Ringing The Changes At Sporting
Sporting are preparing for the new season in the wake of the exits of four pillars: young wing wonder Nani, old hand in goal Ricardo, Chilean wing-back Tello and defender-cum-holding midfielder Marco Caneira. With the pre-season over and the first trophy coming into range this weekend, Goal.com takes a look at what the Lisbon Leões (Lions) are preparing for the coming season…
Sporting Clube de Portugal, popularly yet inaccurately known as Sporting Lisbon by some, are ready to take on a new season with the hope of keeping ahead of cross-town rivals and stealing some of the fire that FC Porto have shown in the domestic Bwin Liga over the past few years.
Coach and former player Paulo Bento has managed to carve himself a fairly safe niche at the Estádio José Alvalade, the former youth team tactician having cut his teeth with the juniors before stepping into the shoes of ex-Coach José Peseiro (now at Panathinaikos). Bento nabbed second place in his debut 2005-06 season and did the same last season, frustratingly caught in the slipstream of a victorious FC Porto.
Despite the close-but-no-cigar results in the Bwin Liga the Taça de Portugal (Portuguese Cup) was hoisted at the end of last season with a win over Lisbon suburbanites Belenenses. A single goal from Brazilian striker Liedson (88 min) was enough to end the season on a positive note – made all the better by arch-rivals Benfica’s trophy drought.
His experience from the youth team has allowed Bento, renowned for his straight-faced strong leadership and tactical rigour that characterised him as a player, to groom the many talents that emerge from the lower divisions into top-flight players. Nani may have been sold off as Manchester United made an offer that couldn’t be refused, but the winger is hardly the be-all and end-all of Sporting.
Two names in particular stand out; number 24 Miguel Veloso and number 28 João Moutinho. The former showed his mettle in the Inter Milan battles last season, his increasingly solid game causing the Under-21 skipper to catch the attention of both Arsenal and Liverpool.
Moutinho is seen as an even greater promise and has already caught the eyes of several European greats, Inter Milan, Barcelona, Celtic, Arsenal and Manchester United having all sent scouts and spotters to track the local hero. His polyvalent performances drip with energy and he is capable of shouldering the burden of leadership with apparent ease.
Moutinho may not be a physical tower (he’s exactly between Deco and Romário in height terms) but his touch is exquisite and combined with a combative attitude that keeps him out of Bento’s squad rotation policy, the number 28 having his own song and being an idol at just 20 years of age.
Despite his tender age, Moutinho was awarded the vice-captaincy last year and the 20 year-old is seen as suitably mature by the no-nonsense Coach to sport the Captain’s armband this year. He takes over from Portugal keeper Ricardo, the 31 year-old who left in a EUR 3 million deal for Real Betis.
The veteran’s departure has opened a vacancy between the Sporting sticks and another youngster looks set to get a chance this season. 19 year-old Rui Patrício – who actually started off as a striker – is another Sporting youth academy product. He will, however, face tough competition with 32 year-old fellow Portuguese keeper Tiago and 24 year-old Serbian import Stojkovic to take over from Ricardo.
There are other youth products who’ve made the move up to the senior squad, a special mention going to number 25 Bruno Pereirinha. The 19 year-old has already drawn comparisons with Sporting alumnus Cristiano Ronaldo for his work on the wing, but its still early days to se if he can follow in the footsteps of the star, but he could join the long list of Sporting wing wonders such as Figo, Simão, Quaresma, Ronaldo and Nani.
Other budding Portuguese promises include three defenders: André Marques (20), João Gonçalves (19) and Paulo Renato (19), a midfielder: Adrien Silva (18 – also much-hyped to make it big this season) and a striker who teetered on the brink of making an impression last season: 21 year old Guinea Bissau-born Yannick Djaló. The talented forward has already caught the eye of FC Barcelona and will be looking for more minutes in the 2007-8 season.
Theres also a considerable foreign legion at Alvalade, the emphasis being on a sizeable Brazilian contingent, seven players from the former colony forming a little over a quarter of the Sporting squad. The biggest supply comes from the Timão (Big Team): Corinthians, four of the seven hailing from the São Paulo giant.
