Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Bittersweet triumph for Porto
Cliches become cliches because there's a real ring of truth to them and sure enough, there are still no easy derbies. Porto and Benfica may not be neighbours geographically, but they have rubbed shoulders at the top of Portuguese football for decades now, and the enmity between the two has grown exponentially to take on an authentic spice.
This season has seen a sharp inversion in the recent order of things. Benfica have won the title just once since 1994, a period in which Porto have collected the bauble 11 times, and in each one of the last four years. But the arrival of coach Jorge Jesus has heralded the birth of a side that has thrilled Portugal in a way unlike any side in recent memory. Going into Sunday's clash at the Dragao, the Eagles had won 23 out of 28 league games this season and blasted in 75 goals in the process, leaving them needing a mere point at the home of their rivals to confirm their coronation.
What followed was not the anticipated party for Benfica and accompanying humiliation for the hosts, but instead an astonishing display of defiance. Jesualdo Ferreira's men were without suspended top scorer Radamel Falcao, one of their season's few success stories, and they won the hard way. Fucile was controversially dismissed for a second booking in the early stages of the second half, having been harshly judged to have taken a dive in the penalty area under challenge from Fabio Coentrao. Jesualdo was also sent off, for the second week in a row, for sarcastic comments made to the fourth official following the decision.
Porto led at the time via captain Bruno Alves and when Luisao equalised shortly after, it looked like Benfica had weathered the Dragao storm, but an aggressive home side came back to firstly retake the lead then feverishly defend it in a fractious and often ill-tempered match.
It was fitting in Porto's not-quite season that the decisive goals in the 3-1 victory were scored by Ernesto Farias and Fernando Belluschi. The former would be playing his football in Brazil by now if Cruzeiro's Kleber hadn't had a last-minute change of heart on a January swap deal, while the latter has largely flattered to deceive as Lucho's replacement. Belluschi's spectacular drive over Quim for the clinching third gave another teasing soupcon of his true ability.
The real elephant in the room, and the source of much of the tension, was not the top-of-the-table situation, but the chaos that ensued after the final whistle the last time the two sides met, in Lisbon a few days before Christmas. A tunnel disturbance after Benfica's 1-0 win saw Porto's Hulk and Cristian Sapunaru caught on camera brawling with home stewards. The two players were suspended pending an investigation, and cynics suggested Benfica should get a few extra league championship medals pressed for the stewards.
When judgement was finally passed on February 20th, the league's disciplinary board suspended Hulk for four months and Sapunaru for six, but extraordinarily, the appeal in late March saw the FPF's (Portuguese Football Federation) justice council reduce the bans to three and four games respectively. By this time Hulk had missed a whopping 17 domestic matches and Sapunaru was packed off on loan to Rapid Bucharest while the affair blew over. Porto are currently seeking compensation from the league.
Besides the handicap in personnel, the affair drained and stymied the club. The difference that Hulk particularly might have made playing-wise is mere conjecture, but put in blunt statistical terms, Porto have won all six league games since his return, scoring an average of three goals per game. Hulk certainly epitomised Porto's tigerish resolve in this one. Benfica have played wonderfully fluid football for much of the season, but allowed themselves to be dragged into a scrap that they couldn't control.
Unfortunately for Porto the win counted for little in material terms, as an hour down the A1 motorway in Braga, Albert Meyong was taking advantage of goalkeeper Coelho's howler to give his side a 1-0 win over Pacos de Ferreira and guarantee the Arsenalistas a Champions League qualifying round spot.
Portugal's loss of the third Champions League place from last season onwards means Porto will lose their proud record - jointly held with Manchester United - for the most group stage qualifications. Ironically, the first team to have their third-place finish downgraded to a Europa League spot in 2008/09 had been Benfica.
It is inconceivable that Benfica will fail to take the point at home to Rio Ave on the final day to make them champions, but whether their undeniably impressive campaign heralds a new and more competitive era for Portuguese football - and these things are comparative in a nation where only twice have teams outside the big three Benfica, Porto and Sporting won the title - is open to question. The swagger of their ascent has not gone unnoticed across Europe, thanks mainly to virtuoso performances such as the 5-0 demolition of Everton and the dramatic win at French champions-elect Marseille.
Jesus faces a summer of uncertainty as he tries to hold on to his stars. Ideally, Benfica would make one big sale to finance holding onto the rest and having a decent crack at the Champions League, which is a possibility with Manchester City still sniffing around feted winger Angel Di Maria. But while the Argentinian pair of Javier Saviola and Pablo Aimar may be enjoying an Indian summer at the Luz, the likes of Oscar Cardozo and David Luiz are attracting serious interest from the continent's good and great.
They could probably do with a tip or two from Porto on how to ride out the consequences of success. It's a problem that the northern club know well, having sanctioned over €200m-worth of player sales since the Champions League win of 2004. Until this season, Jesualdo has always managed to replenish his dressing room effectively, as the trophy cabinet testifies. Benfica have not been renowned as efficient wheeler-dealers in recent years, but may have to learn quickly if this glorious season isn't to prove a short and sweet break from a depressing norm.