O Clássico – Battle of the big guns

Porto FansIt couldn’t have been scripted better. All season long in Portugal’s Primeira Liga, Benfica and Porto have been clear at the top. Neither side have been beaten, and neither have let up, leaving surprise package Paços de Ferreira trailing in their wake. Now in the penultimate round of games, they go head to head.

When the Lisbon side took on sixth place Estoril on Monday night knowing a win would restore their 4 point lead over their northern rivals, they finally blinked.

In the end, they couldn’t overturn Jefferson’s opener. 1-1 it finished. giving fresh life to the battle at the top. On Saturday night, they travel to the dragon’s den for a clássico that will define the domestic season. Win and Benfica will be crowned champions; lose and they’ll surrender control of their destiny.

The stakes could not be higher for Jorge Jésus’s side. On Wednesday, they’ll take on Chelsea in the Europa League final. Ten days later, they’ll duke it out with Guimarães in the final of the Portuguese Cup. Navigate the coming fortnight, and they’ll emulate André Villas-Boas’ treble winning campaign of 2011. But after a hard-fought campaign, they could end up with nothing.

All or nothing. Jésus has endured his ups and downs in his four years at the helm. For better or worse, he’s been defined by his stunning first season, when a free-wheeling, attacking Benfica side ran riot to claim their first league crown in five seasons.

The problem is that they’ve never quite scaled the same heights. A year later, they had to endure the triple coronation of Porto. They even missed the boat on an all-Portuguese Europa League final in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium, falling to SC Braga in the semi-finals.

That first season left him with enough credit in the bank to continue, and they excelled for three quarters of last season. Having dumped Manchester United out in the group stages, they gave Chelsea an almighty scare before bowing out in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. But then fatigue caught up, leaving Porto to steal a march on the home stretch.

His opposite number, Vítor Pereira, is also no stranger to the vagaries of fate. Number two to Villas-Boas, his elevation owed more to circumstance than design. The timing of Villas-Boas departure caught the club hierarchy by surprise. Domingos Paciência would been their first choice but after quitting Braga, he’d already taken charge at Sporting.

The president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa opted for continuity. But Pereira endured a testing start to the campaign. Despite holding on to all but Radamel Falcao from the treble side, they flopped in the Champions League. With Domingos Paciência available again, Pinto da Costa’s patience was wearing thin.

Their subsequent title defence sparked a change of heart.

Both sides entered the season depleted following the summer transfer market. For Porto, that meant losing Hulk, the driving force behind recent successes. This is a fact of life in Portuguese football, and one against which Porto have repeatedly proven adept at insuring themselves.

His replacement was already waiting there, in the wings. The Colombian James Rodríguez had steadily assumed greater responsibility in the side last term. This season he’s not been found wanting in the Brazilian’s absence, chipping in with 10 league goals.

Matters proved tougher for Benfica. Having already lost Javi García to Manchester City, Zenit St Petersburg came in with an 11th hour bid to meet Axel Witsel’s buyout clause. With the Portuguese transfer window already shut, they were in no position to reinforce.

But Jésus has adapted. Without those two guarding the defence, the task has fallen to Nemanja Matic and Enzo Pérez; the latter of whom is expected to return from injury this weekend. The step-up proved too great in the Champions League, where they finished behind Barcelona and Celtic in their group.

But domestically, having played with a solitary striker in recent times, we’ve seen a return to a more attacking style by necessity. Oscar Cardozo, the beanpole Paraguayan, had continued to bang in the goals. Alongside him, the Brazilian Lima has been in scintillating form in their 4-4-2.

Porto’s template remains 4-3-3. With James injured in their previous encounter in January, a thrilling 2-2 draw, Pereira opted to play Steven Defour in a spoiling role on the right.

The Belgian has failed to nail down a consistent starting place, so expect to see a midfield three here with Fernando at the base. Lucho González will pull the strings alongside a standout performer from last summer’s European Championships, João Moutinho.

Alex Sandro has been passed fit at left back and his work down the left flank with Silvestre Varela ensures a busy evening for Benfica’s right-back Lorenzo Malgarejo. Nicolás Gaitán, Benfica’s main creative outlet, has to keep his defensive discipline to assist on that side of the park.

At the tip of the Porto attack, the Colombia international Jackson Martínez has been in exceptional form, finding the net on 33 occasions in all competitions – including one in these sides’ last meeting  at Benfica’s Estádio da Luz.

The clash will define both sides’ seasons, and most likely the future both coaches. Vítor Pereira – linked yesterday with a move to Everton – has nothing else to play for. Equally, he knows his chances of staying in his post hinges on the outcome here. Having played 47 games this season to Benfica’s 56, their freshness – and home advantage – offers them the edge.

Jorge Jésus, for his part has everything to lose. But he refused to dwell on talk of ‘dark clouds’ following Monday night’s draw. Speaking on Thursday, he was clear where his focus lies:

Outside of Portugal, it’s true that winning the Europa League is more recognised; but our priority has been the league title from day one.

If they go all the way to claim a treble to match Porto’s two years ago, no doubt he’ll be hailed as a messiah. But should they bomb, he knows he can expect to be crucified by the Benfiquistas.

Kick-off: Saturday 20:30 GMT

Probable Teams

Porto: Hélton; Danilo, Mangala, Otamendi, Alex Sandro; Lucho González, Fernando, Moutinho: James Rodríguez, Jackson Martínez; Varela

Benfica: Artur; Pereira, Jardel, Garay, Malgarejo; Sálvio, Matic, Pérez, Gaitán; Lima, Cardozo

Referee: Pedro Proença. Will be in the spotlight here. In last season’s run-in, he over-ruled his linesman to allow Maicon’s winner for Porto to stand when these sides met with the title in play. Subsequent replays showed the assistant had been correct.

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