The most prominent is tall, slender striker Liedson, nicknamed Levezinho (little light one) for his frame and an innate ability to hang in the air and nod in a large amount of goals: no less than 57 in the 93 matches he’s played for the Leões since landing from Brazil. The number 31 is usually a starter under Bento and this is slated to continue this season as well.
Increasingly carving a place for himself is Ronny, the left-back had to duel it out with Portuguese counterpart Rodrigo Tello last year, but looks more likely to be given a place in the sun this season. The wing-back is famous for his searing shot, following in the footsteps of Roberto Carlos with a potentially gonad-crushing shot that was recorded at speeds of up to 222 km/hr in a game last season against Naval.
The two other ex-Corinthianos are 19 year-old midfielder Yannick Pupo (who came up through the Sporting academy after being signed from Corinthians juniors) and 26 year-old newly-arrived right-back Pedro Silva. The former is expected to be used in a very limited way by Bento but Pedro Silva is already being considered for a first team role as shown in the recent Guadiana tournament Final, although he must compete with Abel.
Along with Liedson, the other unquestioned first team member from Brazil is ex-Grêmio centre-back Anderson Polga, now one of Bento’s vice-captains and increasingly stirring the interest of European giants impressed by his classy performances commanding the back four. Polga looks likely to continue as the lynchpin in the Sporting rearguard and really needs to be given a chance at national level by Dunga.
A Brazilian who started shining in Portugal, rather than his homeland, is number 11 Derlei, completing his tour of the Portuguese Big 3 after three years at FC Porto (2002-5) and a loan last season to SL Benfica from Spartak Moscow. It seems that Bento is looking forward to a new Brazilian duo after trying Liedson-Deivid (now at Fenerbahçe) and Liedson-Alecsandro (Cruzeiro) but not finding the right mix.
Apart from the sizeable Brazilian contingent with five potential first team shoe-ins, Bento can count on one more South American to give a Tango taste. 26 year-old Leandro Pipi Romagnoli (ex-San Lorenzo) almost having left to return to Argentina in January, but deciding to stay on and fight for a place in midfield. Many expect this to be his either his breakout or breakdown season.
Looking east rather than south, two Montenegrins add to the Sporting attack. 21 year-old Number 10 Simon Vukčević has already caused waves as one of the most talented playmakers to come out of Partizan Belgrade and number 9 Milan Purović hailing from cross-town arch-rivals Red Star Belgrade after coming to prominence alongside Nikola Žigić. Purović looks set to battle it out with Derlei to join forces with Liedson.
Also from the East, albeit further north, comes Marat Izmailov. Expected to compete with Vukčević for a place in creative midfield the Russian is highly-rated but somewhat of a glass player who has suffered a series of injuries. He can play in the hole or on the flanks and arrives on loan as somewhat of an unknown quantity, albeit with a lot of promise.
Sporting seem set to ring in the changes and this could well be the season that cements Paulo Bento as the most exciting young Coach to come out of Portugal since José Mourinho became special. The latest competitive line-up gives an idea of how Paulo Bento may face Mourinho's old side, FC Porto, in the Supertaça on Saturday:
SPORTING (4-4-2): Stojkovic (Tiago/Patrício); Pedro Silva (Abel), Tonel, Polga and Ronny; Miguel Veloso, João Moutinho, Izmailov (Vukcevic) and Romagnoli (Djaló
; Derlei (Purović) and Liedson.
The challenge now is for Bento to integrate the new with the old, both in the sense of age and in the sense of incorporations. This has shown itself in a pre-season that was promising yet also highlighted the fact that the all-important mutual understanding between the players is still missing.
Bento wants a team that reflects his principles: safely blocking in defence, secure yet dynamically energetic in midfield and a hard-working and efficient attack that can make the most of their chances in front of goal. The formula has been in place since the Coach took over and now fans will be expecting his consecration - and a real challenge to the FC Porto hegemony as well as continuing to finish ahead of cross-town rivals Benfica.