In recovery, Sporting prepares for Benfica
Sporting play Benfica in the Portuguese Premeira Liga on Sunday. They play them again in a Taca [Cup] de Portugal first leg affair midweek. The rivalry between the two, along with Porto the biggest clubs in the country, guarantees an intense week for the squads, coaches and fans.
Sporting won't feel quite as much pressure as they might have last season when Bruno Carvalho was club chairman. The erratic businessman was dismissed from the club after he was charged with kidnapping, acts of terrorism and other violent crimes stemming from an attack on the club academy and incidents involving several first-team players. In fact, Wolves can thank his insanity for the arrival of goalkeeper Rui Patricio.
Seven first-team players requested to be released from their contracts over the past summer. Along with Patricio, William Carvalho and Andre Martins departed. Dutchman Bas Dost changed his mind and remained with the club following the chairman's ouster. With Fredirico Varandas as the new president, the club has been attempting to repair its severely damaged reputation in both Portugal and Europe while remaining competitive on the pitch.
Benfica and Sporting trail well behind Porto at the top of the table. Braga are also comfortably above both in second place. Benfica are five points off the pace, Sporting double that. At the moment, the title is beyond Sporting and they may be more interested in gaining the advantage in the Taca. Nevertheless, the club doesn't want to fall off the Europa League pace.
The Lisbon club are well known for developing and selling talent. Porto have always been the dominant team in Portugal but Sporting is rarely far off. The scandals and violence under Carvalho, who used the club's ultras to intimidate the squad, has affected their ability to compete. Those players who left did so when the league agreed their contracts should be terminated. Sporting took no profit from their transfers, instead suffering a huge loss in opportunity costs.
On the bright side, their progress into the Europa League's Round of 32 demonstrates their resilience. February is going to be a busy month. Back-to-back games against Benfica are just the beginning. Their Europa league clash with Villareal is a massive test. Europe's secondary competition isn't as lucrative as the Champions League but every euro the club can earn by advancing offsets the summer setback.
They have been able to manage impressive results. A penalty-shootout win in the Taca against Porto stands out. Ten points behind the northerners, the title is beyond them and thus next season's Champions League. Second or third puts them in the 2019/20 Europa League, though, giving them something to play for in the first match against Benfica.
Carvalho isn't without his supporters. His strong-arm tactics drove Sporting up the table after some lean years. There's no reason to think the same could have been accomplished through less alarming methods. Current head coach Marcel Keizer has his work cut out but he has the opportunity to make significant progress in Sporting's revival this week.