Portuguese title race

Gambler Pereira hits the jackpot

May 12, 2013
By Andy Brassell

"Vai Doer" ("It's Going To Hurt"), read O Jogo's headline on Saturday morning. It did indeed, but we had no idea just how much it would be the case. As Kelvin's stoppage-time winner for Porto rippled the net, Benfica coach Jorge Jesus slumped to his knees on the touchline. On the bench, Benfica's substitutes and substituted covered their mouths, eyes and foreheads as the horror sunk in.

Vitor Pereira's faith in Kelvin has paid dividends twice this season
GettyImagesVitor Pereira's faith in Kelvin has paid dividends twice this season

Jesus' opposite number, Vitor Pereira, was equally moved, with tears welling from his eyes. It was a similarly striking reaction from a coach who has transformed his public image in this campaign, moving from an uncertain perceived stopgap to a genuine leader. Here, he showed that true feeling lay beneath the bravado.

And what bravado. Pereira chased this game hard in the last twenty minutes. It was another jarring departure from convention, although an entirely necessary one given the situation. With the game heading for a draw, the title was all but Benfica's. The Eagles would retain their two-point lead going into the final weekend, with lowly Moreirense the visitors to the Estadio da Luz to provide cannon fodder for the coronation.

Throwing on Kelvin against Braga last month had been a punt by Pereira, but a winning one. The 19-year-old Brazilian - hardly prolific for Porto B this season - bagged a quickfire brace against the Arsenalistas to keep Porto in the title hunt, just. Here, Kelvin brought the house down with another majestic sweep of the left foot, smashing into the far corner in stoppage time to provide a Porto winner that sparked pandemonium in the stands at the Dragao.

Captain Lucho Gonzalez, who Kelvin replaced, came back onto the field in his tracksuit top to shepherd encroaching fans off the pitch, aided by the similarly replaced full-back Danilo.

The latter had ceded his place to Liedson in the closing minutes. The veteran Brazilian forward had the measure of Benfica in his day, hitting 11 in 17 encounters with the old enemy during a glorious spell with their neighbours Sporting. At 35, he had played less than an hour of Liga action since returning to Portugal in January. Yet he had his moment too, sending a smart ball inside Luisão to set Kelvin away for the winner. When Pereira charged onto the pitch to celebrate at the end, Liedson was the first he embraced.

Benfica were simply stunned. While English fans will speculate how the nature of this season-turning defeat might affect their state of mind against Chelsea in Wednesday's Europa League final (and Jesus admitted in his post-match assessment that it would "leave scars"), that is a question for Encarnados to leave for another day. Winning the domestic title and putting one over Porto had been, is, and always will be the priority.

Despite a forceful opening by Porto, that seemed on the cards for a great deal of Saturday night. Benfica were under pressure but never truly besieged, and when Lima swept home the opener after Ezequiel Garay helped on Eduardo Salvio's long throw, the scenario was one of considering sweet revenge. Just over two years ago, when Andre Villas-Boas and his merry men were in the business of crushing Benfica's spirit at every turn, Porto won the title with a win against their rivals at their own Estadio da Luz. If Benfica won at the Dragao, they would have done the same. Benfica had thrown their wet blanket on the celebrations that night by turning the sprinklers on and the lights off. One wonders what Porto may have had in store.

Once Silvestre Varela's cross had been turned into his own net by Maxi Pereira to level things up just six minutes later, it always seemed unlikely that we would find out. This was a game as excruciatingly tight as we had hoped, mirroring the sense from very early on in this campaign - and certainly since the first classico, a 2-2 January draw in Lisbon - that the battle would run all the way to the wire.

Such is the relentlessness of these two great rivals in recent seasons that it doesn't take a wobble to torpedo one team's hopes - a mere quiver will do. Both sides had entered this match unbeaten, but Porto's draws at Sporting and Maritimo in March had handed the initiative to Benfica; decisively, it seemed, as Jesus' team gathered momentum.

The post-match scenes suggested both sides have already handed the title to Porto
GettyImagesThe post-match scenes suggested both sides have already handed the title to Porto

Instead, it was an unexpected draw of Benfica's own that had changed the context of this match. They were held at the Luz by a game Estoril on Monday night, seeming uncharacteristically twitchy all of a sudden. If they had managed to win and maintain their four-point lead, this latest classico would have felt like 2010's version at the Dragao, in which Porto's 3-1 win denied Benfica the draw they needed to seal the title on the night, but merely delayed the inevitable.

Jesus' stylish side had been booted off the pitch by a riled and angry Porto on that Sunday night three years ago, but this Benfica side just felt different - mentally as well as technically strong, and they looked it for most of this game despite their recent heavy schedule.

Midfielder Enzo Perez had been a doubt up until the day before the game after going off with a thigh injury against Estoril, and he showed what a big miss he would have been throughout the opening half, snapping through tackles on Lucho and Porto's star turn Joao Moutinho. He was eventually fortunate to last the whole 90, along with a number of others including Nemanja Matic and Danilo. Referee Pedro Proenca was at his most circumspect.

This was a night for the unsung hero. With James Rodriguez a shadow of his best self - and missing a match-winning opportunity with five minutes to go - Varela emerged as Porto's man, the uncomplaining squad player who so often comes up with the goods at the right moments, just as he had for Portugal against Denmark in Euro 2012.

Porto coach Pereira, so often derided as Villas-Boas-lite in his opening campaign at the club, might reflect that goes for him too. He is no Mourinho in waiting, but his name will go down in history after this most dramatic of steals.