And so the penultimate round of games in the Liga NOS 2015-16 campaign arrived this weekend. There was much to play for in the title race but also at the wrong end of the table, with a number of sides realistically facing life in Liga 2 next season.
Sporting got the title pendulum off to a start in the nation’s capital on Saturday night, with Setúbal visiting the Alvalade and hoping to put some daylight between themselves and the relegation zone. Benfica, meanwhile, travelled to Madeira to take on Marítimo. The game looked to be in doubt due to adverse weather on Saturday morning, but did eventually get the all clear.
Rio Ave 1-3 Porto
Porto’s final away game of the season saw them playing for pride, third place already sewn up. They travelled to Vila do Conde to take on a Rio Ave side who were playing for the opportunity to secure Europa League football for next season. It’s been an extremely impressive season for Pedro Martins’ side whilst many Portistas will look back at this campaign and wonder what might have been.
The hosts got off to the perfect start and struck the first blow as early as the 5th minute. Hélder Postiga, who had two spells with Porto and is now back with his home town club, fired home his 4th goal in just 12 games. Having been fed by Wakaso, the Selecção striker was given space by the Porto defence and he unleashed a long range drive from about 30 yards out. Helton, in goal in place of Iker Casillas, was well beaten and Rio Ave lead 1-0.
Porto were given a lifeline to draw level on 19 minutes when referee, Bruno Paixão, adjudged that Edimar had brought down André Silva in the box. It stunned the majority of the Estádio dos Arcos crowd into silence and on loan Watford man, Miguel Layún, stepped up to fire a high drive with power past Cássio for his 5th of the season. 1-1 and all to play for.
Both sides traded chances for the remainder of the first half. Wakaso fired a long range effort high and wide on 25 minutes and then Porto hit back 13 minutes later when 23-year-old, Sérgio Oliveira, received a cut back inside from Maxi Pereria on the right. He had time to pick his spot and fired a low drive towards the near post. Cássio was equal to it and got his body behind the shot to keep the score at 1-1. Hélder Postiga then again shot from outside the box 6 minutes before the break. His shot had power behind it but was high and wide so as not to trouble Helton.
Following the break, Porto began to take the initiative and the first real action saw Wakaso bring down an advancing Maxi Pereira outside the Rio Ave box. Yacine Brahimi then stepped up to take the resulting free-kick which he curled around the wall but ultimately just wide of the post as Cássio scrambled across his goal and breathed a sigh of relief.
Two minutes later, a short corner found Sérgio Oliveira in space. The former Paços de Ferreira man took a touch and then unleashed another long range effort. It had power and was on target for a spectacular goal until Cássio, by now certainly being made to work for his salary, managed to arch his body and tip it spectacularly over the bar. But again it was a sign that Porto were beginning to turn the screw on their hosts and were not going to close out this season without a fight.
On 57 minutes Porto finally found a way through Cássio to take the lead. A superb corner was whipped in with pace from the left by Layún. It was headed clear only as far as Sérgio Oliveira on the edge of the box. Again he had time to control the ball before unleashing a fierce strike which Cássio could only manage to get a hand to on its way into the back of the net. 1-2 to Porto.
Just after the hour Maxi Pereira went close for Porto. Good work on the left by Brahimi saw the ball find its way to the Uruguayan full-back via a wicked deflection. However, the former Benfica man was unable to get any real power behind his shot and it was deflected behind by Edimar. And on 87 minutes, Pereira was again involved as Porto sealed the points. His probing ball over the top found Silvestre Varela who got in between two Rio Ave defenders. He then angled a low shot across goal and Cássio could only watch as the ball trickled inside the far post for 1-3.
And so Porto now sit on 70 points, 13 behind Sporting in 2nd place. Os Dragões finish their season with a city derby at home to Boavista next weekend but, given many were tipping this squad for a title this season, the campaign can only be seen as a slight disappointment. One thing is for sure, Pinto da Costa will set about a rebuilding programme this summer - expect big things from Porto next season. As for Rio Ave, they travel to Madeira to take on União next week. A win could see them finish as high as 6th and Europa League football. That would surely be considered a complete success for this club.
Sporting 5-0 Setúbal
With Benfica not playing until Sunday night, it was up to Sporting to lay down the marker and seize the opportunity to top the Liga NOS for 24 hours at least. Jorge Jesus’ side were in confident mood and went into this game having won their last 7 league games, the last defeat coming against Benfica on 5th March. Quim Machado’s Setúbal side, on the other hand, came into this game having lost 8 of their previous 9 games and without a win since beating fellow strugglers Académica 2-1 way back on 22nd January!
It was Sporting who started quickest out of the blocks and they started the game as they meant to go on. Within the first 2 minutes, Teo Gutiérrez put over a deep cross from the right-hand side and it found Bruno César, playing at left-back for the evening in place of Marvin Zeegelaar, in space. The Brazilian hit the volley sweetly but could only watch as Ricardo dived low to his right to palm the shot around the post.
