Porto and Benfica prepare for November title decider

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The omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent former coach of Porto Jose Mourinho called the match ‘title decider’. Current manager Andre Villas-Boas nixed the idea. Pundits argue both ways, as pundits invariably do. So, let’s clarify one thing: can the match between FC Porto and Benfica at Estadio do Dragao on Sunday decide the title? Yes. Definitely.

The Dragons have enjoyed an almost flawless campaign and sit top of the table with a comfortable seven-point lead over the Eagles. Braga, despite their good season, are finding it hard to cope with their domestic and continental duties, while Sporting are being their usual ‘We’ll fight until maths defeats us’ selves. The only team with a real shot – however faint – at preventing Porto from winning the title this season is Benfica.

Away success would cut the gap to just four points and reopen the title race. A home victory would see 10 points separating the two sides. It would be foolish to think a seasoned team like Porto would throw that away, right?

Odds don’t favour the Eagles. First of all, they usually endure a tough time when visiting their arch-rivals.

Secondly, back in August when Benfica’s hype machine was firing on all cylinders, the Portugeezer witnessed a team being completely torn apart in the Portuguese Superleague; Porto not only gave them a free football lesson but also gained a psychological edge early in the season.

Additionally, Benfica have experienced troubles beating even small teams away. People may talk about how Benfica almost battered Lyon, but they forget that in France, they actually didn’t fire a single shot on target. Truth is, if Benfica’s key men are put on a leash, strikers Alan Kardec and Javier Saviola will be busy trying to find a way out of the deep pockets of Porto defenders Rolando and Maicon (not that one).

There are three potential battles worth following that may prove crucial in tilting the scales one way or another...

Hulk v Fábio Coentrao

The Brazilian forward has been, well, incredible (pun very much intended) this season and already claimed the Player of the Month award in September and October. He’s bagged eight goals in the league and looks menacing every time he touches the ball.

But if there is an opponent in Portugal capable of stopping Hulk it is the mercurial Coentrao, who has been Benfica’s main man so far. Coach Jorge Jesus may play Coentrao as either a full-back or a midfielder, but no doubt he’ll be on Hulk’s toes throughout the match.

Varela v Maxi Pereira

If Hulk was the only source of headaches for Jesus’ pupils, Benfica could come up with a plan to frustrate him via double teaming or rougher physical play. Things get worse, though, when both Porto wingers can be equally lethal.

After missing out on the World Cup through injury, Varela has regained the form that catapulted him into the national team in the first place, and at Aveiro he tormented Benfica’s defence. Maxi, while not a top-notch defender, has tremendous work rate and heart, and cannot afford to let his guard down for a second if he wants to keep the Eagles in the game.

Moutinho-Fernando v Garcia-Martins

Joao Moutinho, as expected, has been a revelation this year. The pint-sized midfielder works his socks off like a tireless, unselfish little ant and his understanding with Fernando is very good. The Dragons’ midfield has been working well and that is because it is able to function as both a first line of defence and a catalyst to their firepower.

Javi Garcia and Carlos Martins will play an important role in dictating play and countering Porto. The Spaniard, if nothing else, has the build to overpower Moutinho, and Martins, who recorded a full house of all four assists against Lyon, will hope he can link up with the attack in a similar fashion here.

After all, with no wingers at their disposal, Benfica will need their playmakers (presumably Martins and Aimar) to be at their creative best.

One to watch: Alan Kardec

Paraguayan hitman Oscar Cardozo has been sidelined with a knee injury and despite a large number of forwards in the team, Kardec is the only one who looks to have genuine quality to actually score. The young forward was on target against Lyon and he’ll be his team’s main reference upfront, but it may still be too early to expect a ‘Man of the Match’ performance from him.

The Portugeezer’s prediction: Porto 2-0 Benfica

Few would bet against Porto at this point. They have been playing so well and with so much confidence that it is hard to see anyone beating them.

If Benfica want to get something away from this match, they’ll need to be at their best and that means better than they were at Lyon. Roberto cannot flop like he did and the backline has to remain watertight and the midfield aggressive – otherwise they could be in for a very long night.

Expect Benfica to struggle to feed Saviola and Kardec before eventually succumbing to Porto’s offensive weapons.

Likely line-ups:

PORTO Hélton; Sapunaru, Maicon, Rolando, Álvaro Pereira; Fernando, Moutinho, Belluschi; Varela, Hulk, Falcão

BENFICA Roberto; Maxi Pereira, Luisao, David Luiz, Coentrão; Javi Garcia, Aimar, Carlos Martins, César Peixoto; Saviola, Kardec.