With all the talk in Belgium being of Franky Vercauteren joining the Lisbon giants on a short term deal, you’d be forgiven for forgetting their next Europa League opponents are Genk. Fortunately Luis Catarino has all the information we need about Sporting…
You can’t argue with history. Winners of the Portuguese championship in eighteen occasions, Sporting CP are one of the three most popular clubs in Portuguese football. Their influence in European football is not that significant but they can still be proud of clinching the Cup Winners’ Cup in the 1963/64 season, thanks to the famous “Cantinho do Morais” – a direct corner-kick goal scored by defender João Morais in the final against MTK Budapest.
Not long ago, Sporting were runners-up in the 2004/05 UEFA Cup final played in Lisbon, having lost to CSKA Moscow, who had a killing Brazilian society featured by Daniel Carvalho & Vágner Love. Losing the final was bad. Losing it at their own Alvalade stadium had an unique bitterness.
The Sporting coach at that time was José Peseiro, who is currently leading a very entertaining ball-possession-styled SC Braga side, as you have may have noticed last Tuesday night at Old Trafford. Braga have grown a lot in the last few years and their solid structure gives them the confidence to claim themselves contenders to win the Portuguese league title, alongside FC Porto and SL Benfica. Shouldn’t Sporting feature that list of contenders, as well? No, they are not the same level anymore.
Severe financial constraints and managerial inability led Sporting to a black hole, whereas the current chairman Godinho Lopes is not showing enough skills to lead the club to good sporting results. Perhaps the results on the pitch would not make the financial problems disappear much faster but at least that would soothe the supporters’ anger. The board structure is shaking everywhere and last Monday two heavyweight members – Luís Duque (board) and Carlos Freitas (director of football) – abandoned Sporting, after conflict with Godinho Lopes.
This shows a little bit of the tense atmosphere that the club is living at the moment. Many fans are in disbelief, frustrated and turning their back on the team. This is actually one of the problems affecting Sporting in the past seasons: the lack of managerial ability by the successive boards to generate more members and call them to support the team in Alvalade. There’s indeed a big contrast to their city rivals Benfica, who are a phenomenon of increasing popularity amongst the masses. Yet, one of the reasons for Sporting’s decreasing number of supporters is obviously related with their lack of silverware, as after the 1982 league title the Lions have only been Portuguese champions twice – in 2000 (with coach Augusto Inácio) and 2002 (Laszlo Bölöni).
With six league matchdays played so far in the Portuguese league, Sporting are the 12th placed of the table, already eight points behind joint leaders Porto and Benfica. The Lions have only won once in the league this season and the scenario got darker last weekend when they were eliminated from the Portuguese Cup, being defeated 3-2 in extra-time against Moreirense, which hurried the dismissal of Luís Duque and Carlos Freitas.
How good will their morale be when visiting Racing Genk, who are still unbeaten in the league in 2012/13. Well, the supporters are probably hoping the recent signing of a new coach (former Genk manager Francky Vercauteren) could raise the players’ motivation in a short/medium term, even if there are deep, deep tactical problems beyond that.
It’s possible that caretaker coach Oceano Cruz keeps the 4-3-3 formation he used at Moreirense, strengthening the midfield line with Stijn Schaars (good shooter and set-pieces taker) next to the Brazilian box-to-box man Elias and the Argentinian chief Rinaudo. Right now the team doesn’t feel confident, so it’s wise to ensure more presence in the midfield, in order to protect the team from possible silly mistakes.
You look at Rui Patrício’s expression and you immediately see that there’s something wrong going on with the team. He never looked like a very cheerful guy but at this moment he can’t hide his disappointment for Sporting’s disastrous period. Rui Patrício is the best Portuguese goalkeeper nowadays and quite certainly the most valuable player of the Sporting squad regarding a future transfer. Patrício has been one of the most consistent performers this season, with several important saves. If Sporting are unable to have the ball in the Cristal Arena tonight, then he will possibly have more work to stop Jelle Vossen & Co.
He’s the biggest absence for this match. Izmailov has arguably been the most decisive player of the team for some years (see section below) and his presence is always very motivating for the whole team. Besides, the promising Peruvian talent Andre Carrillo, who would have been his replacement on the right wing, is also out of this 19 players’ selection, reason why it should be the ex-Barça youngster Jeffren to start, albeit his fringe physical condition.
