Primeira Preview & Prediction (PPP) – Round 19

Paulo Fonseca's touchline ban can only hurt Pacos Ferreira's chances against Porto this weekend. Photo: Publico

Paulo Fonseca’s touchline ban can only hurt Pacos Ferreira’s chances against Porto this weekend. Photo: Publico

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. You won’t find a better analysis of last weekend’s Primeira Liga action than Charles Dickens’ introductory sentiment in his classic A Tale of Two Cities. It was as if the Portuguese soccer world turned on its head overnight: All the minnows became giants and all the winners became losers. All, that is, except for the Lions of Lisbon, who were the only top-five team to escape the round with a victory.

Depending on where you pledge your allegiance, you were either thrilled or distraught; no doubt most neutrals loved the results as they blew what was once a foregone conclusion of a title race wide open to a three team race that, if last week’s scores are anything to go by, could go either way down the stretch.

As Portuguese football fans, we were treated to a number of curious results and shock upsets that thoroughly entertained us in one way or another; as Portuguese football prognosticators, however, we were made complete fools of and left to pick up the pieces of our shattered confidence.

My confidence in particular has left the building along with Elvis: I only correctly guessed the winner of one match (Sporting over Academica) and came away from the weekend with an embarrassing 1-8 record. I now have an overall record of 6-12. Yikes. I guess my new approach didn’t pay off huh?

Something tells me I wasn’t the only one cryin’ like a hound dog when it was all over though. I mean, who in their right mind would’ve tipped Vitoria de Guimaraes to drop points at home against last place Gil Vicente, or, Benfica, Porto, AND Braga to lose to the likes of Pacos de Ferreira, Maritimo, and Boavista? It’s insanity I tell ya – insanity!

But, let’s be honest, that’s what makes betting – even just friendly betting with no money involved – fun. Nothing is a sure thing no matter how much we’d like to believe it is, and, it’s the mystery that keeps us engaged.

Speaking of a mystery, who knows how my picks will play out this week? If I have another terrible showing I might just revert to flipping a coin or pulling teams out of a hat to see if my record becomes more respectable. But, for the time being, I’m taking one more chance without literally resorting to chance. Here are my inclinations for the 19th round of play:

Braga vs. Moreirense – Fri. Jan. 30th – 8:30pm local/UK, 3:30pm EST

We kick off the schedule on Friday with one of the aforementioned losers looking to pick themselves up at home against a Moreirense side that, in all likelihood, won’t make it easy to do so.

I thought Braga had it in the bag against Boavista. I really did. But Sergio Conceicao’s men were largely disappointing on the day, not creating much in the way of quality scoring chances, and, not capitalizing on the ones that actually did fall their way. It was surprising just how listless they appeared to be but credit must be given to Petit in the way he prepared his squad for the match.

Now, I ask you: Will Miguel Leal build on that game plan? Because I feel as though he will.

Recent results show that Moreirense, much like Boavista last week, play Braga incredibly tough: In their last 6 meetings in all competitions, the Green and Whites only have 1 fewer goal than the Archbishops, and, 3 of their matches have ended in draws including their first one this season (0-0). Of the other matches in question, Braga have won twice and lost once.

Form could be a cause for concern though, especially for Moreirense: They’ve conceded in 5 straight road games, and, 13 of their 18 goals conceded so far this season have come on the road. Add to that the fact that they’re coming into the match following a demoralizing 3-2 loss to Nacional at home where they gave up the lead twice before falling behind and losing themselves, and well, they may not be in the best headspace right now.

They can hang their heads on the fact that they’ve scored in their last 8 games though, and will no doubt be encouraged at the fact that Braga, the Liga’s 3rd best defensive side, have conceded a goal in their last 4 games.

To be honest, I don’t really have a strong feeling one way or the other with this one.  On the one hand, Braga are 5th in the table, and they have the 5th best home record in the league earning 19 of their 31 points at the Estadio Municipal de Braga. But, on the other hand, Moreirense did manage to draw Sporting on the road earlier this season.

I’m going to play it safe and do what I normally do when I can’t choose between teams. I’ll take the draw and hope for the best.

Prediction: Braga 1-1 Moreirense

Benfica vs. Boavista – Sat. Jan. 31st – 5pm local/UK, 12pm EST

Our first Saturday fixture sees Jorge Jesus’ Eagles host those Panthers that managed to surprise Braga last week. Can Petit do it again and snatch more points away from the best team in Portugal? The logical response is to say no, he can’t, but, as we’ve seen, the fickle mistress known as lady luck can easily swing outcomes in her suitor’s favour.

