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nortada 2015/16

footballportugal

Miguel Sousa Tavares

 

06/10/15

1
In the end there was another FC Porto that had nothing to do with the one that lost two points at Moreirense [2-2] through a performance that was purely and simply intolerable. Or the one that also lost two points in the Champions League, in Kiev [v Dynamo, 2-2], hindered by unjustifiable fear and lack of concentration. In the end there was the FC Porto that defeated Chelsea with a brilliant exhibition (and Chelsea, a club in crisis, also put in the best performance I’ve seen from them this season), or the FC Porto of the second half against Belenenses [4-0]. All it needed to uncover this FC Porto was for [coach Julen] Lopetegui to stop being stubborn and insisting on players that aren’t up to the great team that’s there. And probably for him to talk to the players and to himself in a way that’s more appropriate to the demands they’re all subject to. What a shame that it’s taken alarm bells and revolt amongst the fans for the Basque coach to wake up to the more than legitimate expectations for the team he coaches! And what a shame that for this to happen, two precious points have been lost in the Champions League and the Liga!

Now the best players are on the pitch and in the right positions, as we saw in the starting line-up against Belenenses – and that’s a lot, it’s a relief. Now we’ve seen Brahimi playing, something that hadn’t happened for months; we see Lopetegui taking more advantage of the great last-minute signings Layún and Corona; now we’re seeing a midfield with only technically gifted players … and even Portuguese; and above all, we’re now seeing solid ideas. But not everything is resolved, as the first part of the game against Belenenses showed: that hopeless lack of urgency to kill games from the word ‘go’ when the favouritism is obvious, as if they have all the time in the world, and so they still take forever to bring the ball out of defence, with square passes and more square passes and back passes, which seems to be one of Lopetegui’s rules of play. I think it’s called ‘resting in possession’, but you should only rest when the job’s done and not before. I reckon. In this case, Belenenses got tired out just three days after their European game. And what if they hadn’t?

2
I was busy with Election night on TV so I didn’t see our co-leaders’ [Sporting] Liga game. I found out later that they’d beaten Vitória de Guimarães 5-1 and, thinking that it seemed like a lot of goals, I was sceptical about whether Guimarães had played with 11 men the whole game. They didn’t: on 55 minutes, with the score at 2-0, they had a player sent off. I read in the papers that the sending-off was fair, which I don’t doubt. But I do doubt whether, if it were the other way round, a Sporting player would also have been sent off. Remember that this is the second game in a row at Alvalade in which Sporting have benefited from numerical superiority for a large part of the time. But against Nacional (and I did see that game), the sending-off that occurred on 30 minutes, and that was decisive to deflate a tired Nacional on 86 minutes [final score 1-0], was simply unseemly: neither of the two yellow cards shown to get the red was at all deserved.

In case anyone should forget, [Sporting coach] Jorge Jesus is continually reminding us of the “title” that, he says, Sporting have been the only Portuguese club to win this season. Said “title” – the Supertaça [v Benfica, 1-0] – awarded for a single game, could only, in fact fall to one of the two clubs involved in that game. What Jorge Jesus won was a game, but if he wants to pompously call it a “title”, maybe he should mention that the greatest merit belonged to the person who qualified Sporting for the game by winning the Taça de Portugal last season: yes, that’s right, [former Sporting coach] Marco Silva. JJ says that everything written criticising Sporting is just to divert attention away from the team’s “great start to the season”, with a title already won and all. But I wonder whether, inversely, so much insistence on the “title” and the “great start to the season”, and the reiterated affirmation that “at this level” (Lokomotiv and Besiktas), there’s no difference between the Champions League and the Europa League, don’t serve to divert attention away from the first really important and now failed objective of the season: qualification for the Champions League. And I wonder whether they don’t serve to divert attention away from these awkward facts: without Jorge Jesus, Benfica [under Rui Vitória] have almost guaranteed qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League already, with only two games played, while last season [under JJ] they couldn’t even manage third place in the group; and, without Sporting, Marco Silva leads the Greek championship [Olympiakos] with six victories in six games, and has just performed the unheard of feat [for a Greek team] of beating Arsenal in London in the Champions League.

