The Portuguese league is entering its deciding stages, with only seven matches left to play and the title yet to decided, as well as who gets relegated and who will be in Europe next season. It has been a season defined by a great, La Liga-like, imbalance between the top 2 and the rest; in fact, both Benfica and Porto remain undefeated at 23 matches. The main points of interest have been the fight for third place between Braga and the surprising Paços de Ferreira, the race to avoid relegation and of course Sporting’s shocking demise, which has grabbed most of the headlines.
As was expected from the start, Benfica and Porto are locked in a two horse race for the title, with both teams undefeated after 23 matches and having tied 2-2 at the Estádio da Luz in the first half of the season. Jorge Jesus’s side has taken advantage of a mini slump from Porto to gain an all important 4 point lead at the top; in between their Champions League tie with Malaga, which they lost narrowly, Porto dropped points at Sporting and Estoril and put Benfica in the driver’s seat.
The Lisbon outfit has been in irresistible form both domestically and in Europe and the title is theirs to lose now; there will be a Porto vs Benfica in the penultimate round of the league, but even if Benfica lose there all they have to do is win all the remaining matches and they’ll be crowned champions and with the team’s recent form that sounds more than possible; the likes of Ola John and Lima have been particularly inspired in recent weeks, with the latter finding the net with incredible regularity.
Porto, on the other hand, have felt the absence of João Moutinho, who has been having fitness issues in the past month, as well as a general dip in form from the side, and they are now almost forced to win all the remaining matches – or expect a complete implosion from Benfica – to win the league for the 4th time in a row.
Fight for European spots
Below Benfica and Porto, fourteen points behind, we have Braga and the sensational Paços de Ferreira fighting for the last Champions League place. Braga currently hold a one point lead but Paços have the head-to-head advantage should it end on a points tie come the end of the season. Considering their experience and the fact that Paços de Ferreira seem to have run a bit out of gas lately, you’d have to favor Braga to reach the Champions League yet again, but at the same time it’d be a more than fair reward for Paços to get that third place considering the way they’ve played so far with relatively limited resources. Young manager Paulo Fonseca has truly worked miracles; even if Paços can’t beat Braga here, fourth place and a Europa League spot are pretty much guaranteed and are already a club best performance.
Eleven points behind Paços de Ferreira, we have Estoril, closely followed by Rio Ave, Marítimo, Guimarães, Nacional and Sporting – all fighting to get that last Europa League spot – a fight that ptomises to go down to the wire. For all these clubs bar Sporting, a place in Europe would be like a dream can true and they will fight until the very end to get it.
As in every league. the desperate race to avoid relegation remains one of the main interest points of the Portuguese first division. Beira-Mar, Olhanense, Gil Vicente, Moreirense, Académica and Vitória de Setúbal are all separated by a mere 6 points and with a lot of direct confrontations between these sides still to come, it’s anyone’s guess which two sides will be relegated at the end of the season.
All 16 teams in the league still have something to play for until the end of the league, which ensures an exciting end to the season.
In a season where predictability has reigned at the top of the league, Sporting’s demise has been the biggest story in Portuguese football. Sporting are currently 10th in the league with one of the worst attacks, they have changed managers three times, are without a president and were forced to sell players to remain financially stable, the latest being Ricky Van Wolfsinkel. Despite being one of the three giants of Portuguese football, Sporting are headed to the worst season in their history, both on and off the pitch. They might still interfere in the title race by upsetting their eternal rivals Benfica away in a few weeks, but it’s looking rather unlikely at the moment.
It will be the main focus of interest in Portuguese club football to see where Sporting go from here and whether they can rise again to match Benfica and Porto any time soon.