Islam Slimani then tested Ricardo on two occasions - the first with a low drive on 4 minutes before an audacious chip from the edge of the box on 18 minutes was palmed over the bar. The Algerian had found space as the Setúbal defence looked on. It would have been a superb goal but Ricardo was proving the lone resistance in maintaining the status quo.
After Sebastian Coates had seen a header cleared off the line by Ruca, Sporting finally broke the stubborn Setúbal rearguard on 25 minutes. A neat through ball from Bryan Ruiz carved open the Setúbal defence and found Gelson Martins who picked his spot and executed a beautifully weighted chip over the top of the diving Ricardo. Cue the celebrations as the healthy crowd of over 40,000 erupted.
Sporting then doubled their lead on 37 minutes, a through ball again the undoing of Setúbal’s defence. This time it was William Carvalho who provided the weighted pass. This was latched onto by Teo who had time and space to pick his spot. The Colombian fired low and with power to beat Ricardo at his near post and make it 2-0.
Slimani did manage the carve his way through the Setúbal defence again just before the break, but Ricardo was equal to the challenge and got down well to save the Algerian’s low shot. It was clear at half-time that it would be a case of “how many” for Sporting as the visitors looked to have no answer for their hosts.
Sporting picked up where they left off in the second half. Bruno César sent a searching ball over the top of the Setúbal defence and found Teo in an advance position. With only Dani covering the Sporting striker, Teo had time to pick his spot. Unfortunately, he needed a little too much time and tried to place the shot inside the near post. Dani managed to smother it enough and sent it wide to prevent further damage.
Os Leões did eventually add to their lead on 55 minutes when Gelson Martins grabbed a brace. Persistence by Bryan Ruiz gave him the chance to feed a ball out to the left for Martins who picked his spot and fired in off the post. 3-0 to Sporting and with not even an hour on the clock.
Adrien Silva was brought down and then went close from a free-kick on 69 minutes. However he was foiled by the impressive Ricardo who parried the shot away to safety. And a minute later the visitors were reduced to ten men when Vasco Costa saw red for a second yellow card, bringing down substitute Marvin Zeegelaar. The resulting free-kick by Bruno César was chipped in towards the penalty spot where Bryan Ruiz was unmarked. The Costa Rican hit the ball sweetly on the volley to make it 4-0.
Hernán Barcos, on as a sub for Gelson Martins, then tested Ricardo with a low drive from the edge of the box before Bryan Ruiz grabbed his second in stoppage time. The on loan Fulham man struck a free-kick from around 25 yards which pierced the five-man Setúbal wall and found its way into the near post to complete the rout - 5-0.
And so Sporting moved back to the table for 24 hours, eagerly awaiting events in Funchal on Sunday night. Setúbal, on the other hand, find themselves in real trouble. Just 2 points clear of the drop zone, following Tondela’s magnificent 4-1 defeat of Paços de Ferreira on Friday night. Ironically, it’s that club Setúbal visit in the final round next week, while Tondela take on the relegated Académica. The free fall can be traced back to Suk’s departure for Porto in January and it’s a deal in which it’s hard to see who had benefitted, if anyone. Quim Machado’s side need a win next week to have any guarantee of playing Liga NOS football again next season.
Marítimo 0-2 Benfica
After receiving the all clear for this game to be played, Benfica travelled to Madeira to face Marítimo knowing that a win would put them 2 points clear of Sporting at the top. Nico Gaitán missed out on the trip due to injury and his place was taken by Moroccan international, Mehdi Carcela. Marítimo secured their top-flight status a couple of weeks back and could play without hindrance against the Lisbon giants.
The first real chance of the game came in the 11th minute when Carcela broke down the left and was brought down Dirceu. Pizzi's free kick was floated into the box and found the head of Greek striker, Kostas Mitroglou. However, the man on loan from Fulham in England could only direct his header down into the turf under a challenge from Dirceu, and ultimately into the arms of Romain Salin.
Two minutes later, Benfica were again back on the attack. This time a corner was swung in from the left by Pizzi. It was met by the head of Jonas but his goalwards header was comfortably dealt with just ahead of the line by Patrick Vieira on the near post. And on 20 minutes the home side's goal was again under threat, this time from one of their own. A throw in from the left by Eliseu was flicked on at the near post by Jardel, skippering Benfica. It then landed in the 6 yard box and centre-half, Dirceu, got enough on it to turn it over his own bar. It could have been embarrassing for the Marítimo defender but Benfica could still not find a way through the stubborn resistance.
The first time Ederson was really troubled in the Benfica goal came on 26 minutes when some fine work by Donald Djoussé on the left saw him find a way through three Benfica players before cutting into the box. Ultimately, his low shot was fired across goal but had the Brazilian stopper scrambling to get down and see it wide. It was a warning shot across the Benfica bows that they wouldn't have it all their own way.