3
As much as Sportinguistas would like to see yet another planetary conspiracy against them, what has happened to Sporting with the case of [the Peruvian winger] Carrillo [contractual dispute between player and club] is absolutely normal in every club and every year. Only those who think that players, especially foreign ones, play for the love of the shirt don’t understand that. This season, for example, FC Porto had to resolve no less than four similar cases: Danilo and Jackson Martínez left the club as promised and after they’d agreed to play at the Dragão for one more year, in exchange for the club giving them a raise and lowering the amount of the termination clause – everything was taken care of in advance and pacifically; Alex Sandro was sold before time, but in time to avoid him becoming a free agent in January, like Carrillo, and able to leave for nothing; and even the intractable Rolando, who rejected all offers to reach agreement with the club, ended up moving to Marseille, bringing in 3 million euros. In total, the difficult cases to resolve brought FC Porto 80 million euros. And friends forever. (A few days ago, [former FC Porto player] Deco recounted in an interview that [FC Porto president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa] convinced him to stay one more year at FC Porto, postponing the acceptance of an invitation from Barcelona, where he wanted to go; and that after a year, Pinto da Costa honoured that commitment, selling Deco to Barcelona, despite having a more advantageous proposal from an English club that Deco said he was willing to accept.)

But [Sporting president] Bruno de Carvalho likes to play the hard guy. If the player doesn’t want to renew his contract, he threatens him, severs relations with his agent, orders the player to be dropped from the team, and his best negotiating gambit consists of always wanting to raise even further the absolutely absurd termination clauses that he has written into contracts, maybe because he thinks that will convince the [club’s] sócios [fee-paying associate members] that he only negotiates with Maradonas (in fact it was this that caused Carrillo to refuse to renew). What have Sporting won with all of this? Nothing, they’ve lost everything: they aren’t going to have Carrillo playing, neither until the end of the season, nor until January, and they’re going to see him leave for nothing. But that’s not the only damage: there’s also what economists call ‘negotiating good-will’, which is the reputation created as a negotiator and which is often a determining factor for future negotiations.

4
I’m in favour of the publishing of the Football Leaks data, just as I’m in favour of Wikileaks. I’m in favour of the breaking of confidentiality, which is the habitual way to govern of those in power. You’ll say that like that it’s almost impossible to govern a company or a country, and I’ll reply that open democracy and companies are a nuisance, but that the solution is not to have more secret areas but fewer. With regard to football, I hope that this breaking of confidentiality contributes to opening fans’ eyes and makes them understand better the submerged world behind their passion for their clubs, and where a few people make a fortune on the back of that passion. I hope that it will help us to better understand how it is that there are directors making a personal fortune at clubs that their management has led to ruin. And that we get to understand, for example, how it is that football is the only business in which there are clubs that pay commissions on the sale of players but also on their purchase. And in that way, I obviously hope that all clubs are attacked equally by Football Leaks.

(courtesy of Miguel Sousa Tavares)

 

29/09/15

1
[FC Porto coach Julen] Lopetegui had better win today against Chelsea [in the Champions League] because I’m going to tell you what’s happening among Portistas, in case you haven’t noticed yet, although it’s no secret: we’re beginning to get fed up with him. Patience has a limit and ours is on the verge of ending: the draw [2-2, away] against [second to bottom club] Moreirense, and the absolutely miserable and amateurish way that the team and the coach went about it, was the last straw.

After the failed experiments of Vítor Pereira (who despite everything still won two titles, one offered by [Brazilian forward] Kelvin [with a late winner against Benfica that finished 2-1 and gave the 2012/13 title to FCP]) and Paulo Fonseca [both recent coaches], Lopetegui was welcomed at the Dragão with positive expectations, totally unjustified by his total lack of curriculum at the head of a professional club, at any level. And the high expectations became high condescension when, throughout last season, with a ‘super-team’, we saw him accumulating mistake after mistake, arriving at the end of the season without winning a single title, the only positive thing being reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League – ending the feat, however, with the massacre in Munich. Although he lost six first-teamers from last season, this time he received excellent reinforcements – all of them showing more as players than the Basque coach has shown as a coach. I repeat [what I’ve said before] that even so, it’s my opinion that on balance, FC Porto are weaker, but not so much that can justify the miserable displays against Marítimo [a 1-1], Estoril [h 2-0] or Moreirense [a 2-2], the first half against Benfica [h 1-0] and the game against Kiev [a 2-2], which was all wrong strategically.

