Whatever the Portuguese equivalent of the Sky Sports hype-machine is would have a hard time selling this one. Imagine a dramatic piece of classical music and a deep voice theatrically explaining “Remember when these teams used to be really good? Well, you have to pretty old, but take my word for it – they were – and now they meet again – in the race for 2nd place. Although it’s only a race in name because to be honest Benfica are miles ahead.” It may be Lisbon’s two giants going toe to toe, but with not a huge amount at stake it’s going to take some serious misogyny from a presenter and pundit to get the world paying a whole load of attention.
Under the guidance of the man lazily referred to as the Special One Part II, Porto are in the middle of a carefree romp to the Portuguese title. Andre Villas Boas has only been in charge of the Dragons for a few months, but already the 33 year old has turned them into a winning machine reminiscent of the Mourinho era – only playing better football and not throwing themselves on the ground every time someone sneezes in their general direction. As such Benfica are in second place desperately trying to grasp at their coat-tails. And they’d want to be pretty long coat-tails because with a third of the season remaining, the gap is 11 points, albeit with tonight being a game in hand.
Even a glimpse of coat-tail would be encouraging for Sporting Lisbon because right now they find themselves in third position, 23 points behind the leaders and – maths whizzes will have already worked this one out – 12 points behind their city neighbours. In fact, there’s less distance between themselves and the relegation zone than there is between them and the summit. Having racked up the league titles in the 1940s and 50s, Sporting undoubtedly have the silverware to be considered one of Portugal’s Big 3, but in recent years they’ve been the least successful of the leading pack. To use a Destiny’s Child analogy, they’d be the Michelle Williams to the phenomenal success of Beyonce and the more modest yet still occasional success of Kelly Rowland. The ‘Liverpool of Portugal’ is a little harsh, but probably only for the Merseysiders. They’re not yet listing ‘finding Cristiano Ronaldo’ as one of the club’s honours, but if this drought continues much longer, it’ll probably become more and more likely.
Benfica are no strangers to suckling on the teat of their former glories, but they’ve been doing it a little less of late. They took advantage of some rebuilding at Porto and the consistent inconsistency at Sporting to claim last year’s Portuguese Liga. It was popular victory, because largely due to the fact they were the side winning in the early stages of TV and they had Eusebio, Benfica are Portugal’s club. They ended Real Madrid’s early dominance of the European Cup with victory in 1961 and 1962 and before the decade was out had reached a further 3 deciders – losing all of them. Without wanting to label the entire Portuguese working class as glory-hunters, it’s this success that is largely responsible for giving Benfica the lofty place in the hearts of the nation that both Sporting and Porto are unlikely to ever match.
Were it not for Porto marching to the title, it wouldn’t be the considered the worst of seasons, but the fact they let David Luiz’s fantastic hair leave for Stamford Bridge mid-season probably tells you all you need to know about how they rate their chances of defending their crown. Combined with losing Angel Di Maria to the financial binge at Real Madrid, they were always up against it. They did manage to hold on to the highly rated Fabio Coentrao and penalty specialist Óscar Cardozo, but it’s unlikely they’ll both be back next season. It’s mainly pride up for grabs tonight and even that horse may have bolted for Sporting.
Sporting Lisbon v Benfica kicks off at 8.15pm tonight and you can watch live streaming of Portugal’s biggest game on paddypower.com