Benfica had been the apple of her eye for quite some time: A record-setting, first-half of the campaign sees them 1st in the league on 46 points – 6 points up on their nearest rival Porto – and either 1st or 2nd in home record, away record, goals scored, goals conceded, and form. But, if their match away to Pacos is a sign of things to come, there may be trouble in paradise.

Benfica, despite controlling much of the match, couldn’t put any of their opportunities away. The men in red managed to strike the bar three times: Once when Lima smacked the crossbar on a penalty, once when Eduardo Salvio grazed the far post off a deflection, and once when Lima, again, headed onto the crossbar. It didn’t take long for Benfiquistas to realize it was going to be one of “those” nights.

There haven’t been many of them though. So, no, the sky isn’t falling just yet.

The Eagles still have a number of impressive streaks to build on: They’re undefeated at home this season, have scored in all their home games, and have kept a clean sheet in 14 of their last 17 home games in the league, including their last 5 matches at home.

Boavista, in contrast, will be looking to improve on their poor record away from home, as they’ve only won 4 points in their 9 games away from the Estadio do Bessa. Add to that the lackluster defense that’s allowed 31 goals and things aren’t looking good for the Panthers from Porto.

But, I’m going to give them a bit of a chance in this one. I expect the birds to be in a fowl mood, but, I can see them sticking around and making things interesting.

After all, Boavista are on a bit of a scoring streak, having found the back of the net in their last 4, and, they only lost to Benfica 1-0 in their last meeting earlier this season.

I say Jesus’ men win a tight one, and look to start a new 81-game scoring streak in the Liga.

Prediction: Benfica 1-0 Boavista

Nacional vs. Belenenses – Sat. Jan. 31st – 5:30pm local/UK, 12:30pm EST

The second Saturday matchup sees a much-improved Nacional side hosting a Belenenses squad that’s falling back to earth at an alarming rate after starting the season so brightly.

Since winning 6 of their first 10 matches, the Blues from Restelo have only won 1 of their last 8, and, have failed to score in 7 of their last 8 including last weekend’s 0-0 draw with Penafiel.

Although they’ve still managed to hang on to the 6th spot in the table during that time span, there are a group of 6 teams separated by 6 points or less who are closing the gap quickly. And Nacional is one of them.

Manuel Machado’s Nationalists are riding a bit of a wave having won their last 3 including last Sunday’s 3-2 thriller on the road against Moreirense. Just two weeks ago they found themselves without a single win away from home, now they’ve won 2 straight. There’s no doubt that they’ve tapped into something and are beginning to turn things around.

If they can establish a satisfactory road record with the quality performances they tend to give at home, the White-and-Black of Funchal may just be the surprise squad of the latter half of the season.

Although Belenenses won their last meeting 3-1, Nacional holds the edge overall with 4 wins and 1 draw in the last 6 matches in all competitions, and, they’ve outscored Lito Vidigal’s men 9-6 in the process.

I don’t have much faith in Belenenses at this point as you can probably tell. I picked them to go down to Penafiel last week because, for all their time near the top of the table, I just don’t think they’re that great.

Their 7th ranked defense has been able to keep them in a bunch of games that their 11th ranked offense hasn’t been able to grab a hold of, but, that bubble’s going to burst sooner or later.

The fact that Nacional has been showing promise, and, feels good about themselves is enough for me to pick them over a group that’s most decidedly not.

Prediction: Nacional 1-0 Belenenses

Penafiel vs. Guimaraes – Sat. Jan. 31st – 8:15pm local/UK, 3:15pm EST

On paper, Guimaraes should handle Penafiel rather easily when they travel to the Estadio Municipal 25 de Abril. But, we all know that, at this point, Guimaraes can’t exactly be trusted.

Last time I exclaimed, “Guimaraes win this. I don’t think it’ll be all that close”.

Well, not only was it close, but, after falling behind 2-0 to last place Gil Vicente at home, it took an Andre Andre penalty in the dying minutes to rescue a point from the game. A game that, if we’re completely honest, Guimaraes needed to have if they hold any aspirations for European football.

