AT THE beginning of the current season, I wrote that Sporting’s activities on the transfer market have been relatively low key. José Peseiro, who was assistant to Carlos Queiroz at Real Madrid (now back at Man.U) following four successful years in charge of Nacional da Madeira, has been brought in to revive the flagging fortunes of the Lisbon club. He has signed seven young players with potential, including Mauricio Pinilla, 20, considered one of the most promising strikers in Chile.
Yet, that same José Peseiro, having survived early season calls for his head, has not only taken his team to the UEFA Cup final, but also sat on the bench for last Saturday’s biggest game of the season, the title decider between Benfica and Sporting at the Stadium of Light. Both teams went into this, the penultimate match of the season, level on 61 points, three ahead of Porto, with Sporting enjoying far the better goal difference (+ 33 vis-à-vis Benfica’s +19).
Liedson, responsible for 24 strikes this season and top scorer in Portugal, was missing from the line-up having collected a fifth yellow card against Guimarães in the previous match. Statistically, Benfica are also the strongest home side this season, while Sporting boast the second-best away form, to set up a fascinating encounter. Referee of the season, Paulo Paraty, was put in charge of the potentially explosive encounter and almost 1,000 police were on duty Saturday night to ensure that there was no trouble off the pitch.Paraty proved to be too lenient in the first half, while over-compensating in the second with five yellow and one red cards.
Benfica’s Geovanni repeatedly demonstrated that he would be more at home on an Olympic high-diving board, falling over when there was no one remotely near him, and both sets of forwards were woefully wasteful in their finishing. The game seemed to be heading for a deserved draw, when a Petit free kick somehow found its way into the Sporting goal off Luisão’s back.
Benfica are almost champions and only need to draw in Porto against Boavista on Sunday to claim the title, but both Porto, who won 2-0 against Rio Ave, and Sporting will be there to take advantage of any slip-up.