Reigning champions Benfica hold top spot in Portuguese title race

With seven games to go, the Portuguese Primeira Liga looks like going all the way to the wire.

Champions Benfica, in search of a third title in three seasons, are the slight favourites as their slugfest with city rivals Sporting Lisbon continues apace.

But with plenty of points still to play for, their two-horse race could yet become a three-way, as Porto lurk in third waiting to pounce on any slips.

Yes, the Portuguese football season has been as spicy and tasty as a steaming plate of piri piri chicken.

 

At its heart has been the controversial move of Benfica’s legendary manager Jorge Jesus, who lead them to three titles and ten major trophies in his six-year tenure, to Sporting Lisbon over the summer.

The move rocked The Eagles and galvanised the ambitious Verde-e-Brancos – who under the guidance of Jesus have taken the fight to their more illustrious city rivals in impressive fashion.

Replacing a club legend is never straightforward. Carrying on his success rarely wins much in the way of credit. Well, not in the short-term anyway. Failure brings unflattering comparison and can often be career defining.

But for Rui Vitória, Jesus’s replacement at the Estádio da Luz, the prospect was made immeasurably more difficult given that he had to face his beloved predecessor in the battle for honours.

So one can only imagine Vitória’s discomfort in late October when Benfica and Sporting met for the first time in the league since Jesus’s departure – and saw the visitors thump his side 3-0 in their own back yard!

To his credit, however, the former Benfica player steadied the ship and his team has traded blow for blow with their neighbours in this ding-dong title fight.

And if he felt discomfort back in October, his pleasure and relief at the start of March must have been off the scale when Benfica went to  the Estádio José Alvalade and inflicted only Sporting’s second defeat of the season, reclaiming top spot to boot.

If Sporting do ultimately come up short, it’ll probably come down to the number of games they have drawn (five to Benfica’s one, so far) rather than defeats (two to Benfica’s four) and the fact that they have been ultimately outgunned.

After 26 games, Benfica have scored 71 goals, 15 more than Jesus’s men, while both sides have comparable defensive stats.

 

Benfica’s prowess in front of goal has helped turn draws and possible defeats into vital wins and owes much to one of Jesus’s cannier signings at his former club – the Brazilian striker Jonas.

The 31-year-old signed for Benfica from Valencia in September 2014 and went on to become the Portuguese League Player of the Year, scoring 31 goals in all competitions.

This season, it’s been more of the same, with Jonas netting 29 times in 27 league fixtures.  The Brazilian has been ably abetted by a familiar name to Fulham fans – Konstantinos Mitroglou.

With 15 goals in 26 games, the Greek striker appears to have regained form and fitness, looking much more like the player the West London side thought they were buying from Olympiakos a couple of years ago.

Vitória must also take great satisfaction that his team have responded so well to the challenge posed by Sporting in a season where they have also faced and met the demands of the Champions League.

Comfortable qualification from their group behind Atletico Madrid was followed by a hard-fought victory Andre Villas-Boas’s Zenit St Petersburg in the round of 16. (How that must have brought smiles to the faces of Benfica fans – putting one over on the former Porto manager!)

Victory over the Russian champions saw The Eagles make the last eight of the competition for the first time since 2012.

Last Friday’s quarter final draw wasn’t overly kind, however. Benfica will need to overcome Bayern Munich to progress.

But Benfica staff and fans will recognise that being massive underdogs gives them something of a free hit in a competition they could never realistically expect to win.

And while Vitória will plan for an upset, he will also look to ensure that his side aren’t distracted from securing the club’s bread and butter.

Author Details

Paul Little

Freelance football columnist. European Football with the Irish Daily Star. Hold the Back Page podcast regular. Family and Renaissance Man. Dublin born, Wicklow resident.

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