Portuguese performance in Europe
Going into the last week of fixtures of the continent’s two most prestigious tournaments, the Portuguese sides have very little to play for to say the least, with each of them having already guaranteed their right to continue playing in European competition when 2019 comes around. Porto have assured themselves top spot in the Champions League, Benfica have fallen out of Europe’s elite competition but know that they will be playing Europa League football after Christmas, while Sporting have advanced to the first knockout round of Europe’s secondary competition but can’t catch Arsenal who lead the way in the group. But let’s take a closer look at each side, and evaluate how they have fared in Europe overall:
It’s been a breeze for Porto so far this campaign, as many had initially predicted it would be. Having been the pot 2 side heading into the group stage, they could count themselves highly fortuitous to avoid any of Europe’s big hitters in their group, with the potential pot 1 sides they could have faced being Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Juventus, PSG and Lokomotiv Moscow. Ultimately, they were drawn alongside the latter in Lokomotiv, who currently sit bottom of the group and look set to drop out of Europe altogether.
Meanwhile, the other two sides in the group are Schalke, who have undoubtedly struggled domestically this season, sitting 13th in the Bundesliga with just 14 points from 14, and Galatasaray, who have also failed to set their domestic league alight this season, currently occupying 7th place in the Turkish Super Lig, behind leaders Istanbul Basaksehir, followed by Kasimpasa, Antalyaspor, Besiktas, Yeni Malatyaspor and Trabzonspor respectively.
Overall, therefore, it is no surprise that Porto have won all but one of their matches in the Champions League so far, only dropping points away to Schalke in a 1-1 draw on the first game week. Since then, Porto have beaten Galatasaray 1-0, beaten Lokomotiv 3-1 and 4-1, and got their revenge on Schalke in Portugal by winning 3-1.
Thirteen points from 5 games, five points clear of Schalke in second, 9 points clear of Galatasaray in 3rd, and Porto have eased into the second round - and will fancy their chances of even going on to make the quarters.
Meanwhile, Benfica have had a poor Champions League campaign, failing to put up any significant challenge on Ajax as they slumped out of the competition with two games to spare.
Falling to defeat to Bayern Munich in the first round of the group stage was certainly no disgrace, losing 2-0 in the Luz as they saw Ajax ease past AEK Athens simultaneously. Benfica then just about battled past AEK Athens in their second match to get their first points on the board in the Champions League group stage for nearly 2 years, an atrocious record by all accounts.
It wasn’t pretty though; after Seferovic put Benfica in front after just 6 minutes, before Alex Grimaldo doubled their advantage after a quarter of an hour, it looked like it was going to be a walk in the park for Benfica. However, after Ruben Dias saw red just before half time, the Portuguese outfit suddenly faced a hard task to cling to victory, and their gameplan in the second half was clear for all to see as they looked to simply defend their two-goal lead, making little attempt to extend their advantage - or even hold onto the ball.
Benfica lost all control of the game, and it looked like a matter of when, not if, AEK would score right from the get-go. And AEK Athens’ pressure eventually paid off, Viktor Klonaridis scoring in the 53rd minute, before he then got his second of the night just 10 minutes later. With nearly half an hour of the game remaining, the fear was that Benfica were now going to throw away all three points, having been second best throughout the second half.
However, a hero stepped forward from an unexpected source, as Alfa Semedo charged forwards from his own half before thumping a long range effort into the bottom corner from long range. Benfica saw out the game, thanks in part to the heroics of goalkeeper Vlachodimos, and a huge three points were taken home.
The warning signs were there though; Benfica could not hold onto a comfortable lead after dropping to 10 men and their frailties were on display. And with no Ruben Dias for the next match due to suspension, Benfica had to face Ajax in a crucial battle without their best centre back.
In reality, and in hindsight, though, Benfica did a good job in the Netherlands; they went toe-to-toe with Ajax in a match that really could have gone either way. With the score still 0-0 heading into stoppage time, it looked as if the battle for the second Champions League qualifying spot (alongside Bayern Munich) was going to the wire. However, after an error from Ruben Dias’ replacement German Conti, who was largely very good in that centre back role, Ajax grabbed a very late winner, a sucker-punch to Benfica and their chances of making the latter stages of the competition.
When Benfica then failed to secure all three points in the return fixture, drawing 1-1 in Portugal, their hopes of making the Champions League second round were over before they even kicked another ball, while they then suffered a devastating 5-1 defeat at the hands of Bayern to really hit home just how disappointing the campaign had been.
On the other hand, Sporting have produced a very respectable showing in the Europa League. In a group that always had the potential to cause a few issues, having to take on a resurgent Arsenal side in addition to having to travel long-distances to both Ukraine and Azerbaijan, there was always the potential for heartache in the group.
And it certainly wasn’t easy; after securing a 2-0 victory over Qarabag after a second half double, Sporting took on Vorskla in Ukraine and struggled for long spells; after conceding in the 10th minute while being on top of the game, Sporting continued to dominate, but for all their possession and pressure, they failed to have too many meaningful chances, and ultimately failed to find the back of the net as stoppage time approached.
With just a handful of minutes remaining, Sporting were staring defeat in the face, and looked as if they were going to drop a costly three points, yet somehow the most unlikely of comebacks was achieved, Fredy Montero equalising on the stroke of the 90th minute, before supersub Jovane Cabral completed the turnaround after a swift Sporting counterattack. It saw Sporting go to 6 points from 2 games, six points clear of both their Ukrainian opponents and Qarabag after two games.
After then picking up one point from two games against Arsenal, Sporting thumped Qarabag 6-1 in Azerbaijan under new management, which saw them go up to 10 points, seven clear of third place with a game remaining.
Sporting got the job done, with relative ease in the end, rounding up a decent group stage for Portuguese football.