Benfica keep faint title hopes alive as Beavers maintain Euro push

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Sporting and Benfica locked horns for another intense derby, as table-toppers Porto were cooly awaiting the outcome of the match having already snuck in their own Round 20 match back on January 26.

For Sporting, with the league season effectively all but over, it was a question of pride. Beating their fierce rivals, who were on a nine-match winning streak in the league, would give the club and the fans a much-needed boost. For Benfica, it was a match they could ill afford to lose if they wanted to keep their faint title hopes alive.

The Eagles started the match on the front foot with a Nico Gaitán-led midfield dictating play and dominating the early exchanges.

Without Evaldo and Carriço, there were fears the weakened Sporting backline wouldn’t be able to handle Benfica’s attack, and such concerns were justified when in-form Salvio was quicker than Leandro Grimi to react from a Gaitán’s cross to score the first goal of the match.

The Eagles cruised throughout the first half until Sidnei picked up his second yellow card in the 44th minute, instantly guaranteeing an altogether different tone to the second half.

Jesus replaced Saviola with former Olhanense defender Jardel and, just like the Portuguese Cup match against FC Porto in which Benfica were also forced to finish the match with 10 men, they were able to completely shut out the Lions.

And as Sporting grew frustrated, the Eagles punished them once more. After Carlos Martins’ free-kick fell to Maxi Pereira on the right, the Uruguayan crossed to the far post where the on-rushing Gaitán connected with a volley that would deflect into the net off of Sporting’s Anderson Polga. Not the prettiest of goals, but Jesus certainly didn’t mind.

Paulo Sérgio still threw Carlos Saleiro and Diogo Salomão into the fray ina  desperate attempt to claw a way back into the match, but Benfica throttled them and prevented them from creating any serious goalscoring opportunities, eventually running out deserved winners.

Talking points

The major talking point after Benfica’s away success is whether or not they can still be crowned champions this season. The math is simple: if they can win their remaining 10 matches, they will need Porto to drop points in two or three matches.

However, considering the Dragons have only drawn twice this season and Benfica still have some tough matches ahead of them, the odds of that happening are rather small. Fábio Coentrão summed up their situation when he admitted that if there was a match he expected Porto to drop points that would be against the Minho Warriors. The leaders, however, won the match and, their grip on the title is getting tighter and tighter.

We all know that managers and players put a little spin when they talk to the media, whether it’s because they want to curb their enthusiasm or because they want to sugar-coat a slump in form.

However, to hear Sporting assistant coach Alberto Cabral claim that his side enjoyed periods of superiority, that his players worked very hard and that Benfica only got lucky is an insult to Sporting and their supporters.

A club that will always be one of the so-called ‘Big Three’ cannot accept a situation such as the one they’re in, trailing the leader by 23 points and having a big chance of extending their trophy-less run. Fortunately for them, the upcoming elections will be a perfect opportunity to make a small ‘revolution’ and extinguish the current losing mentality that has affected the team, especially over these past two seasons.

On a high

Benfica for all the obvious reasons. Beating their rivals away from home and reminding Porto  that “it ain’t over till it’s over” will give them a huge morale boost ahead of the upcoming league matches and their trip to Stuttgart for the second leg of their Champions League tie in two weeks time.

Meanwhile, Paços de Ferreira claimed yet another famous victory, this time at Braga, and are now lying in an amazing fifth place - a position that would give them the chance to take on all of Europe next season, should they maintain it. The Beavers haven’t lost yet this year and the team is playing an attractive brand of football under manager Rui Vitória.

On a downer

Braga continued their poor form at the moment and have now a serious fight in hands for a European berth. Against Paços de Ferreira, Braga were outclassed and ended up slumping to a second consecutive home loss. After watching them conquer Sevilla earlier, who could have imagined they’d be struggling so much? They are currently in seventh place and will host Benfica in two weeks time.

Round 20 Results Thu Feb 18 União Leiria 0-1 Vitória Guimarães Fri Feb 19 Portimoinense 1-1 Olhanense Sat Feb 20 Braga 1-2 Paços Ferreira, Marítimo 1-0 Beira-Mar, Académica 0-1 Rio Ave, Vitória Setúbal 1-1 Naval Mon Feb 21 Sporting 0-2 Benfica.