Tuesday, March 6, 2012


Diego Capel, the ex-Sevilla flier who now plies his trade down the flanks at Sporting Lisbon, is adamant: "We are playing better and better each game," he concluded, after a blistering finish from Russian striker Izmailov sealed a slender one-nil victory over Rio Ave two weeks ago. Whether the speedy Spaniard is talking up his club's current form or they are actually beginning to get their act together is open to conjecture, as they followed up this slender win with a disastrous 0-1 reverse at lowly Setubal last weekend.What is not open to debate is that Sporting are the nation's soap opera and, for that reason alone, City supporters should feel some sort of empathy already.

What cannot be argued is the fact that Sporting have been a shambles for more or less the entire season. Much had been made of the eighteen new recruits brought in over the summer, the brand new manager, Domingos Paciencia, hired from Braga after the remarkable success he had had in leading the Arsenalistas to Dublin and the Europa League final against fellow countrymen FC Porto, and the relatively new board and president. Nothing, it seems, stays the same at the Estadio José Alvalade for very long.

Already the relatively new manager has been replaced by a brand new manager, in the shape of the robust Sà Pinto, an ex-Sporting hero on the pitch, who was often dangerously close to controversy during his playing days and who is the proud owner of a notably short fuse. He is short on management experience and is seen as a trumpet blowing stop-gap until the summer, but his Sporting credentials should see him through that far at least.

The grand old lady of Portuguese football has certainly seen better days and plenty of them.As recently as 2005, Sporting played in the UEFA Cup Final, ironically in their own stadium, cruelly nicknamed the Casa de Banho by Benficistas, after its brightly coloured decorative tiles. That they lost the final to CSKA seems to fit with a modern penchant for shooting themselves in the foot, but it was not always thus. As Sporting's founder José Alvalade famously announced:
"We want this Club to be a great club, as great as the greatest in Europe"

Alvalade awaits
The 40s and 50s ushered in Years of Plenty for Sporting, winning 10 out of their current total of 18 Championships during these decades, with 4 out of their 13 Portuguese Cup triumphs also happening at this time. From 1946–47 to 1953–54 season, Sporting won seven of the eight championships contested. This was the era of the Cinco Violinos ("The Five Violins") that would bring international fame to the club. The term was coined by a journalist called Tavares da Silva who wished to compare the sweet music constructed by the club's enigmatic and potent forward line of Jesus Correia, Manuel Vasques, Fernando Peyroteo, José Travassos and Albano to an orchestra. Certainly, the sweetness of the music of this era has seldom been replicated to the same melodic heights since.

Sporting's successes would continue in the 60s and 70s, with a trail of glorious titles and a long line of illustrious players, topped perhaps by the arch Argentinian goal-getter Hector Yazalde a striker who could not stop scoring for the green and whites. In Europe Sporting's reputation stems from daring deeds in the 60s and 70s, winning the UEFA Cup in 1964 and were losing European finalists in 1974 and 1991, as well as 2005. Recent years have ushered in a barren spell, which threatens to place this grand old club amongst the chasing pack of the Portuguese professional elite. These days, Braga and Guimarães are vying for 3rd, 4th and 5th places with the green and whites, whilst Benfica and FC Porto push on at the front.

So, where do we start to analyse a club, which creates such a funk wherever it goes? Perhaps it is sensible, first of all, to state that Sporting are really not a patch on FC Porto, already dealt with in a summary execution in the Manchester rain three weeks ago. This in itself should be heartening news to City followers everywhere and appears to be the main reason why the vast majority of Sportinguistas appear to be preparing themselves for the worst, come March 8th, with a resolute form of pessimism that truly reminds me of happy days following the misfiring backfiring Manchester City of the mid-eighties or the even worse spectacle of the misshapen lump that was Manchester City in the mid-to-late nineties. Truly, our green and white hooped brethren have taken up the mantle of arch pessimists with a power and passion that reminds the casual observer of the true Portuguese soul of melancholy, Fado, "saudades" (a longing for the past and for missed ones) and quiet introspection.

Still, they sit a somewhat shaky 5th in the table, behind Maritímo of Madeira, well adrift Braga in 3rd, and Benfica in 2nd, plus new leaders and recent City opponents FC Porto. With Guimarães picking up pace in 6th place, there is a real danger that the green and white hoops will not even make it into the Europa League next season. If they fail in the league, however, they will have a second chance come May, when they confront Académica de Coimbra (City's only other Portuguese opponents in European competition) in the final of the Taça de Portugal at Jamor in May.

None of this can take anything away from the clear and painful fact that 2011-2012 has been a disaster for Sporting. From the failure of Domingos Paciencia to match the board's wishes, through the mildly ridiculous tunnel affair when Sporting's directors sanctioned the use of giant murals depicting some of the club's hooligan element "in action", to Valeri Bojinov's farcical penalty episode when he took the ball from usual penalty taker Matias Fernandez and proceeded to miss a vital last minute penalty himself, Sporting's season has lurched from comedy to tragi-comedy and back again.

It is without doubt nigh impossible to make a squad containing 18 new recruits gel properly and this was undoubtedly what undid Paciencia, but the squad has been together for eight months now and is plainly neither strong enough nor deep enough to challenge properly at the high end of the season. There is definite star quality in the shape of athletic 'keeper Rui Patricio, excellent right back João Pereira, attacking wide man Diego Capel, artistic playmaker Matias Fernandez and the ever-willing young Dutch pair Stijn Schaars and the enigmatically named Ricky van Wolfswinkel, but the rest of the squad does not pass muster. The sight of Anderson Polga, a slow-to-turn Brazilian defender who has played at Alvalade for nine seasons, still occupying a central defensive birth alongside the giant American Onyewu, should say enough.

City should be on their mettle, however. This is a side with nothing to lose. In Sà Pinto, they have a green and white legend, who might be notoriously short of brain cells, but who is passionate and will set the side up to have a good go at their northern European counterparts. Expect the lively João Pereira to cause plenty of havoc down the right, where City's defence is not at its strongest, and although Van Wolfswinkel has not scored in European competition since a December group game with FC Zurich, he is Sporting's only hope of a goal, as replacements Rubio (12 games) and Ribas (6 games) have yet to score their first goals for the club. This is how Sporting set up in their last game, a one-nil defeat in Setúbal:

Rui Patrício
Arias -- Xandão -- Polga -- Insúa
Elias -- Schaars
Izmailov -- Ribas -- Capel

May your God go with you

With Oguchi Onyewu injured, the inexperienced Xandão may be asked to continue in defence, whilst Ribas should drop out for Van Wolfswinkel. It is not entirely clear whether the recently injured pair Jeffren and Rodríguez will be available in time, but - whoever plays - rest assured Sporting under Sá Pinto will not go down without a fight, will be well backed from the terraces, where a larger than normal turn-out is expected (recent attendances have fluctuated between 20 - 25,000) and will be spiky and energetic in their pursuit of an unexpected Premier league feather in their cap.

** Sá Pinto participated fully in the elimination of Newcastle United from the quarter finals of the 2004-05 UEFA Cup, a run which included defeats of Middlesbrough and AZ Alkmaar, before Sporting lost in the final in their own ground to CSKA Moscow.Here he is scoring the second in a 4-1 win that knocked the Geordies out >

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