No, nothing can justify the amorphous, accommodated, oblivious and almost indifferent performance of the team as a whole in Moreira de Cónegos [against Moreirense]. And this time, not even the pitch can serve as an excuse. Nothing can justify the reiterated cock-ups that Lopetegui makes in the starting line-ups, changing the players’ positions, functions, routines and partnerships without any logic whatsoever. Sure, he frequently ends up noticing the initial mistake and corrects it during the game, but too often it’s too late and leaves the question “Why don’t you learn from your mistakes?” unanswered. The most obvious case is Herrera, who Lopetegui always, but always, has to take off when he’s named in the starting line-up. Between last year and this, I’ve lost count of the number of occasions in which Lopetegui has taken the Mexican off after having surrendered to the evidence that with him on the pitch, FC Porto are playing with ten men. This season, we can add to the Herrera ‘case study’ that of the fatal Varela (I knew that the back-heel against Benfica [an assist for André André to score the winner] would cost us dear …). But to be fair, Lopetegui’s not alone in his stubbornness: it’s not only various critics (not friendly, for sure) who tirelessly praise these two wet blankets. The first thing the Board did when they started contract renewals this season was to extend Herrera and Varela’s contracts for three years. At the same time, they’ve discarded talent like Atsu, Ricardo Pereira, Quintero, Carlos Eduardo and even, albeit on the way down, Quaresma. Lopetegui is stubborn, arrogant and haughty (without justification), incapable of learning from the cock-ups he makes (just look at the embarrassing results of three trips to the Barreiros [Marítimo’s stadium in Madeira]), he doesn’t study the opposition, he doesn’t keep an eye on the youth teams, he doesn’t like players with their own personality, and he has enormous difficulty in winning clássicos and holding onto leads in easy games. Ultimately, he hasn’t shown that he has the spirit of the matador, nor of the champion, that FC Porto is used to. It could be that he’ll change these aspects, and I’ll be here – not to applaud him but to recognise that he’s done it. Only for that to happen, he needs to show a humility and wisdom he hasn’t yet proved that he possesses.

Normally, it would be fairer and more logical not to demand victory tonight over Chelsea but to demand that FC Porto showed a dominance in domestic football that its structure and team justify. But as this latter objective has been consistently slipping, we’ve arrived today at the point where victory over Chelsea is almost a final demand, so that the fans don’t begin to think before every game that the main problem is the coach himself. So that we don’t have to live in fear of his team selections and cock-ups, with our hearts in our mouths every time we listen to the starting line-up.

(N.B. FC Porto put up an excellent display and beat Chelsea 2-1 on the night. Herrera and Varela were dropped.))

 

1
When we fail, at least we say that it was our fault (when it’s the case), that we played terribly. But Sporting, who also play terribly and perhaps even worse than us, always have external excuses. Against Lokomotiv, who humiliated them in Alvalade [1-3], there were four penalties not given, just in the first half. Against Nacional in Alvalade, they were claiming a penalty in the very first minute of the game, to show the ref what they were after (and he duly obliged, sending off a Nacional player on 30 minutes with two yellows, neither of them justified. And that help was precious, Nacional collapsing in exhaustion four minutes from the end: two points for which Sporting can thank Senhor Veríssimo, one of those recent aviary-bred international referees). Against Boavista, in a game in which the only real goal opportunity fell to Boavista, both Jorge Jesus [coach] and Bruno de Carvalho [president] came with the excuse that the draw was down to the ref, of course.

