End of the line for Sporting

Matches between Benfica and Sporting rarely mean nothing, but both teams went into the League Cup semi-final clash at Estádio da Luz with plenty riding on the result. 

For Benfica, it was a chance to maintain momentum before two very important matches in the League and Europa League. For Sporting, it was one of those ‘do-or-die’ moments.

Out of the title race, embarrassed by Setúbal in the Portuguese Cup and cruelly knocked out by Rangers, Sporting knew their only hope of silverware was the League Cup – the ugly duckling of Portuguese competitions.

The Lions started the match with the upper hand and broke the deadlock in the 21st minute. Roberto Jiménez reminded club supporters why he should always stay between the posts as he went for a cross that had nothing to do with him and was anticipated by Helder Postiga who gave Sporting a surprising lead.

Benfica gradually increased their tempo and 12 minutes later were awarded a somewhat dubious penalty. But in accordance with the Portugeses saying “God wrote straight on crooked lines”, Cardozo missed the spot-kick. Nonetheless, in their next move, Benfica won a corner and the Paraguayan hitman rose above Evaldo to redeem himself with a powerful header.

From that moment on, the Eagles started piling on the pressure. They would hit the bar in the second half and as Sporting tried to survive the onslaught it happened again: Benfica would be rewarded with a goal in the dying moments of the match and Sporting punished at the eleventh hour. This time, the hero was Spaniard Javi Garcia who was quick to reach a stray ball in the Sporting box after sub Franco Jara tried to send a cross to Cardozo.

With that, Benfica avoided the penalties – where the Cardozo factor would likely play against them – and will now play in the final against this season's surprise package Paços de Ferreira, who went to Madeira to beat Nacional in a seven-goal thriller.

Most pundits would agree that Sporting weren't half bad, that they countered Benfica in the first half, and that they created a handful opportunities on their own. In a way that's true, but that’s what you would expect from a smaller team traveling to Estádio da Luz in a knockout game: defend, try to hit them on the break and defend again.

A team of Sporting’s dimension shouldn’t be happy to resort to ‘kick and rush’ tactics. It seemed odd to watch them hit long balls toward front duo Yannick Djaló and Helder Postiga. And with all due respect to Postiga – who worked his socks off and posed some problems to Benfica’s backline – when he’s your best player, you just know you’re not a serious title contender. He has a lot of experience and international pedigree, but he’s not one to carry your team.

Benfica coach Jesus may also have a problem on his hands. He opted to field a full-strength side against Sporting, apparently forgetting the crucial matches against Braga and PSG. Whether it was a coincidence or not, a tired Benfica ended up losing 2-1 at the Minho Warriors this Sunday. Selecting Felipe Meneses and Franco Jara in the starting XI was a huge risk that didn’t pay off due to their limited minutes amassed throughout the season.

Last year against Liverpool, Benfica paid the price of not rotating their starting XI and were hammered 4-1 at Liverpool. This year, however, they've already reached two cup finals and now don’t have to worry about what was only really seen as a title race by the media – they're now 11 points behind champions-elect Porto and 15 clear of third-placed Sporting. As a result they can focus on the Europa League and use the remaining league games to assess back-up or younger players.

Elections at AlvaladeThe Europa League loss to Rangers was devastating to Sporting. They lost a match they didn’t deserve to, in the last minute, and Paulo Sérgio left the club due to the insurmountable pressure. Now José Couceiro, the last of the Costinha-Sérgio-Couceiro triumvirate, is the one in charge of the team – but with the arrival of a new man he too is on his way out.

The Portugeezer wasn't expecting Sporting’s elections to resemble the US Presidential selection process – not only because of the debate held last Sunday, but because of the large number (six) of serious candidates jostling to put the club back where it belongs.

At the moment, two candidates look like front-runners: businessman Godinho Lopes and lawyer Dias Ferreira. Lopes promises €100M to clear long-term debts and invest in the team, while bringing back former football director Carlos Freitas and vice-president Luis Duque. Dias Ferreira, on the other hand, has already lined up former Porto and Atletico Madrid ace Paulo Futre as vice-president and sporting director – and Frank Rijkaard as manager.

Who will win? We’ll know on March 26. In the meantime, coach Couceiro continues at the helm of a team with nothing to play for but pride.