Much like the previously mentioned Belenenses, to say that the Little Whites are slipping would be an understatement. Since winning 8 of their first 11 matches, they’ve only managed to pick up victories in 2 of their last 7, and, haven’t even scored in their last 3 games on the road. For a team with the 4th best offense in the league with 32 goals scored, and, sitting in 4th in the table with 35 points, only 4 up on 5th place Braga, this should be a matter of grave concern.

In my first article I comically wondered whether or not the northerners were real, citing that they’d need a big result against Academica to prove that they weren’t fading away. Despite getting that 4-0 result, I can unequivocally say that they are showing signs of slinking into the abyss. And no, it’s not funny. At least, it’s not funny to Rui Vitoria.

Rui Quinta doesn’t have much to laugh about either as Penafiel sit right on the relegation zone with 12 points, and, are the worst home team in the Liga.

The Red-and-Black have only earned 6 of a possible 27 points at home all season, and, have conceded in 6 straight home games. Generally speaking, Penafiel always find a way to give up a goal on their turf, as the only clean sheet they’ve kept in front of their fans all year came back in September against Vitoria de Setubal.

So, am I leaning towards Guimaraes? Yeah, I am. But the key word in that question is “leaning”. I’m losing my faith in this squad as well; they need to show me more because they’re capable of more.

In a head to head comparison, Guimaraes have won 5 of the last 6 meetings in all competitions, and, have outscored Penafiel 13-3 in those meetings. I have to temper this statistic by mentioning that 2 of these matches were club friendlies, but, I think the numbers are important regardless.

Guimaraes win this. They have to win this, so they will. But, I can see the bottom-feeders being a thorn in their side.

Prediction: Penafiel 0-1 Guimaraes

Rio Ave vs. Estoril – Sun. Feb. 1st – 4pm local/UK, 11am EST

Rio Ave and Estoril are two other teams in that group of six chasing Belenenses down for 6th place in the table, and, other than recent form, there is little separating these two.

Pedro Martins’ Big River are currently 9th in the league on 24 points, earning 15 of those points at home and 9 of them away, and they’ve conceded just as many goals as they’ve scored – 24. Estoril, in comparison, are just ahead of them in 8th with 25 points despite having scored 2 fewer goals (22), conceded 2 more goals (26), and having earned 1 fewer point at home (14).

The Canaries are slightly better on the road however, having earned 11 of their 25 points away from the Estadio Antonio Coimbra da Mota. Oh, and form. Herein lies the difference in these sides: Jose Couceiro’s men have earned more than twice as many points in their last 8 than Rio Ave (15-7).

Perhaps the northerners’ form can be best understood when comparing their last two Liga matches: After coming off an impressive showing against Sporting, the usually well-organized northerners found themselves picked apart at the hands of a desperate Setubal side last week, after scoring the first goal of the matchup. In one game they look like world-beaters, in the other a punching bag. It has me wondering if it’s part of Rio Ave’s personality to play up to – or, down to – the level of their opposition.

Or, maybe it’s just that the nets at their stadium seem smaller than all the others: Despite having kept a clean sheet in 7 of their last 9 home games, they themselves have been kept off the scoreboard in their last 3 in the Vila do Conde.

Either way they’re going to have to improve and improve fast. And this rematch with Estoril could be just what the doctor ordered.

An Ahmed Hassan hat-trick helped destroy the beach boys 5-1 in their first meeting this season, so, Rio Ave should be confident that they can take all 3 points on Sunday.

Head-to-head statistics suggest that it could go either way though: In their last 6 meetings, both teams have tasted victory 3 times. Rio, again, have a slight edge in the goal-scoring department though, as they’ve outscored Estoril 10-7 in those matches.

My gut tells me to go with a draw in this one, but, these guys don’t seem to like draws when they play each other – which is bizarre considering just how closely they matchup in all other aspects – so, I’m going to go with the team that’s lost only once in their last 10 Liga games, and, may just be looking for a little revenge.

Prediction: Rio Ave 0-1 Estoril

Academica vs. Maritimo – Sun. Feb. 1st – 4pm local/UK, 11am EST

In our first worst vs. worst contest of Super Sunday, the failing Students of Academica host my new “favourite” team, the incredibly frustrating to cap Green-and-Reds of Maritimo. In case you’re wondering, I’m using the adjective “favourite” sarcastically here.