Without any reason for complaint, as everyone else recognised. Bruno de Carvalho went off on one of the rages that he thinks will make him go down in history like Cid Campeador (see Wikipedia). To him, everyone’s an enemy […] – Benfica, FC Porto and their directors; all the former presidents of Sporting […]; the players themselves when they don’t get the results he announces; the coach who’s just won them a Taça de Portugal; all the referees, both national and international, without exception, whose refereeing doesn’t allow Sporting to win games; the Liga, the FPF [Portuguese Football Federation], UEFA, FIFA and whoever fails to obey the revolutionary rules that president Bruno defines as the “regeneration of football”; the players who either prefer other clubs to Sporting (can Danilo Pereira [signed by FC Porto] really be a “prostitute”?), or those who, showered with kindness, don’t want to renew contract with Sporting; the players’ funds who financed the purchase of players for the club, and, in general, anyone who claims money from the club; and the commentators, sued or not, who haven’t yet surrendered themselves to the genius of the Sun-president. There are too many enemies for a happy ending. Even with the threat that each of them will have to face the fury of 3.5 million Sportinguistas, that he holds up as a kind of Praetorian guard aimed at filling any incomprehensible lapses in the conviction of his genius. And, in the middle of all this, from what I’ve read here [A Bola], he’s just got a General Assembly [of the club], yielding after a one-hour-and-36-minute speech from the leader, to approve the little matter of a loan of 77 million euros, in a club that as we know has become profitable again … His father must be blind …

(courtesy of Miguel Sousa Tavares)

 

08/09/15

1
I must confess that with rare exceptions, I consider breaks for international matches just that: breaks. A break in excitement, a break in competitive rhythm, a break in the evolution of teams. I know that national teams have to play, and they have to be in qualifiers for the European Championship and the World Cup. But at the moment, and because of the powerful financial interests of FIFA and national Federations/ Associations, there are too many international matches, with the 32-team World Cup, the 24-team EUROs, plus the Confederation Cup, the Mundialito, and friendlies. All done at the expense of the clubs who supply the players and pay their wages, always getting them back in a worse state. This doesn’t happen with other sports like athletics, swimming, rowing, sailing etc., where the real competition is between countries and not clubs. But in football it’s like that, and that’s what we have to live with.

So we’ve had the two games of our Seleção. The first was our tenth defeat in a row to France, and there were no ifs or buts about it, such was their superiority. The second was a difficult victory in the far reaches of Albania, against one of the surprise teams of these EURO qualifiers. Although we have one foot firmly in next summer’s European Championship in France, the reality is that the Seleção are still far from satisfying the expectations of the Portuguese and the demands arising from the always magnificent ranking that FIFA’s mysterious criteria give us. The negative aspects were diagnosed ages ago by everyone, and it was even [coach] Fernando Santos that best summarised the general criticism – in particular with regard to the appalling incapacity to create frequent and efficient attacking play. We’re paying the bill for being essentially an importer of footballing material, where the foreign player is always the handiest solution, in detriment to Portuguese players. Successive generations of kids loaded with talent are expatriated to foreign clubs, sometimes to minor countries in terms of football, because our clubs and directors think that everything that’s foreign looks better in the photo. We erroneously believe that the great footballing nations like England, France, Spain or Italy do the same. But in fact, the constant news we hear about signings of foreign players by clubs in these countries always refers to the crème de la crème: they buy a lot of players and expensive ones, but only the best of the best, leaving a large number of places for national players. What we have, then, is this paradox of an abundance of quality raw material at youth level and an increasingly obvious lack of established players at senior level in the Seleção. So no one can disagree with Fernando Santos’ choices because in truth, they’re neither the best choices nor the worst, the right or the wrong: they’re the only ones he has. And what there is is poor.

