Sporting Lisbon can make it a three-horse race in Portugal

SPORTING CLUBE de Portugal have not won the Portugese league championship since 2002 and have spent the past 18 years watching Porto (11 wins) and Benfica (7) dominate domestic football. They’ve started a season well before , but there’s a saying in the red half of Lisbon: “Sporting come down with the Christmas lights”. As the festive season approaches, the Verde e brancos (green and whites) are top of the Primeira Liga and are unbeaten in nine games.

There’s a certain vibrancy about the way Rúben Amorim’s team are going about their business this season. For a start, they are fielding one of the youngest line-ups in the league (squad average age 25.9) and there’s a big emphasis on youth within their set-up. 

Sporting have a cluster of players who are already being eyed by clubs outside Portugal, all of whom have been with Sporting since very young. Nuno Mendes, for example, is being watched closely by Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Juventus. A left-sided wingback, he has been with the club’s youth system since he was just 10 years old. Jovane Cabral, Tiago Tomás and Daniel Bragança have all graduated through the ranks.

Sporting’s have one of the most Portugal-centric squads in the Primeira Liga, 15 of their 28 main players are Portuguese. That means Less than 50% of the squad are expatriates (47.4%), which is much lower than the other members of the country’s “big three” – Benfica (76.3%) and Porto (75.3%).

Transfer activity in 2020 has proved to be successful, with the arrival of Pedro Gonçalves (also known as Pote) filling the gap left by the departure of Bruno Fernandes to Manchester United last season. Twenty-two year-old Gonçalves, who had a spell with Wolves, was signed from Famalicão for € 6.5 million and has scored 10 goals this season. He is already being tipped to become Portugal’s next big star, which should yield Sporting a hefty fee as the player is currently on a five-year contract.

Sporting spent around € 13 million in pre-season, but recouped € 46 million by selling Wendel to Zenit St. Petersburg for € 20 million and Marcos Acuña to Sevilla for € 10.5 million. Over the past five years, Sporting, like Benfica and Porto, have provided a constant source of talent for the rest of Europe and in that timeframe, show a positive balance of over € 200 million in player trading.

They don’t come up against Benfica until the end of January and they’ve already met Porto once (2-2 draw), so Sporting only need to keep their heads to keep their title challenge alive well into the new year. They will not have any distractions from European competition as they were eliminated in the play-off round in the Europa League by Austria’s LASK. With Porto in the Champions League and Benfica still competing in the Europa, this may be a decisive factor in the title race. But have Sporting got the strength in depth to maintain their current momentum and can they stave off the attentions of big clubs from Europe’s top leagues as they circle the Estádio José Alvalade?

Photo: PA

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