At the moment I feel like my affiliation to Leonel Pontes’ squad is akin to that of a parent and their problem child: We believe in them and expect the best of them, but, when we do they disappoint us; when we lose all hope and prepare for the worst, they find a way to surprise us and show us a glimpse of what we’ve seen all along.

Maybe that’s a little too deep of an analogy for you, but, that’s what it feels like.

Two weeks ago I pegged them to give Benfica a run for their money and they folded like a tent; last week I figured there wasn’t any chance they could mount a challenge to Porto and, with some luck involved, they went out there and beat them.

I just wish they wouldn’t be so distracted and focus more on being constructive rather than self-destructive. If they did that, who knows? They could even grow up to be President. Ahem, I mean, Liga Champions.

Speaking of losing focus, I don’t know what kind of Clown College Paulo Sergio’s men are attending, but, it sure as heck isn’t a prestigious institution like Harvard.

Academica come into this matchup with one foot firmly planted in the drop zone in 16th place. Not only have they gone winless in their last 12 league games, they have yet to win a single game at home this season – their only win of the season came on the road against Arouca in September.

The men representing Coimbra are the 3rd worst home side in the Liga, having only earned 7 points in their last 9, and, come into the contest in the worst form of anyone in the table, having only earned 4 points in their last 8 games.

I wish I could say Maritimo was better, but, shock result against Porto notwithstanding, they’re not. Hence the worst vs. worst designation.

Although the Madeirans sit at a respectable 11th in the standings, they have their own problems, specifically on the road: They are currently the 3rd worst road team in the league, only managing to pick up 4 points in their 9 games away from the Estadio dos Barreiros – their only victory coming at Gil Vicente in August – and, they’re winless in their last 7, failing to even find the back of the net in their last 4.

So, I ask you: Do you have faith in this team? I sure don’t.

It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Maritimo, after an impressive defeat of Porto, and, after defeating Academica 2-1 earlier this season, drop points this time around. It just seems like the logical step to take in an attempt to infuriate me further.

Prediction: Academica 0-0 Maritimo

Gil Vicente vs. V. Setubal – Sun. Feb. 1st – 4pm local/UK, 11am EST

And in our second worst vs. worst contest, the worst team in the entire league, Gil Vicente, host the worst road team in the league, the Sado River men of Setubal.

Jose Mota’s side sit dead last in the table, 18th on 10 points, and, up to this point, much like Academica, have only picked up one win the entire season – a 2-1 win over Penafiel three weeks ago.

They should’ve picked up their second last weekend against Guimaraes though, and, one wonders what losing a victory in the final minutes of the game will do to their already damaged psyche.

The club named after the famous Portuguese playwright needs to dip their quill in ink and jot down some new ideas: In addition to being the squad with the fewest points overall, they’re the 2nd worst at home only earning 7 of a possible 27 points, 2nd worst defensively having conceded 33 goals, 3rd worst offensively having only scored 13 goals, and tied for 3rd worst when it comes to the form table, having only banked 7 points in the last 8 games.

There is a bit of good news however, and that good news is that Setubal has, until very recently, been just as bad.

The men in green and yellow have only earned 6 points in their last 8 games, scored 15 goals thus far this season, conceded 31 goals so far this season, and, quite astonishingly, have only earned 2 of a possible 27 points on the road up to this point in the campaign.

Setubal have lost their last 5 road fixtures in the Liga, and, have failed to score in 4 of them, so, there is hope that Gil Vicente can actually get out front and finish the job against an opponent this time.

That hope may be dwindling with each passing day though, as Setubal have been playing much better since cutting ties with Domingos Paciencia.

Rui Santos took the helm for a league cup match – which he won – but, the Old Esquire has since appointed a new man to take charge, and the old face has turned a new page.

Wait, what? Let me try and explain that again…

39-year-old Bruno Ribeiro has returned to the city he grew up in – and club he began his career with – in an attempt to steer them away from disaster, and, one game in, he’s done it.

The man who managed Setubal to an 11th place finish with 30 points back in the 2011-12 season, spurred his side to an impressive 4-1 victory over Rio Ave after allowing the first goal of the match last week, and, that victory alone, vaulted those from the Sado River to 14th place in the table.

I had my doubts that Setubal could respond positively after being met with adversity, but, like many of my other predictions last round, I was proven wrong. And now Ribeiro, who’s spent some time interning under Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid and Chelsea, will be looking to build on that momentum come Sunday.