2
After the International break FC Porto return for a hellish series of five games in 12 days up until the end of the month. It starts on Saturday with a visit to Arouca, where things are going to be much more difficult than if the game were played at the Aveiro Municipal Stadium, as Benfica were lucky enough to manage [refurbishment of Arouca’s stadium]. These games at small grounds with dodgy pitches are the ones I fear most throughout the championship. In addition, [coach] Lopetegui will have to make some serious changes, with some players only arriving from international duty on the eve of the game. And a week later, it’s the clássico at the Dragão, an FC Porto v Benfica that everyone will say isn’t decisive but it could turn out to be, as happened last season when it also came early on the fixture list. In between, both clubs will have their first Champions League game, but in radically different circumstances. While Benfica host the newcomers Astana, the weakest team in the competition, FC Porto face the experienced Dynamo Kiev; while Benfica stay in the comfort of the Luz, FC Porto have a long return trip to Kiev; and while Benfica play on Tuesday, with four days afterwards to rest before the game at the Dragão, FC Porto play on Wednesday and have a day less of rest.

Within a week, FC Porto are going to have a terrible test of fire. The first Champions League game is usually of maximum importance, especially when it’s against a direct rival, as is the case. The game against Benfica is what it is and needs no further consideration. And the away game against Arouca is one of those that doesn’t seem at all important ... unless it goes badly.

3
This series of games will come at a moment in the early season in which the team is far, extremely far, from producing the minimum necessary, and with the backbone of the side away on international duty, there’s little that Lopetegui can do to correct what’s bad and train other routines. As I’ve written here twice already, it seems to me that the team is frankly weaker than last season, which is normal when you take in €116 million [£84.5m] in sales. You can’t have your cake and eat it too … Just as the shop was closing, two more Mexicans arrived: Layun, to try to replace Alex Sandro, and Corona, I hope to put Varela on the bench. Either the directors and the coach hit the nail on the head with these two signings or things could get very ugly between now and the next opportunity in the January transfer window. Let’s see. Expectations, especially with regard to the man with the name of a Mexican beer, are very high.

4
England’s Professional Footballers’ Association has raised a pertinent question in relation to the high number of players from big clubs that are loaned out to others. The doubts raised, apart from the financial health of clubs that buy to loan, also has to do with sporting aspects and the very careers of those players. In England, the loan champions are Chelsea, who have no fewer than 60 players under these conditions. Mourinho, who has complained so much about the money his rivals spent this year on top players, must have some difficulties in explaining why he condones players being bought to loan out …

Among our clubs, FC Porto and Benfica are the champions in this type of management. I don’t know how many players Benfica will have in these conditions, but as to the club I’m interested in, I’ve always lamented that so many Porto players apparently have no fate other than to be loaned out. At the closing of the window, two more went that Lopetegui never liked but that in my opinion will be very much missed in the team: Ricardo Pereira, a winger that Lopetegui never used as such but only as a right back; and Juan Quintero, technically the most gifted player in the squad and playing as an attacking midfielder, the current team’s weakest area. The financial and sporting logic of this escapes me. Of course, when there are places to be filled, I think that it must be the coach who has a determining role in the choice of who should fill those places, and that he can put pressure on for more players to be bought to fill gaps in the squad. But I don’t understand how he can look at the squad he takes on and declare that half of the players are to be thrown out and the president doesn’t say: “Look, these are the players. Now do your best.”

(courtesy of Miguel Sousa Tavares)

 

25/08/15

1
From Monday to Saturday, the newspapers and TV channels bombard us with a flood of news about the so-called ‘Big Three’ of Portuguese football: signings and sales (real or imagined), training, the grandiose speeches of coaches who imagine themselves to be masters of the science of football, players getting things off their chest on facebook, and so on. They all promise a glorious season of conquests, here and in Europe, the stadiums fill up with enthusiastic fans, emigrants back on holiday turn up at training sessions and games in order to take some memories back with them to their host countries. And then the ball starts to roll and we realise with amazement that it’s all been fatuous fireworks, illusions sold to the credulous, swollen vanity. This early season is like that: none of the Big Three are putting in performances that correspond to the expectations created and the fantastic hand of geniuses, including the coach, with which they’re supposed to have been dealt. From what we’ve seen so far, Porto, Sporting and Benfica just aren’t playing. Nor are the immediate outsiders Sporting Braga and Vitória de Guimarães.

