Portugal Liga Preview: Week 24 (Mar 18-21)
Can Braga round off a momentous week in the history of the club with a win that will lift them into the European qualification places?
Domingos Paciencia and his team could scarcely believe it when the referee blew the final whistle at Anfield on Thursday to confirm the goalless draw that saw the Portuguese side knock the English powerhouse out of Europe. It was the culmination of a fine sequence of results for Braga, and victory against Rio Ave this weekend will set up the team nicely for another bash at European football next season.
Among the other European contenders, Vitoria Guimaraes and Nacional have tough assignments as they travel to teams fighting for survival in the lower reaches of the table, Portimonense and Vitoria Setubal respectively.
Sporting will be hoping to bring some cheer to their long-suffering supporters as they host a Leiria side in freefall.
As for the top two, the fight for the championship is now over and it would be no surprise to see FC Porto and Benfica give their second-string players a run-out against Academica and Paços de Ferreira respectively, one week before the two Portuguese colossuses meet in what could be Porto’s coronation as champions.
The weekend schedule kicks off in the Algarve with the intriguing fixture between Portimonense and Vitoria Guimaraes.
Carlos Azenha’s side looked doomed to relegation a month ago, with the coach having to be talked out of resigning by the club president. Since then Portimonense have won one and drawn three including a creditable draw away at Benfica last weekend to rekindle their hopes of avoiding relegation.
A poor run of form is threatening to undo all of Vitoria’s good work in the first two thirds of the season, and with just four points picked up from a possible 15 in their last five matches, a European berth could be slipping away from Manuel Machado’s team.
The end of a torrid season cannot come quick enough for Sporting, whose dreadful performance last weekend at Rio Ave extended a miserable run of just one win in ten matches in all competitions.
All the news surrounding the Lisbon club has been connected to the upcoming presidential elections. The intimation from more than one candidate that should they win the vote they will tear up the present squad will have done little to raise morale among a squad, among whom confidence is already at a low ebb.
Sporting’s saving grace this weekend may be the fact they are playing a side in an equally fragile state of mind. Leiria have won only one out of their last nine games, scoring a just two goals during that run.
Ex-Nacional manager Pedrag Jokanovic became the 10th coaching casualty of the Liga ZON Sagres last week when he walked out of the Madeira club, citing crowd barracking as a major reason for his decision. Yet the islanders are still only two points outside the European qualification places and a win at struggling Setubal will put them right back in the running for a return to Europe.
Naval’s brave revival came off the rails last week with a heavy loss at home to Maritimo, and this fixture bears the hallmarks of a last-chance saloon for the hosts. The Navalistas are fast running out of fixtures to make up the considerable gap separating them from safety.
New Beira-Mar coach Rui Bento has enjoyed a positive start to his tenure at Aveiro, narrowly losing away at Sporting before clocking up an impressive win at home to Paços de Ferreira last week.
Maritimo put some breathing space between themselves and the relegation zone last week thanks to a crucial 3-0 triumph away at Naval. Olhanense will be well rested having not played for a fortnight, but the Algarve club’s poor away record – just two wins on the road all season – makes the Madeira team favorites for this one.
Having all but wrapped up the title, captain Joao Moutinho was one of several Porto players who admitted this week their aim is to go through the remainder of the season unbeaten. If they avoid defeat in their next seven league matches, Porto will be champions without losing a single match for the first time in their history.
The Dragons will be buoyed by the return to goalscoring form of their star man Hulk, who has bagged two goals in his last two matches after a barren spell. Boosted by their qualification to the Europa League quarter-finals in midweek, it is difficult to see anything other than a routine win for Porto, even accounting for Academica’s marked improvement since Ulisses Morais took the reins earlier this month.
Braga are riding the crest of a wave. The Arsenalistas have beaten Benfica and Liverpool in the last fortnight, and an unbeaten five-match run culminated in the historic achievement of knocking the English giants out of the Europa League following the goalless draw at Anfield on Thursday. The boost provided by that momentous feat should outweigh the tiredness caused by the recent sequence of grueling fixtures.
But it doesn’t get much easier for Domingos Paciencia’s men as they welcome Rio Ave – four wins and a draw in their last five matches – to the Estádio Municipal.
Two of the form teams of the calendar year of 2011 meet at the Mata Real on Monday as Paços host Benfica. Rui Vitoria has done a tremendous job at a club of meager resources and will be set on adding another feather to his cap by obtaining a positive result against the Portuguese champions.
Benfica coach Jorge Jesus has made it clear his priorities lie elsewhere, and may opt to rotate his squad as the Eagles target glory in the domestic cups and the Europa League.
With both teams naturally inclined towards attack and little riding on the result, thus little pressure, fans can look forward to what should be an open and entertaining game.