Ahead of Legia’s Europa League knock-out clash with Portugal’s Sporting Lisbon, EKSTRAKLASAreview asked London-based Portuguese expert Ben Shave to give us a little overview of what is expected of the Wojskowi’s last-32 opponents.
EKSTRAKLASAreview: How has Sporting’s Domestic season gone so far?
Ben Shave: Sporting started off sluggishly with a host of new players and a new coach in Domingos, but optimism began to rise in the autumn months, when they managed to put a ten-match winning streak together. However, a defeat to local rivals Benfica, coupled with a succession of key injuries, seriously reduced their momentum – they’ve won two of their last ten, and were so poor in Saturday’s 2-0 loss at Marítimo that Domingos, despite his considerable achievements with Braga and the fact that he only arrived in the summer, was removed from his post on Monday, and replaced by the club’s U19 coach, Ricardo Sá Pinto. As they say in Portugal, isso é Sporting.
How did they qualify from their Europa League group?
Sporting cruised through a group containing Lazio, Vaslui and FC Zurich, only taking their foot off the gas once qualification was certain. They were particularly impressive at home to Lazio, prevailing 2-1 despite having Emiliano Insúa dismissed after 50 minutes.
Who are the top players to watch out for?
João Pereira (right-back): captain and beating heart of this side, Pereira possesses a fuse as short as his energy reserves are long, making him a fine leader but also something of a liability if the pressure is on. That said, he bombs forward relentlessly, delivers a fine cross whilst in full flight, and will likely dictate which Sporting turn up over the two legs.
Fabian Rinaudo (defensive midfielder): sitting at the base of the midfield, Rinaudo’s brief is simple: disrupt the opponent, distribute to more creative colleagues. A sometimes ugly but always necessary task, and one which the barrel-chested Argentine has shown himself to be highly adept at since he arrived at the club over the summer. Sporting’s recent slump can be traced back to when he broke his ankle in November, his recent return to the side represents a major boost.
Ricky Van Wolfswinkel (centre-forward): another who has struggled with injury of late, Van Wolfswinkel is, at his best, a mobile forward, an accomplished finisher, and the focal point of Sporting’s attack. Like João Pereira, a strong performance from the Dutchman will undoubtedly lift those around him.
What expectations do the fans and the Portuguese media have of the tie?
Thanks to Domingos’ departure, all eyes will be trained on this tie, despite the fact that Benfica and Porto have high-profile European engagements of their own this week. The general consensus amongst press and fans alike is that Sporting should progress given the players that they have, but this being Sporting, few would be willing to lay many Euros on them doing so.
Any weak points that Legia can exploit?
Goalkeeper Rui Patrício made a wretched error to concede the first goal against Marítimo: despite being a superb shot-stopper, he can be got at in the air and forced into mistakes. Sporting also struggle to get moves going sometimes, if Legia press them, they will give the ball away. The absence of Diego Capel through injury means that much of the attacking thrust out wide will have to come from the full-backs Pereira and Insúa – this ought to leave space for Legia’s forwards to exploit.
Who do you think will progress?
After the last couple of months, I’m sorely tempted to say Legia. Sporting don’t travel especially well, and many key players have lost form. That said, the new coach ‘bounce’ could well be in effect on Thursday, which throws an additional spanner into the works. Much will also depend on how they do at home to Paços de Ferreira on Sunday: the equivalent last season saw a comical 3-2 loss, which triggered the resignation of the President. Soon after, Sporting crashed out of the Europa League to Rangers. But despite all that…I’ll say Sporting.
As well as being one of the co-editors of the mighty-fine In Bed With Maradona, Ben is one of the team at the “definitive Portuguese football site” – PortuGOAL.net. He can also be found on Twitter, under the name @benshave.