2
With the advantage of playing after the trip-ups of their two direct rivals, and with the massive advantage of playing as if they were at home at the modest Arouca, Benfica continued on their path of defeats that their pre-season had established. It seems that the team has got used to losing, and that without the help of the ref, as happened against Estoril [4-0], things very easily get complicated to an insuperable point. Of course, the game at Arouca [0-1] was one of those games that resembles a massacre, in which the weaker team defend at all costs and, if they’re well-trained – which was the case [Lito Vidigal] – they can cause damage on the counter-attack, which, when well-played, is a feast for the eyes. If we consider the justice of the stats and chances, Benfica deserve to have won or at least drawn. But if we consider Arouca’s intelligence and defensive lucidity, the Reds’ defeat actually seems natural. And if it weren’t for the forwards’ lack of courage at the moment of shooting (which is one of the characteristics of small teams), Arouca, like Paços de Ferreira [against Sporting] in Alvalade could have caused even more damage.

3
Sporting did much less than Benfica to win their game: they attacked less and worse, and they had many fewer chances and allowed more. Sporting were bad, just as they were bad against Tondela, who they could only beat with a 95th-minute penalty that fell out of the sky. As always, though, the fault of the home-draw was, they say, the ref’s. The ref robbed them, as all the refs do when they don’t win. This time, the robbery consisted of the ref not going along with the play-acting of [Sporting striker] Slimani, who, off-side, threw himself to the ground when he felt a finger, no more than a finger, touch his back. Because not even [Sporting coach] Jorge Jesus would dare to openly contest the penalty conceded by [Sporting full-back] João Pereira, who didn’t have the legs to keep up with his opponent [Paços striker Cícero]. It’s going to be like that throughout the championship, if things don’t go according to the great expectations created in Sporting fans. It’s only to be hoped that the refs – whether allocated to games or drawn from a hat, and even if they’re pelted with stones as they leave the stadium [which is what allegedly happened to the ref after Sporting v Paços de Ferreira] are not influenced when they look at the bench and see the fabulous trio of Bruno de Carvalho [president], Octávio Machado [director] and Jorge Jesus ... knowing also that behind them there is the similarly notable Angolan businessman Álvaro Sobrinho. It would terrify anyone.

4
As for my FC Porto, they played [v Marítimo, 1-1] just as I’d feared after realising that [coach, Julen] Lopetegui had learned no lessons at all from the game against Guimarães [3-0], nor from the four defeats in a row at Marítimo’s Barreiros stadium. He said that Porto had been a centimetre from winning, which is actually true, but what he didn’t explain was why his team were so terribly bad, had no attitude to speak of and didn’t show the slightest bit of coherent play that might justify the salary paid to the coach. A coach, that is, who insists, game after game and disappointment after disappointment, on a player without the slightest bit of talent for playing football, Herrera, and who prefers Varela to Tello – a player who stands around so as not to get tired, to another who always has the turbo turned on and breaks defences down. I have the coach taped. Sure, he has qualities, but I doubt he’ll go far. He prefers stubbornness to the correction of obvious errors, he prefers excuses to the assuming of responsibility, and he seems to care more about himself and his ideas than the results of the club that pays him. Luís Freitas Lobo [SportTv pundit], speaking of Varela’s performance at the Barreiros, said that he gave “a lot to the team by looking for empty spaces”. If LFL weren’t such a charitable soul, for whom there are only great games, great teams and great players, then perhaps he could see the same thing but said in a different way, like I see it: Varela looks for empty spaces because there’s no ball there, and he likes to spend the whole time running from play and responsibilities. With the three opportunities he had to make his mark in the first 20 minutes, in those ‘empty spaces’, Tello would have created three goal opportunities, while Varela either arrived late, or bottled out, or couldn’t control the ball. But Lopetegui likes him and Herrera a lot – until the point when he can’t fail to see what everyone else sees and he takes them off.
   But also, and just to be clear, not everything is Lopetegui’s fault … although with the team he’s still got he should be showing a lot more than we’ve seen, a lot more than that possession football that has no meaning, soul, punch or thirst for conquest: football for eunuchs. But the whole truth is that the record for sales that the club has established this season [over 100 million euros] has destroyed last year’s great team. Of the six first-choice players that have been lost, not a single one has been replaced adequately: Danilo is better than Maxi, although the latter is the best of the new bunch; Alex Sandro, sold in a great bit of last-minute business, does not compare with the current version of Cissokho, and his sale started to be paid for after five minutes of the game at the Barreiros [Cissokho asleep for Marítimo’s goal]; Oliver has nothing to do with the ordinary Imbula, that player who is the most expensive ever in Portuguese football, in what must have been a great bit of business for whoever foisted him off on Porto; Danilo Pereira, a good player, hasn’t yet reached the same level of usefulness as Casemiro; Varela would have to be born ten times to match the outcast Quaresma, even though he’s on a downward path; and Aboubakar, who’s a good player, is obviously not a Jackson Martínez, just as Osvaldo is not Aboubakar, not even comparable to young André Silva, who showed such promise in the pre-season before being sent back to the ‘B’ team because he has the disadvantage of being Portuguese, something that doesn’t please the ‘Mister’ very much. Except for the arrival of Casillas to resolve the long-standing goalkeeping problem, FC Porto are incomparably worse than last season. Anyone who thinks differently is deceiving himself. The absence of creative players (with the exception of Brahimi), the inability to create attacking play from midfield, the non-existence of play on the wings (with Tello on the bench and Brahimi drifting inside), and, of course, the difficulty in finishing, in the absence of a Jackson Martínez (that you don’t find every day), are all screamingly obvious. If this FC Porto don’t go to the transfer market, and seriously, to buy players that can walk straight into the first team, I predict a year of endless frustrations.

