Portuguese League: Preview of FC Porto-Sporting CP

The first big game of the season is coming up on matchday 3, as Porto hosts Sporting on Saturday night. When these matches take place so early in the season, it becomes a lot more unpredictable, as there are considerably more unknowns. In this post I’ve written a preview of what I expect from this match – highlighting the backdrop of both teams and some of the main tactical considerations on both sides.

Overall, I expect this to be a vary cagey game, possibly with a lot of fouls and not a lot of goal scoring chances. Looking back to the match last season at home, I expect something similar – both teams vying for a win, but a draw not being a bad result for either, especially so early in the season. On that note though, I think homefield advantage could be key in this game – Porto have not lost a home game to Sporting in several years (last time was in 2016 when winning the League was already out of reach).

However, outside of a win in Ruben Amorim’s first season at Sporting (when he joined in mid-season), Porto has not beaten Sporting in League games in the past 2 years – we have seen 4 draws, despite in one of those matches Porto played nearly a full half against 10-men. No one has a better record against Porto during the Sérgio Conceição era than Ruben Amorim. Their 3x4x3 can be quite hard to break down when they sit deep and become a 5x4x1, and Porto don’t tend to do well against very well organised defensive teams.

The match last season ended in a huge brawl after a lot of controversy during the game. Hopefully this time around everyone behaves.

The backdrop for Porto

Porto is coming into this game with a good level of confidence, following 3 wins to start the season. But we’ve had a slow start in terms of generating offensive production and creating chances – don’t be fooled by the 5 goals against Marítimo; the difficulties posed by Vizela were much more reflective of the performance in both games.

There is only one player who is for sure missing this match, which is Manafá (long-term injury). Uribe appears to be fully fit after being subbed off at half-time last weekend. Grujic is in doubt but I expect he’ll play. Otávio will absolutely start, most likely in place of Danny Loader, which should mean Pepê playing behind the strikers in the midfield diamond and Otávio slotting in next to Grujic (or Eustáquio, if he’s injured).

I think Otávio is the key difference maker. The responsibility of making the midfield more dynamic and ignite the offense will rest on his shoulders. Taremi and Evanilson were completely out of the game vs Vizela, because they got no service. Whilst Taremi is able to drop deep and kind of work as an attacking midfielder to help with the link-up play, that is not Evanilson’s game. We might see a surprise start for Toni Martinez, allowing for more direct play.

Otávio will have to taken on the mantle of primary source of creativity in midfield.

The backdrop for Sporting

Sporting will be reeling a bit from suddenly losing Matheus Nunes. I had noted in my League preview (which you can read here) that my opinion of Sporting’s chances may change if he was to leave. Given how the whole thing happened, it’s likely to have some impact on the team, at least mentally.

Morita is a good replacement, but a different type of player – he is better at keeping the ball and moving it around – unclear how much possession Sporting will have in this match to take advantage of Morita’s orchestrating abilities. On the other hand, Matheus is excellent at carrying the ball forward and allowing for more direct play when a slow build-up is not working, which I expect will be the majority of the time for Sporting, as long as the score remains at 0-0.

The key player for them will be Pedro Gonçalves. In 2020, when they won the League, he played amazing and was the top scorer with 23 goals. Last season however, he just seemed out of it and really struggled for most of the year (scored 8 goals). He seems to be starting this season in great form (already scored 3 goals), so he’s the player to watch out for. I’m also curious to see what Trincão can add to their offense.

Pedro Gonçalves has 1 goal in 4 games against Porto.

The tactical battle

It’s not 100% clear to me how both teams will line-up, but this is what I’m predicting:

My predicted starting line-ups for Saturday’s match.

I’m quite curious to see the tactical nuances the two coaches will look to implement. On offence, Porto has line-up in a 4x1x2x1x2; Uribe drops deep near the centre-backs to form a defensive trio, and the full-backs push up really high up the pitch, almost like wingers. Given the way Sporting tend to defend, with the front 3 pressing fairly high up, I can imagine Porto having superiority in midfield, as it will be Morita-Ugarte vs Grujic-Otávio-Pepê.

However, it would be interesting to see if Amorim decides to bring the full-backs inside to give him an advantage in the middle; if the wingers don’t drop deep though, that would open up a fair amount of space for Porto’s full-backs to explore. It would also open up a lot of space for Sporting’s counter-attacks though. The midfield battle will be the key to this game game.

On defence, Porto’s front three tends to press really high up and the two central midfielders tend to form a second wave of pressing, aligned with the full-backs. So it’s just Uribe shielding the defence and the two centre-backs near the midfield line. When the opponent gives up space in behind and tries to play-out from the back, this seems to work (see Marítimo), but if the opponent is more pragmatic, it’s not too difficult to evade this line of pressure with 2-3 direct passes (see Vizela). It’s high risk / high reward. I don’t expect Porto will do that on Saturday, because Sporting are very capable of finding the right pass to quickly put their attackers in goal scoring situations.

Sporting have already scored 6 goals this season, after a 3-3 draw at Braga and a 3-0 win against Rio Ave. They did show some defensive frailties against Braga though, so that is one point to explore further. It will also be interesting to see whether Neto can cope with Porto’s high press and the speed of our attackers. St Juste could start, but I don’t expect him to, given he hasn’t played more than 30 minutes yet.

I believe the pressure will be on Porto, as the home side, to win this game. There is the added bonus that a win on Saturday will put Sporting 5pts away, which is a pretty sizable advantage very early on in the season. However, Sporting have proven to be a really difficult opponent for us under the stewardship of Ruben Amorim. The last 4 League games have produced 10 goals, so an average of 2.5 goals per game. I expect this one will be a low scoring game though, with just a handful of chances; but hopefully ends in a Porto win!

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