Benfica’s lessons for Lisbon rivals: Only The Strong Survive...

It is often said that regular form goes out the window on derby day, but when Lisbon’s two biggest clubs met on Monday night, that was emphatically proved not be the case. Benfica did, however, bear out one derby cliché in brushing aside Sporting. Only the strongest survive on occasions like this.

Unless you follow the Portuguese game closely, you could be forgiven for thinking that Benfica’s star has been on the wane. Jorge Jesus’ team were beaten to Champions League knockout stage qualification by Celtic, after blowing the best chance imaginable of beating Barcelona at the Camp Nou. Meanwhile, arch-rivals Porto had been – along with Malaga – the first team to reach the last 16, after four games.

Both giants had personnel losses to deal with at the climax of the summer window. Porto’s Hulk, of course, left for Zenit, the same destination as Benfica’s Axel Witsel chose, while Javi Garcia joined Manchester City. In purely sporting terms, there is no doubt that Benfica have been more weakened by their sales. When Garcia and Witsel went, it looked like the guts had been ripped out of Jesus’ team. Porto had already plotted the succession of Hulk with their brilliant young Colombian forward, James Rodríguez.

It’s not been plain sailing upstairs at the Estádio da Luz, either. October’s presidential elections were comfortably won by incumbent Luis Filipe Vieira in the end, but not before a messy campaign questioned his financial management of the club now over €400m in debt.

The club’s success at least makes that debt vaguely serviceable. Benfica battled back from a half-time deficit against Sporting to win 3-1, keeping them level on points with Porto at the summit of the table and preserving their unbeaten record. As Jesus said, the situation was turned around “by a team that believed that they could change the result”. Former Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matic is a great example. He may seem overworked in the holding midfield vacuum left by Garcia and Witsel, but he’s doing brilliantly to make light of it.

What Sporting would give right now for just a bit of that belief. This defeat left them with a miserable four wins in twenty games played in all competitions so far. Franky Vercauteren’s side are ninth in the league, with two wins and a measly ten goals scored in their opening 11 games. They’re two points ahead of the relegation zone and already nine short of the third Champions League spot.

The financial situation at the Alvalade looks rather less sustainable. Sporting lost nearly €46m last season, bringing total debts to around the €220m mark. Just over 35,000 attended the game on Monday, which was better than some predicted taking into account Sporting’s terrible form and the country’s severe economic problems. It still represented a sharp drop-off from the 47,409 that came to see the corresponding fixture back in April. 

One of the principal criticisms of under-fire Sporting president Luís Godinho Lopes is that the club’s fabled youth policy – which produced Cristiano Ronaldo, Luís Figo and Nani to name but three – has been put in the shade and expensive foreign imports prioritised.

Just two Portuguese players started the match, Sporting goalkeeper Rui Patrício and teenage Benfica midfielder André Gomes. In the words of website Mais Futebol, it was “the least Portuguese derby ever.” Patrício and Gomes were both excellent, but there’s no doubt who this policy hurts more. Not only do Sporting lack Benfica’s quality, but they lack their style and identity too.

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