(courtesy of Miguel Sousa Tavares)

 

18/08/15

1
Benfica’s start to the 2015/16 championship was impressive: a last quarter of an hour ‘à Benfica’, with four goals, three of which magnificent, two kids [Nélson Semedo and Victor Andrade] who have just arrived, making an impression, and a copious victory [4-0], leaving them clear at the top. Impressive, yes … but only for those that didn’t see the whole game. Because there’s another way of telling the story of what happened: up until the 75th minutes, you couldn’t see how Benfica were going to score, and two or three times it had been [Benfica ‘keeper] Júlio César stopping Estoril from scoring, while the Reds had had just one clear chance through Luisão. So a quarter of an hour from the end I said to myself I’d seen that film several times before and I knew how it ended.

In fact what astonishes me is that coaches visiting the Luz still haven’t caught on that they have to prepare their players mentally for the Reds’ inevitable final assault, invariably devastating. Benfica could be asleep until the 75th, 85th or 95th minute but suddenly they wake up without warning and settle the matter in one fell swoop. Merit to them undoubtedly, but there’s also tremendous ingenuousness and amateurism on the part of the visitors. On Sunday, the film played out once more but with a subtext that made all the difference. A story written and performed by Mr Tiago Martins, the referee who became an international without ever having reffed a single top-flight game – a visionary and pioneering promotion by [president of the refereeing body] Vítor Pereira. He made his top-flight debut, then, in Sunday’s game and he too put in a performance that was ‘à Benfica’: a clear penalty and possible red card for [Benfica captain] Luisão forgiven on 15 minutes, Benfica gifted the second and decisive goal through a penalty that he invented, and perhaps another penalty forgiven the Glorioso on 62 minutes when it was still 0-0. So thanks to this debutant, Benfica begin the season on the same terms as the last: picking up points offered by the referees from the word ‘go’, when the football displayed on the pitch doesn’t warrant it. Another championship like the last, please, no.

And so I’ll ‘pack up my guitar’. I’m going to carry on thinking that there’s nothing more stupid than drawing refs out of a hat. I’m going to continue to be ashamed of the alliance (I hope temporary) between [FC Porto president] Pinto da Cota and [Sporting president] Bruno de Carvalho. I’m going to continue to be gobsmacked by the ingratitude shown to Luís Duque, dismissed [as president of the Liga] on an ad hoc basis in favour of the available [former referee] Pedro Proença, parachuted-in. I’m going to kick myself for falling into the trap of arguing about refereeing from day one, but there’s no way round it. There’s no place for ingenuousness or gentlemanliness: the performance of Mr Tiago Martins (who I predict will have a rosy future in refereeing while Vítor Pereira is in charge of it) was the straw that broke the camel’s back: all of this is booby-trapped, set up to carry Benfica to a third title in a row.

