.
Although Sporting have important absentees, Porto are arguably in even worse shape. Tiquinho Soares has been in sensational form of late, but misses the match after picking up a thigh strain against Portimonense last Sunday, midfield lynchpin Danilo is still recovering from a long-term injury, and both regular full-backs Alex Telles and Ricardo Pereira are also injury doubts.
And for all Porto’s impressive play this season, the Dragons have generally come up short in the big matches. In 4 matches against Sporting and Benfica, Porto won only one, scoring just one goal, while in Europe Conceição’s men were toppled by Besiktas, Leipzig and Liverpool, shipping three or goals in each of those defeats.
The bookies make Porto clear favourites to beat Sporting. Check Bovada for odds and you will see that Porto are odds-on favourites, but still attractively priced to secure victory. Porto have a horrendous away record against Sporting, having not won there since 2008, but at home they typically get the better of their rivals. They beat Sporting 2-1 at Estádio do Dragão last season courtesy of a Tiquinho brace, and Tiquinho also fired them to a 1-0 Taça de Portugal victory over Sporting earlier this month – although it should be remembered the Brazilian striker will not play tomorrow. Nevertheless, those results should give Porto a psychological advantage heading into this game and they look a good bet to grab the victory and at the least maintain their lead at the top of the table.
Benfica eye fifth straight championship triumph
With just 10 games to play, Porto have a five-point lead over Benfica and Sporting at the top of the Primeira Liga. On Saturday Benfica face Marítimo and history says they should be able to secure a comfortable victory. The 4-time champions may have struggled on the road against Marítimo in recent years, but at home their record is exemplary. They have won their last 11 home meetings with the islanders, a run stretching back to 2009, and that includes some six-goal thrashings. Like Porto and Sporting, Benfica are unbeaten all season at home and they look as though they will take the title race right to the wire.
If Benfica continue their impressive form, Porto could well find themselves the underdogs heading into April’s game at the Estádio da luz as the away team. Porto are 2/5 favourites to win the league this season, while Benfica are 9/2 to overhaul them and Sporting are out at 10/1 to gain a first title since 2002.
Benfica have won the league for the last four seasons, so it would be a tremendous achievement if Porto could usurp them this time around. It is a little early to start comparing them to Villas-Boas’ team, and their 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Liverpool in the Champions League shows they are a long way off the Deco-inspired European champions of 2004, but they are certainly an impressive outfit. Vincent Aboubakar and Moussa Marega have been banging in the goals, and the likes of Alex Telles, Yasine Brahimi, Ricardo Pereira and Felipe have been superb. It looks set to develop into a fascinating denouement to the season. Porto have so far shown they have the quality to hold off their rivals, but the acid test comes tomorrow at a packed Estádio do Dragão.
by Juan Andrade