Sporting Lisbon are hoping to retain their six-point lead at the top of the Liga NOS table as they take on Rio Ave on Wednesday.

Sporting Lisbon are closing in on their first Portuguese league title since 2002 as they travel to Estadio dos Arcos to face Rio Ave on Wednesday. It is a must-win encounter for the league leaders, knowing any mishap could potentially allow FC Porto to bridge the gap at the top to just three points.

The Lions have already lost a major chunk of their advantage at the top, though back to back wins over Braga and Nacional have helped them keep Porto at bay, for the time being. And with just four matches remaining till the end of the campaign, there is no room for error for the visitors when they lock horns with Rio Ave.

The northern Portuguese outfit is among the worst-performing teams in the division at the moment. They have registered only 31 points from 30 matches and are deeply involved in the relegation battle. A defeat to Sporting could, in fact, allow Boavista to move ahead of them in the league table.

Rio Ave, though, have lost only one of their last five league matches – a run of form that has helped them remain ahead of the bottom three. But they need to return to winning ways sooner rather than later, in order to avoid the wrath of relegation come the end of the season.

And here, at The Hard Tackle, we will take a closer look at these two teams ahead of their encounter that is crucial not only in the context of the Liga NOS title race but for the relegation battle.

Team News &ย Tactics

Rio Ave

Rio Ave’s new head coach Miguel Cardoso has primarily stuck with a 4-2-3-1 since being appointed at the end of January. It will be interesting to see whether that would be enough up against the league leaders, especially when it comes to offering an attacking threat in the final third.

Junior Brandon has been typically favoured as the lone striker, with the support of the creative trifecta of Gelson Dala, Chick Geraldes and former Real Madrid star Fabio Coentrao.

Geraldes is a bit of an anomaly as far as attacking intent goes, as the playmaker will be asked to drop deep during defensive phases, joining the two midfielders in Filipe Augusto and Guga. It could form a situational 4-3-3 and perhaps even a 4-1-4-1 with Augusto likely to play in the deepest midfield role.

Defensively, Rio Ave are likely to operate with a low block, led by the central defensive duo of Toni Borevkovic and Aderllan Santos.ย As for the full-back slots, Ivo Pinto will be back in contention, but coach Cardoso might persist with Costinha while Pedro Amaral is a guaranteed starter on the opposite flank – completing the backline that will hope to cover veteran Polish goalkeeper Pawel Kieszek.

Probable Lineup (4-3-3):ย Kieszek;ย Costinha, Borevkovic, Santos, Amaral; Geraldes, Augusto, Guga; Coentrao, Brandao, Gelson

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Sporting CP

Sporting CP usually like to play with a three-man backline that offers them defensive stability as well as more control in possession.

There might be a couple of changes to the backline, though, with goalkeeper Antonio Adan replacing Luis Maximiano after serving a one-game suspension. A key centre-back Goncalo Inacio should also return from suspension, thus renewing the familiar back three combination of him, Sebastian Coates and Zouhair Feddal.

In midfield, Joao Palhinha plays a key role in offering security in possession. His ability to read the game, coupled with his dribbling skills could be useful in evading the second line of press from Rio Ave.ย The 25-year-old will be aided by Daniel Braganca in central midfield while the wing-backs Pedro Porro and Nuno Mendes remain guaranteed starters as they hope to provide the width going forward.

Speaking of the attack, Paulinho should once again spearhead the frontline for Sporting this midweek, with additional support from Pedro Goncalves and Nuno Santos, as they look to continue their good form in the final third.

Probable Lineup (3-4-3):ย Adan; Inacio, Coates, Feddal; Porro, Palhinha, Braganca, Mendes; Goncalves, Paulinho, Santos

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Key Stats

  • Rio Ave are winless in their last eight league games. Their last victory in Liga NOS came in early March – 2-0 vs Farense.
  • Sporting Lisbon are the only club in Europe’s top seven leagues to remain unbeaten even at this stage of the campaign. Their only two defeats in the 2020/21 campaign in all competitions came against LASK (Europa League qualifying) and Maritimo (Taca de Portugal).
  • Sporting Lisbon have failed to win three of their last six league games – as many as they did in their previous 16 matches in Liga NOS this season.
  • With just 23 goals, Rio Ave have the second-worst scoring record in the league, with only Belenenses (21) scoring fewer so far this campaign.
  • Sporting, in contrast, have the best defensive record in the league, having conceded just 15 goals in 30 matches – an average of only one goal in two matches!

Player to Watch

Pedro Goncalves

Pedro Goncalves has been the star performer, not only for Sporting Lisbon but also in Liga NOS, in general, this season. The attacker has netted 17 goals in 28 games while providing four assists. His contributions in the final third have proved to be critical in the club’s inspiring form in the league this term.

However, goals have died down a bit for Goncalves, who has scored only two goals in the last eight league matches. His rough patch has coincided with a dip in form for Sporting CP, so it will be essential for the Lions that their key attacker returns to form against Rio Ave on Wednesday.

Prediction

Rio Ave 0-1 Sporting Lisbon

Rio Ave are certainly not the favourites to win this game, particularly due to their faulty attack. They are, however, a difficult team to beat, as evidenced by their recent run of form. And given Sporting’s inconsistent performances in recent weeks, we are expecting a tight contest where the visitors will have to battle hard to secure a narrow yet crucial victory this midweek.

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