Given what was at stake, and given that how little both sides have given away this season, a draw in Saturday night’s O Clássico between Benfica and FC Porto at the Estadio Da Luz was hardly a surprise.
And so, with Benfica maintaining their one-point lead over their visitors, we’re set fair for a 21-point shootout between Portugal’s two giants to decide the destination of the league title.
Doubtless both managers, Rui Vitoria and Nuno Espirito Santo, will be happy with a share of the spoils. Vitoria’s Eagles may have failed to build on Jonas’s sixth minute penalty and land what would surely have been a knockout blow in the title race – but they kept their noses in front and will remain narrow favourites to land an unprecedented fourth title in a row.
Espirito Santo will have been pleased with how hard his side worked to gain a foothold and then parity in a game where they could easily have been swept away by the intensity of the home side’s early play. The Blue and Whites live to fight another day.
Benfica have been top of the league since September, leading Porto at one stage by six points. Porto had managed to stay in the hunt by virtue of their lock-tight defence, but as their play has grown more fluid through the course of the season and the goals began to flow, they reduced the gap to a single point by the end of January.
The champions have maintained that slenderest of advantages even since.
That said Porto have managed to edge ahead of Benfica in terms of goal difference (+46 versus +43) in the last two months – which given how tight the race is, could prove important come the end of the season.
In fact, Porto’s increasing goal threat and chance conversion since last we visited Portugal on February 1st has been notable – and should give their fans hope.
Since that weekend, they have played eight league games, scoring an impressive 23 goals. In the same period, Benfica found the back of the net on 16 occasions.
Compared to the rest of the season, while the champions managed to more or less maintain their 2.14 goals a game average, Porto – largely through the clinical finishing of Andre Silva and Tiquinho Soares – upped their scoring rate from two a game to just under three in that period.
Twenty one year-old Silva’s 15 league goals in 25 games have been drawing interest from some of Europe’s biggest clubs. With Porto, like Benfica, always having to sell to balance the books, the young Portuguese striker could earn the club another bumper transfer fee this summer.
Doubtless the fans have grown used to the financial realities that face their club, so they’ll draw comfort from the displays of newboy Soares who has scored nine goals in eight league appearances since joining the club from Vitoria de Guimares in late January.
But on Saturday night, it was Yacine Brahimi who was the visiting side’s outstanding performer. As Porto struggled to match Benfica’s intensity, it was the skilful Algerian midfielder who lead the fightback with his work rate and willingness to get on the ball.
Unsurprisingly, he figured prominently in Porto’s equaliser, bagged ironically, given Porto’s goal scoring prowess, by the veteran defender Maxi Pereira who had not found the back of the net in over a year!
The goal was doubly hard for the home fans to swallow given the Uruguayan had played for eight years in Benfica red before a move north in 2015.
So it’s as you were as we turn down the home straight. Both sides face a pretty similar run in – three home games and four away against largely similar opposition, with maybe one caveat.
On April 22nd, Benfica travel across the city to play third-placed Sporting Lisbon in a derby game that could well prove pivotal.
Negotiate that hurdle and Benfica will surely make history. Stumble, and how Sporting would love them to stumble, and the door will be open for FC Porto to secure their first silverware in three seasons.