Sporting revival set for acid test v Benfica

Sporting have produced such an impressive run of wins under new coach Domingos Paciencia this season that victory against undefeated rivals Benfica in the Lisbon derby on Saturday would raise the hopes of their long-suffering fans that the club could challenge for their first league title in a decade.

One of Portugal's 'Big Three' - alongside neighbours Benfica and the domineering Porto - Sporting have been disappointing in recent years, failing to lift the title since 2002 and missing out by a mile in the last two seasons, when they finished 28 and 36 points adrift of the champions.

A new club president arrived earlier this year and hired 42-year-old Domingos, who had guided unfancied Braga to second place in the domestic league and the Europa League final.

The young coach made wholesale changes to Sporting's ageing squad but his team made a slow start with two draws and a defeat in their first three league games.

In their fourth game they were 2-0 down at Pacos de Ferreira with 20 minutes to go but recovered to win 3-2 and have not looked back since with seven straight wins leaving them just a point behind joint leaders Porto and Benfica.


"I now see a young, ambitious team in front of me and that's something that has helped me wake up happier in the morning," Domingos has told reporters.

Beating Benfica could put Sporting top if champions Porto, who are going through an erratic spell under coach Vitor Pereira, fail to beat Braga.

"If we win, we will become the main candidate for the title this season," Eduardo Barroso, president of Sporting's General Assembly told Portuguese Radio Renascenca.

But Benfica will give Domingos's side their sternest test yet.

Jorge Jesus's team have also regrouped after a poor season and come into the derby after a memorable 2-2 draw at Manchester United on Tuesday that earned them a berth in the knockout phase of the Champions' League.


Domingos has built a side whose strong midfield and clinical attack earned a smooth qualification from Europa League Group D including a win over Lazio.

"I'm getting to know these players better and better and feel that the group is increasingly knit together and happy," said Domingos.

Dutch striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel, nicknamed 'Iceman' for his coolness in front of goal, arrived from Utrecht in the close-season and is Sporting's top scorer with 11 goals.

His compatriot Stijn Schaars - an international bought from AZ Alkmaar - has acted as the playmaker, gelling well with Brazil's Elias and combative Argentine Rinaudo, while speedy Spaniard Diego Capel has impressed on the wings.

Their only flaw is a sometimes static defence, with centre-backs Anderson Polga and U.S. international Oguchialu Onyewu providing height and strength but struggling at times against pacier forwards.