Algarve sports

FOOTBALL: Liga de Honra

THE TWO Algarve clubs based in Portimão and Olhão have successfully maintained their promotion push during January, raising realistic hopes for the return of first class football to the region.

Portimonense began the month literally waiting around for their first three points of 2006. Opponents Marco, in severe financial difficulties, were unable to muster a team and failed to make the trip south. The league committee subsequently awarded the Algarveans a home win. Another home game followed, again against a side desperately fighting for its very existence.

Former promotion favourites Estoril, perilously close to extinction due to insurmountable debts, were forced to field several juniors and were beaten more soundly than the 2-1 score line suggests. Luís Marques scored twice within the opening 34 minutes, allowing coach Diamantino’s men to sit back and relax.

Buoyed in third place, Portimonense then travelled to close rivals Leixões, coming away with a valuable 0-0 draw following a compact defensive performance. Last Sunday, in form Gondomar were the visitors, scoring twice during the first 45 minutes to cancel out an early home lead.

In deteriorating conditions that favoured the brave, Gondomar increased their advantage to 3-1, inflicting Portimonense’s first home defeat of the season in the process. They stay in third on 34 points for now, however, all three of their closest rivals also losing.

On the transfer front, the club have been fortunate to retain the services of outstanding goalkeeper, Fouhami, who was not called up to represent his country at the African championships, but have lost prolific striker Serjão. The 26-year-old has joined Superliga strugglers Académica on a two-and-a-half-year contract. He has been replaced by Vitoria de Setúbal forward Heitor, while Mateus and Piojo have been released.

Olhanense have had two unusual situations to contend with last month, both beneficial to the team’s league position. Coach Paulo Sérgio’s men have had four penalties awarded in their favour over the past three weeks, prompting accusations of referee partiality from their rivals. At the same time the biggest weakness, preventing a serious promotion challenge last season, have been overcome, away games are no longer automatic losses, in fact Olhão boast the best away record of their history this season with five wins and two draws from nine games.

The first game of the new year brought a clear-cut 2-0 home win against Santa Clara, closing the gap on Beira Mar at the top of the table to one point. Against Feirense the following week, again in the Algarve, the normally tight defence was caught napping twice during the opening eight minutes. It is a measure of the team’s character that Ricardo Silva was able to restore parity by full time, grabbing a brace to leave the score tied at 2-2. Mid-table Maia was the next away destination.  Again, Silva found the back of the net twice, his goals sandwiching a Lameirão effort before the hosts could score a late consolation strike. Still trailing Beira Mar by a single point, sixth placed Covilhã provided the opposition on Sunday afternoon. Incredibly, Olhanense went into a 5-2 lead by half-time, benefiting from a Moses hat-trick. The ex-Estoril forward was giving his debut, having only arrived during the January transfer window. No more goals followed after the break, hoisting Olhanense to 40 points, still behind Beira Mar, who won 4-0.

The Olhão club is looking to turn itself into a PLC in an effort to raise the capital necessary to strengthen the squad. For now, existing players’ contracts have been extended, and four young Cameroon internationals are undergoing trials with a view of making a permanent move. Whatever happens, it can already be said that the current season has been an unqualified success for a side that only came up from the district leagues 18 months ago. Promotion would be the icing on the cake.

Lower leagues: In the 2nd Division Serie D, Louletano continue to duel with Operário and Moscavide for the single promotion place. The team, managed this season by Jorge Portela, looks impressive, boasting an unbeaten away record, and could easily feature in the Liga de Honra come September.

The same cannot be said for the other Algarve representatives. Imortal have dropped away into mediocrity, while newly promoted Silves still hold up the table. Recently appointed Dutch coach, Floris Schaap, has been unable to turn the club’s fortunes around, and has already left again. Former player Carlos Ferreira will now oversee the almost certain return to the lower tier.  

Almancilense, Lusitano, Messinense and Lagoa, all in the regionalised Divisão III, are playing with varying degrees of success, but look unlikely to trouble the promotion candidates. At district level, Algarve United, once the standard bearers of a brave new future under the stewardship of “enfant terrible”, Paul Gascoigne, find themselves beaten off at the wrong end of the 16-team table.