There are still some question marks about the team to be lined up by Oceano but one thing is sure: it’s very important that Diego Capel gets form as soon as possible. The Spaniard, ex-Sevilla, is a flamboyant left-winger who had been one of the three key players at Sporting last season (the others were Elias and Izmailov). Nevertheless, he has been quite bland in this start of 2012/13 and one of the reasons might have to do with the poor form of Argentinian left-back Emiliano Insúa (under-20 World Champion in 2007), who used to combine very well with Capel due to his incisive overlapping.
Without Izmailov and Carrillo, it’s fundamental that Capel shows up to employ his quick dribbling and cojones football. Otherwise, the team will struggle a lot in the attack, especially because Dutch striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel has been very inconsistent and lacking on confidence, almost needing ten chances to score one goal. Even in good conditions, he’s not that strong against tough teams.
All the players, maybe with the exception of Rinaudo, seem in low form. Names like Capel and Insúa were mentioned above as examples of off-form players but there’s also one to be added in that list: midfielder Elias. He’s an absolutely vital player, providing plenty of dynamic. But he’s not going through a good moment and needs time to improve his condition. One of the negative aspects of his game, though, is his hard-tackling.
Speaking about hard-tackling, there’s an inevitable reference to the two centre-backs Khalid Boulahrouz and Marcos Rojo. The Dutch and the Argentinian are occasionally too aggressive and lose their temper quite often. They are still strengthening their routines because both have only landed Lisbon this summer.
Although Franky Vercauteren was appointed yesterday as Sporting head coach (until the end of the current season), it will be the caretaker man Oceano Cruz to lead the team at the Cristal Arena. Oceano was promoted from the B team in early October, following Ricardo Sá Pinto’s sack after the (perhaps not so) shocking 3-0 defeat in Hungary against Videoton. In two games as Sporting’s gaffer, Oceano lost 2-0 at FC Porto (Portuguese league) and then, last weekend, was eliminated from the Portuguese Cup, having lost 3-2 in extra-time at Moreirense. Born in Cape Verde fifty years ago, he was a robust defensive midfielder, capped 54 times for the Portuguese National Team and part of the Euro 96 squad in the England finals. Played eleven seasons for Sporting (1984 – 1991 and 1994 – 1998).
Sporting are under a big dark cloud but there is one player who never quits and is seen as the perfect example. The Argentinian defensive midfielder Fabián ‘Fito’ Rinaudo (ex- Gimnasia LP) is loved by the fans due to his character, aggression and tremendous fighting spirit. Excellent in tackling but also confident in the build up and long range shooting, the 25 year-old has been in good form lately. Rinaudo only played ten league games last season because of a serious injury he picked up in the Europa League, when visiting Romanian side Vaslui. Consequently, Sporting really missed him in the rest of the 2011/12 season. The captain arm band suits him well.
Fortunately for the Genk fans, Sporting’s right-winger/centre attacking midfielder Marat Izmailov is not playing tonight. The 30 year-old Russian is extremely prone to injuries and physical issues, although the official reason why he didn’t face Moreirense last weekend was that he had personal affairs to take care of in his home country. Every time he’s playing, you see that he adds more pace and quality in the team’s offensive stage, with dazzling dribbles and good crossing on the right wing or intelligent one-two moves and accurate shooting through the middle. This is his sixth season with the Lions.
Centre-midfielder André Martins, a product of Sporting’s youth ranks, is an under-21 International with a pretty good potential. He’s only 1,66 metre tall and it’s fine to compare his game to João Moutinho’s, now at FC Porto. He’s not a genuine creative and he’s not a genuine defensive midfielder, either. André Martins just combines both styles with full energy, technique and simple processes, ensuring a decent balance with similar intensity in the defensive and offensive stage. The problem for his growth in the Sporting squad is that there is few room for him. There are already many centre-midfielders heading to the starting eleven, like Rinaudo, Schaars, Elias, Gelson Fernandes and Adrien Silva. It’s worth to keep an eye on his career, though, even considering that his apparently fragile physique could be a disadvantage.
Luís Catarino is a Portuguese football journalist. He produces regular analysis of the Portuguese and Brazilian leagues. Find him on Twitter @LuisCatarino8
EDITOR’S VIEW ON GENK
Unbeaten in the league, Mario Been looks to have finally settled in Belgium. They’re playing some great stuff up front and the defence is finally doing their job. Much of this side rests upon Jelle Vossen who is back to his best, Thomas Buffel and new additions Benji De Ceulaer and Steven Joseph Monrose are playing their part too. Confidence riding high against a team devoid of any could lead Genk to another big win.