And I think he can. Put me down for a comfortable win.

Prediction: Gil Vicente 0-2 V. Setubal

Arouca vs. Sporting – Sun. Feb. 1st – 6pm local/UK, 1pm EST

This game right here would worry me if I were a Sporting supporter. On paper, Marco Silva and his Lions should pounce on Arouca at the Estadio Municipal de Arouca and tear them apart, but, what goes around has a funny way of coming around.

You know how Benfica and Porto dominated much of their matches last round and still lost because they couldn’t make the most of their opportunities? Well, the last time these two opponents met, earlier in the season, it almost had a similar outcome for Sporting.

Sportinguistas shuddered in horror as one by one, glorious scoring chances were wasted – including a missed penalty by the returning Nani wherein the ball was tipped onto the bar – but, eventually, the game was won on a 90th minute goal by Carlos Mane when a Junya Tanaka shot struck the post and fortunately bounced right into his path. It was, very nearly, one of “those” nights.

Who’s to say a similar narrative won’t play out against Pedro Emanuel’s men?

Although Sporting come in on a hot streak, having gone undefeated in their last 9 Liga games (scoring in each and winning their last 5), and, having earned 22 of a possible 24 points in their last 8, there is a little derby with Benfica on the horizon for next week, and, the Lions’ attention could be elsewhere.

And, it is worth noting that Academica nearly got something out of the last match. It took a sublime William Carvalho cross, thunderous Tanaka header, and, somewhat fortuitously placed Joao Mario reflexive header on the rebound to break through Paulo Sergio’s bus.

You don’t need to be a psychic to foresee Arouca using a similar strategy. They have to if they want to survive.

How else do you expect the Arouquenses, a squad 15th in the table, 15th in home record, and dead last in offense to approach this match? It’s a foregone conclusion. The only question is whether they can mount the same kind of challenge that they did last time, and, see the entire game through.

This is a tough one. Although Sporting have won the last 3 meetings by a combined score of 8-2, I have a feeling a bit of complacency and overconfidence is going to set in here.

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that it’s going to cost them points. Why not? After all, we’ve seen stranger things happen, and, the results of last round have to catch up with them sooner or later.

Prediction: Arouca 0-0 Sporting

Porto vs. P. Ferreira – Sun. Feb. 1st – 8:15pm local/UK, 3:15pm EST

Finally, to wrap up the schedule, we’ve got a wounded Porto side hosting the giant slayers of Pacos at the Estadio do Dragao. Decidedly different moods in each camp, don’t you think?

And had Porto loanee Sergio Oliveira NOT scored that penalty against Benfica, and, the Eagles still found a way to pick up a point, or, even win the three points, things would be even worse.

You’d have to think that a 7 or 9 point gap at the top would be insurmountable, and, the championship would be all but won. Fortunately, for all of us neutrals and Dragons fans, that didn’t happen and we can still look forward to an entertaining chase in the weeks to come.

Oh, and no doubt about it, the chase starts here with this pivotal game.

Although Pacos come in on a high, having climbed to 7th in the table – 5 points back of Braga for a European spot – they’ve still got issues, especially on the road: They’re winless in their last 4, and, have conceded in their last 6.

Paulo Fonseca’s side isn’t in the greatest of form either, having dropped points in 6 of their last 8 matches, and, conceded at least 2 goals in their last 4, for only 8 points won during that stretch.

Oh, and Fonseca himself has been dropped for the match: He will still be serving a 10-day suspension as a result of being sent to the stands following an intense exchange with referee Bruno Paixao against Benfica. I guess the anticipated reunion with Portistas will have to wait.

Julen Lopetegui has his own reunion to worry about though – a reunion with winning. And given their recent record against the Beavers, you’d have to think that reunion will come quickly: Porto have won 5 of their last 6 against Pacos in all competitions, shutting them out in their last 5, and, outscoring them by a whopping 10-1. The only other match in question ended in a draw. You guessed it – a 1-1 draw. Yikes. Talk about one team having the other’s number!

Add to that Porto’s recent home record, where they’ve not only won 12 of their last 14, but, kept a clean sheet in 7 of their last 9, and I’d say this Porto derby can logically only go one way.

That is of course, unless, lady luck snuggles with the Beavers once again. I don’t see that happening though. She’s got other plans. We have a lottery to win.

Prediction: Porto 2-0 P. Ferreira

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