Enough already! Bring on the drawing of refs and make it snappy, while there’s still time.

 

2
Sporting’s game also had some refereeing incidents, but one for each side, two goals that should have been disallowed, without any influence on the final result. What impressed me most, though, after a whole month of hearing of the great team that the magician Jorge Jesus [coach] had formed in just five weeks, was the Franciscan poverty of the football on show against a team set up from scratch, half the players beginners. Given the disparity of the two armies, [Tondela coach] Vítor Paneira gave a lesson to the infallible, peerless, omniscient Jorge Jesus. And if the gods hadn’t come to the aid of the magician, with an amateurish penalty on 95 minutes, at this moment all the grandiloquence announced to the four winds in the last month would have been turned to dust, scattered by this pitiless northern wind that puts paid to our summers and exposes, without remission, the hidden fear of failing that lies behind such vanity.

And just one more note: I read that the recently-promoted Tondela are having their back yard of a ground refurbished, which means they get to host Sporting and Benfica in the [Euro 2004 standard] Estádio de Aveiro – much more suitable, as they should all be, for top-flight football and for the big teams. But oddly enough, the work will end exactly in time for Tondela to host FC Porto, who will thus have to play in a back yard the same fixture that their direct rivals played in a proper – and neutral – stadium. It’s the first test for Pedro Proença: does equality of conditions mean anything to him?

 

3
My readers will be thinking that after a critical analysis of the performances of Sporting and Benfica, I’d be euphoric about the first game of my FC Porto – who, by comparison, won [3-0 over Vitória de Guimarães] by playing better than Sporting and without the refereeing gifts that Benfica enjoyed. But no, I’m not euphoric. It was a good win, sure, by a reasonable score and with some hopeful pointers for the long march ahead. But this Vitória de Guimarães team do not constitute a credible test (as their pre-season had already led us to understand). I’m waiting to see what happens in the coming game at Marítimo, our executioners in recent years; all Portistas are entitled to trust that [coach] Lopetegui will have learned the real threat they pose. And that he ends the intolerable and unjustified protection of the dead weight that is Herrera, and that he doesn’t think of replacing Tello or Brahimi with Varela.

 

4
As I wrote here as soon as the news came out that he was being signed, the Casillas effect is a gamble won – already and so far, at least. In terms of play, the respect his presence between the posts imposes on opponents is undeniable, as is the tranquillity he transmits to his team-mates, especially with the ball at his feet – an aspect which has caused us permanent scares for years with Helton and Fabiano. Casillas’ presence in FC Porto’s goal adds quality and class to the team and demands quality and class from his team-mates. From the point of view of marketing, you just have to look at the number of No. 12 shirts already sold … in Spain! … to understand the importance of his signing. (Hopefully this will be decisive for attracting the anxiously awaited shirt sponsors.)

But it’s also from the point of view of the club’s renown that Casillas’ presence is so important. Because of him, FC Porto have gained an even bigger reputation internationally. A Spanish newspaper has for the first time ever put a game from the Portuguese Liga on its front page. And a Spanish TV channel has decided to acquire the rights to games from our league. It would be unfair to say that Casillas has put FC Porto’s name on the map. It was already there on its own merit through two UEFA Cups, a European Cup, a Champions League, two World Club titles, a European Super Cup, and innumerable players and coaches leaving the Dragão on the way to the top of the world. But his choosing FC Porto after Real Madrid has reminded the world who FC Porto are. And in terms of planetary prestige, it’s put FC Porto miles in front of their domestic rivals. His signing (no doubt with the decisive collaboration of Lopetegui) was the best bit of management FC Porto have done in years.

(courtesy of Miguel Sousa Tavares)

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