The first El Clasico, between La Liga table sides Real Madrid and Barcelona, is only in October, but in the other side of the border, in Portugal, another ‘Clasico’ took place already on matchday 3 of Liga NOS schedule. We talk about Benfica against Porto, Eagles against Dragons, who saw the victory smiling to the latter.
If you do not pay attention to Liga NOS, you are missing something. Not only the league is responsible every year to export amazing players – with the most recent case being Joao Felix, 120m wonderkid to Atletico Madrid – but it also has lots of tense rivalries. We know that there is not much competition, with Porto and Benfica winning the league for the last 18 years, but between both, it is always a tight match till the last days.
The rivalry between Porto and Benfica is a rivalry between North and South of Portugal, a country that, although small, has lots of different traditions and peculiarities between regions. Anyway, we could write a whole book about why the ‘Classico’ (with double S) is a must-watch, but we will talk about the one who just happened this Saturday.
Half a year to forget for Porto
Porto was massively underrated before the match and the sportsbooks were setting them as the most likely losers of the duel between both. To understand why this happened we have to go a bit back and see how the team has been performing lately.
After a great halfway run last season, that saw Porto being 7 points clear of Benfica by January, the unexpected happened and the team lost all the advantage. They drew two games and then they had to play against their rival, Benfica, at home. Seemed easy, right?
This happened at the same time as Benfica decided to exchange the coach after a series of bad results. New coach Bruno Lage decided to put into the spotlight someone called Joao Felix. Felix would score the goal in Estadio do Dragao, Porto home stadium, that would turn the tables and win the game for Benfica (1-2).
Then, with just a couple of games to play, Benfica went on an unstoppable run and they did not lose any points in the way to conquer Liga NOS once again, after having lost it in the previous season. Plus, Porto also lost the Portuguese Cup final to Sporting CP in the penalty shootout and they ended the campaign ‘trophyless’.
In the Summer the team lost Herrera and Felipe to Atletico, two starters for the team, plus Yacine Brahimi who joined Qatari side Al-Rayyan. Also, Iker Casillas who had a heart attack in early May had to interrupt his career due to obvious reasons and thus, another important piece was left on the sidelines.
Early goodbye to Champions League dream
What is bad, can get worse and this August Porto did not start much better. The team made a couple of new signings and as normal, the chemistry did not immediately kick in. They lost the first game of Liga NOS, to debutants Gil Vicente (2-1) and then they lost the Champions League ticket, being kicked out in the preliminary round by Russian team Krasnodar.
Even though they won the first leg away (0-1). in Russia, somehow Porto was losing 3×0 in the first half, on the game back, at home. The team woke up slightly in the second half and new signings Ze Luis and Luis Diaz, scored 2 goals, but the game ended 3-2 and Krasnodar advanced on away goals.
So, after losing the first league match and being relegated to Europa League, August was not looking very positive and there were some doubts over the continuity of coach Sergio Conceicao. Yet, the board decided to stick with their coach and Porto got a consolation win in the following weekend over Vitoria Futebol Clube, (4-0), with a hat trick from Ze Luis. Was it enough to motivate the team to show up against their rival in the ‘Classico’?
Why Benfica were massive favorites?
As we mentioned before, Benfica had an unstoppable run after they changed coaches at the beginning of 2019 and Bruno Lage seemed the perfect fit for the club. Plus, after conquering Liga NOS they made a tremendous sale with Joao Felix, but they conserved most of their other key players (Rafa, Pizzi, Ruben Dias).
The team started the season with a confident win in the Portuguese SuperCup over Lisbon city rivals Sporting CP (5×0), that left every supporter pumping.
After that, they started Liga NOS with another 5×0 win over Paços de Ferreira and in the second matchday, they got away with 3 points more, after winning 0x2 over Belenenses SAD.
3 wins in 3 games and the team seemed confident in the start of the season, with many fans already claiming there would be an easy route to the title. Not so fast though and if the last years have taught us something is that there are some plot twists in the Liga NOS table between the two usual contenders.
The game as it happened: first Classico of the season
Porto showed up in the Classico with a curious note in the right-back position, with Jesus Corona, who normally plays as a winger, playing as a backup defender.
It was not surprising, even if Porto has two options for that position – Manafa and new signing Renzo Saravia – but neither has convinced so far, and they were mostly the ones to blame for the two early-season defeats.
Meanwhile, Corona convinced at the Vitoria FC game and he got the position. So, Porto showed up with an eagerly attacking side, pressing the opposition like there was no tomorrow. At the same time, for the same position, Bruno Lage decided to opt for youth player Nuno Tavares.
As much future as the youngster has, it seemed like a step too far to play such a heavy pressure game and Porto took advantage of his inexperience. With a front attack made of speedsters, with Marega, Ze Luis and Colombian winger Luis Diaz, it was too much for Nuno to handle by himself.
The high-pressure system that Porto applied worked like a charm. Sergio somehow applied a checkmate on the opposition, forcing them to play near their attacking area, with almost no space to breathe.
Ze Luis, the goal prophet that Porto was seeking
If in the last season the team struggled due to poor finishing and missing sitters, Ze Luis seems like he arrived to solve that problem. After already scoring against Krasnodar and a hat trick against Vitoria FC, he broke the deadlock after 20 minutes in Estadio da Luz.
After forcing Benfica’s keeper to a great save, Ze Luis immediately took advantage of the subsequent corner kick and netted the opener with a cheeky backheel goal, near the post.
Benfica was late to react and they seemed lifeless on the pitch. Rafa was merely running up and down with no purpose, with the two strikers – Seferovic and record signing Raul de Tomas having no opportunities.
In fact, during the 90 minutes, Benfica had barely any shots on target. An absolute surprise if you consider the team had such a massive goal rate in the last 3 matches and had suffered no goals.
Meanwhile, if Porto had taken his chances and if Marega wasn’t so clumsy, they Porto would have got away with a higher scoreline. But finally, in the 85 minutes, the striker from Mali got over the Benfica back four, after a pass from Jesus Corona and netted Porto’s second.
The game ended with 2 goals advantage for Porto and the tables have turned, with Porto now overtaking the rivals in the league table. FC Porto is 3rd in Liga NOS by matchday 3, with Sporting CP and promoted team Famalicao leading the way with 7 points each.
Do not expect any surprises though: Porto or Benfica will take the title of Primeira Liga. However, it will be a tight run between both til the end and the first shots have been fired.