While all eyes may be focused on Wembley on Saturday, Porto-Benfica will be the real highlight in a classico that will almost certainly settle the title race
By Rupert Fryer
Two points. Three goals. A single lead lost. That’s all the splits them. Both have gone the entire campaign unbeaten. They played out a 2-2 draw when they met earlier in the season. 28 games in and they’ve matched each other almost every step of the way. And so it all comes down to this. O Clasico. With Benfica two points ahead with just two games remaining, they travel to second-placed Porto on Saturday for what is effectively a play-off for the 2012/13 Liga Sagres title.
"It’s a very complicated situation for FC Porto and they will have to do everything to overcome Benfica and become champions," said Andre Villas-Boas this week, who led the club to a 2-1 victory to claim the title at the Estadio da Luz when these two last played out a title decider two years ago.
That season Porto went on to win the treble, adding the Europa League and the Taca de Portugal to their league title. Avoid defeat on Saturday and that’s a feat Benfica could well replicate. The Eagles face Chelsea in Amsterdam on Wednesday in the Europa League final before meeting Vitoria to decide the Taca de Portugal on May 26.
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Porto are desperate to stop them. Only twice in the last 30 years has the team on top with two matches remaining not gone on to win the Portuguese title, but they believe. "They've already held our funeral," said coach Vitor Pereira, "but we're still fighting." And they have been fighting all week. So much so, Pereira postponed his press conference on Thursday, preferring to use day to drill his players than speak to the media – a move befitting a man who prepares so scrupulously. "We’re ready for this game," he said Friday. "Benfica are a quality team, [but] I'm prepared."
Pereira always is. He’s very much the contemporary coach. The 44-year-old never made it to the national leagues in his playing days and retired before his 30th birthday to begin studying the game with a view to forging out a more successful career on the sidelines. Having picked up his maiden league title with Porto at the first time of asking after having helped Villas-Boas to that treble as assistant in 2010/11, Pereira is already attracting interest from abroad with Everton the latest to be suggested as his next destination.
In the opposite dugout sits a very different man, one desperate for revenge. Jesus still remembers watching AVB and Pereira embracing their players, celebrating the league title in Jesus’ backyard until the ground staff at Estadio da Luz turned the lights out.
For Jesus, this has become an opportunity. A point emphatically made last week directly after his side were held at home to Estoril in a result that blew the title race wide open: "We want to be champions at the Dragao!”
|It's a very complicated situation for FC Porto & they will have to do everything to overcome Benfica
- Former Porto boss Andre Villas-Boas
Jesus isn’t suave, urbane or erudite. To be honest, he ain’t all that good with the words. Neither is he young, dark and handsome. In fact, the 58-year-old is pretty terrifying, his piercing eyes enough to test any journalist’s resolve as he stares, patiently awaiting your question. He’s no Jose Mourinho, no AVB. No Vitor Pereira. And it works for him. It works for Benfica, too. Jesus is loud and aggressive. It’s why he’s so popular at the Luz. The fans can relate to him. He looks like he cares. He looks like one of them.
Not only that, he wants what they want. A self-confessed student of Total Football, he likes his sides to play with flair and a certain freedom, but also with a vehemence and determination that matches his own enthusiasm for the game.
His side will have to show that and more, especially if they are side are to clinch the title by winning in Porto and ending the Dragons’ 44-match unbeaten home record in the league.
It’s clash of the titans. Sporting’s recent demise has left only two - either Porto or Benfica have picked up every league title since 2002 - but in reality this is the age or the Portista, with the Dragons having collected 13 of the last 18 domestic championships to leave themselves just six away from Benfica’s overall haul of 32.
But on Saturday the past means nothing. It’s realistically a one-off. Winner takes all. Portugal, and the rest of Europe, will hold its breath. Forget the FA Cup. In the words of one great to have left the game this past week: it's squeaky bum time. You’d be mad to miss it.
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