Just before the half hour mark, Jonas produced a bit of magic that deserved so much more than the end result. Having taken delivery of the ball halfway into the Marítimo half and towards the left-hand touchline, the Brazilian then rode a challenge and cut inside along the edge of the box before unleashing a curling shot. The effort hit the upright as Salin could only watch on, well beaten. It would surely have been a contender for goal of the season had it found the target. The subsequent clearance was put back into the box and ended up finding its way to Carcela on the left. He cut inside and shot low towards the far post but it was blocked by Brazilian centre-half, Maurício.
Just after the half hour, Pizzi broke down the left-hand side and managed to deliver a sublime cross towards the near post. There he found Jonas who connected superbly with a powerful downward header. Unfortunately for the Brazilian, Salin was equal to it again and managed to get down and palm it away to safety. But just moments later, it started to unravel for Benfica. Renato Sanches, in recent weeks linked with a big money move to Manchester United, saw a second yellow for a cynical trip on Djoussé. As always, two yellows equals red and Sanches was left to rue the first yellow he'd received from referee, Fabio Veríssimo, some 10 minutes previously when he was adjudged to have dived in the box.
After the break, Benfica did finally manage to break the stubborn Madeiran resistance. Kostas Mitroglou combined well on the edge of the box with Jonas. His initial shot was charged down but he then received the ball again inadvertently off the foot of Alex Soares. With time and space to pick his spot, the Greek international fired home past Salin and the Estádio dos Barreiros erupted with a huge away support. It was Mitroglou's 22nd goal of the season in all competitions and Benfiquistas will surely be hoping the club can meet Fulham's asking price to make the move permanent.
There was a long hold up in play on 54 minutes when a Pizzi corner was delivered from the left. Jardel attacked the ball from behind Maurício and accidentally connected with the head of the Marítimo defender, knocking him out cold. With Salin and other signalling to the bench that urgent assistance was required, medical teams from both clubs tended to the stricken centre-back before an ambulance was brought onto the pitch to take him to hospital. One can only hope there will be no long-term damage and that Maurício makes a swift return to action.
On 69 minutes Salin produced a superb double save to frustrate the Benfica forward line. A long range drive by Jonas was parried by the Frenchman but only into the path of the on-rushing Pizzi. He, in turn, fired low at Salin and the ball was subsequently cleared away to safety. And, at the other end, it looked briefly as if his efforts hadn't been in vain. A corner from the right was swung in by Edgar Costa. It was met by the head of Deyvison and guided into the path of Djoussé at the far post. He made an attempt to connect with the ball as it bounced into the net, however the Cameroonian was a good 2-3 yards offside and the goal was correctly chalked off.
With Marítimo looking out of ideas and deflated by the ruled out equaliser, it was perhaps inevitable that Benfica would go on to seal the points. On 82 minutes, they did exactly that when Pizzi was brought down around 25 yards from goal. Up stepped substitute, Talisca, and the Brazilian fired home one of his trademark free kicks by bending the ball around and over the wall and into Salin's near post. 0-2 the score and Benfica were heading back to the top of the table with one game to play.
There was still time for one last piece of drama. With a minute of normal time remaining, Marítimo were reduced to ten men when Fransérgio saw his second yellow in 6 minutes. This time, it was for a late foul on Samaris. With the ball long gone, the Greek midfielder was sent tumbling to the turf and Veríssimo was quick to take action.
So another win for Benfica. The last time they lost a Liga NOS game was on 12th February against Porto. It's been some ride for the Lisbon giants since then and Rui Vitória is rightly earning a lot of credit for the way the season has panned out. It now leaves Benfica with just Nacional to play, at home, next weekend. Sporting will travel to Braga and will look to keep up the pressure. A win for Benfica will seal the title, regardless of what happens in Braga. A draw for Benfica and a win for Sporting would mean Sporting take the title by virtue of the head-to-head record. It promises to be a truly entertaining final weekend with lots of twists and turns no doubt. Let battle commence!
It's been another intriguing weekend at the bottom end of the table too. Aside from Setúbal's defeat to Sporting, Tondela produced yet another superb performance on Friday night with a 1-4 mauling of Paços de Ferreira. It means that the side who were written off just a month or so ago are now just two points behind both União (who lost at Boavista on Sunday) and Setúbal. Petit's side will face Académica, who were relegated this weekend despite a brave 0-0 draw against 4th placed Braga. So all to play for and it's a brave person who bets against Auriverdes to produce the "impossible".
Paços de Ferreira 1-4 Tondela
Académica 0-0 Braga
Boavista 1-0 União Madeira
Nacional 2-2 Belenenses
Vitória Guimarães 4-1 Moreirense
Estoril - Arouca - Monday
by Paul Gellard