Why O Classico between Porto and Benfica matters so much
Sunday was -- or at least should have been -- an auspicious occasion for Porto's president, Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa, given it was 31 years to the day since he won the first of his 58 trophies with the club. It was the Supertaca Candido de Oliveira, the then-two-legged Portuguese Supercup, and a victory over Benfica sealed in the second leg at the old Estadio da Luz.
Pinto da Costa is certainly not to all tastes in Portugal. How could it be any other way? Under his reign, now in its fourth decade, Porto have come to rival (and often surpass) the club from Lisbon that put Portuguese football on the map by winning successive European Cups in 1961 and 1962. Twenty of the northerners' 27 Liga titles have been won under the current regime, plus -- this is the more significant part -- two European Cup/Champions League titles, two UEFA Cup/Europa Leagues, a European Super Cup and two Intercontinental Cups (the predecessor to the Club World Cup).
That Benfica's win at the Estadio do Dragao in Sunday night's installment of this intense rivalry was just their third in their past 38 Liga visits to the city the locals call Invicta (a run predating the Dragao and including their old stadium, Estadio das Antas) shows how far the pendulum has swung the past few decades. Incidentally, those three victories have been by the same score: 2-0, with a Benfica striker scoring twice. Cesar Brito set the pattern back in 1991, and Nuno Gomes repeated the trick in 2005.
Lima completed the trio Sunday, and you'd have gotten long odds on his doing so beforehand. The Brazilian forward was Jorge Jesus' surprise pick for his XI, in place of his compatriot, Jonas. Jesus, as A Bola wrote Monday, was "proved right in keeping faith with a striker whose season, until yesterday, was marked more for his misses than his goals." His pair of poacher's finishes capped a near-perfect away performance from the reigning champions. Porto's Brazilian right-back, Danilo, called the result "a lie" after the home side had bossed possession and created the majority of the chances, but Benfica's level of control and sheer solidarity on the big occasion were notable.
Even if Jesus' opposite number, Julen Lopetegui, argued his side had been "far superior" and there is "a lot of the season still to go," nobody would doubt how much this meant or how much O Classico means, in general. The history gives the match its spice, but the big two's domination of the Liga makes it more pivotal than ever before in the chase for the title. Going into Sunday's encounter, the pair had won 122 Liga games between them since 2009 -- a big number in the context of 30-game seasons. Every point dropped by Porto or Benfica makes a big noise in Portugal, and the current six-point gap between dragoes (dragons) and aguias (eagles) is a genuine gulf, even at this stage.
The margin for error is none, and even if former Spain Under-19 and Under-21 coach Lopetegui has been given a mandate for change by Pinto da Costa (and has far outstripped Jesus in the Champions League this season), his two defeats to date have been big ones: at home to Sporting in the Taca and to Benfica. "Little by little, Lopetegui is discovering that Portuguese football is tactical and complex," A Bola chided while revelling ever so slightly in 60-year-old Jesus' teaching the younger Spaniard a lesson.
What might help Lopetegui domestically is the January transfer window. He has been able to bring in a host of his own players already, including Netherlands defender Bruno Martins Indi and young Spanish pair Oliver Torres and Cristian Tello (on loan from Atletico Madrid and Barcelona, respectively). He will be able to hang on to his finest this winter, too. It remains to be seen if the same can be said for Jesus, who is expected to lose Liga Player of the Year Enzo Perez to Valencia in the next few weeks and has vultures circling around Nicolas Gaitan and rising Brazilian star Talisca.
The sense of transience that constantly envelops the Portuguese game is another intensifier for O Classico in the modern context. Benfica have followed Porto in making a business of selling big, with Nemanja Matic, Lazar Markovic and Ezequiel Garay among those to leave the Liga, following Hulk, Joao Moutinho and James Rodriguez's exits from the north.
If this proves to be Perez's swansong, it was a memorable one, with the Argentinian World Cup finalist at his energetic best. It followed the example of Matic, who was titanic in his final game for Benfica, a 2-0 win over Porto back in January. It remains to be seen if Perez left his soon-to-be old mates with enough of a start to close out a defense of their title.
For the moment, it is the here and now that Benfica can revel in. It is a season in which Jesus has prioritised domestic success ahead of Europe, and his gamble appears to be paying off.