So long has it been since Sporting Lisbon won a Primeira Liga title that their status as one of Os Tres Grandes (The Big Three) in Portugal has become a debatable one.
In this century, Portugal’s Big Three have really become a Big Two. Since Sporting’s last title in 2002, the other members of that cabal have shared the last 18 between them – Benfica adding seven to take their total to 37; Porto 11 to move them on to 29. After Friday’s 2-1 win over Santa Clara, however, Sporting are still unbeaten and 10 points clear at the top, closing in on their 19th title.
What makes their resurgence all the more remarkable is that it has come after the sale of their captain and star man, Bruno Fernandes, to Manchester United last year. While Fernandes’ departure in January for £68m appeared a watershed moment for Sporting, the real one came just over a month later when Ruben Amorim was appointed manager.
Sporting celebrate a goal for Pedro Goncalves (centre) against Moreirense in November
Star man and captain Bruno Fernandes left for Manchester United in January 2020
Having just turned 35 and with only 13 matches as Braga manager under his belt, moving for Amorim looked a big gamble, especially after his former club went on to pip Sporting to third place last season on goal difference – they were both 22 points behind champions Porto. But the former Benfica and Portugal midfielder, who played at the 2014 World Cup and only retired in 2017, has completely transformed the club’s fortunes in a short space of time.
The majority of last season’s squad have left – either permanently or on loan – and Amorim has energised Sporting by signing young Portuguese players and promoting youngsters from the club’s B-team. Last season, only six of Sporting’s squad of 24 were Portuguese, now only eight are not.
The academy that produced the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Figo, Joao Moutinho, Ricardo Quaresma, Simao Sabrosa, William Carvalho and Rui Patricio have supplemented Amorim’s squad and there is suddenly a youthful exuberance about the team, with 18-year-old left wing back Nuno Mendes the pick of the bunch in Amorim’s 3-4-2-1 system.
Amorim has been able to spend £27m – more than a third of the cash made from the sale of Fernandes – on revamping the squad and the team is far better balanced now, as evidenced in their league position and unbeaten status. More than half of that figure includes the £14m arrival of striker Paulinho from Braga in January.
With Fernandes gone, there are no superstars at Sporting, but Pedro Goncalves is well on his way to becoming one. Aged 22, Goncalves has come seemingly out of nowhere to star as one of the two men behind the main striker for Amorim, scoring 15 times in 19 matches.
Pedro Goncalves has emerged as Sporting’s new star, having played just once for Wolves
A late bloomer, Goncalves failed to make the grade at Wolves and was signed from mid-table Famalicao for around £6m in the summer, having scored seven times in all competitions in his only season there. He spent two years at Molineux but made only one appearance for Nuno in the Carabao Cup in 2018.
To complement Goncalves and Amorim’s army of young Portuguese players, there are a few other names in Sporting’s side who will be familiar to Premier League viewers. Former Liverpool defender Sebastian Coates is the captain and plays at the heart of the back three, while ex-West Ham man Joao Mario is back at the club where he started enjoying a renaissance aged 28 in the heart of midfield. This is Mario’s third loan away from Inter since he joined them from Sporting in 2016, and he is returning to the form that convinced the Italians to spend £35m on him. Right wing back Pedro Perro is on loan from Manchester City and also enjoying a fine season.
Amorim wisely signed a sprinkling of experienced players to aid his young squad, with Spanish goalkeeper Antonio Adan’s arrival from Atletico Madrid on a free proving a masterstroke. Former Portugal right back Joao Pereira, 36, was brought back too.
Ruben Amorim is just 36 and emerging as one of Europe’s top young managers
As with all trends in football this season, the impact of playing without fans cannot be ignored when analysing Sporting’s sudden transformation. After decades of regression, home games had become a toxic environment and the team’s relationship with their fanbase has been strained to say the least.
In 2018, around 50 fans attacked players after they blew a Champions League place and lost a cup final in the space of a week, resulting in six players tearing up their contracts, including now Wolves duo Rui Patricio and Daniel Podence. Fernandes initially angled to leave at the time, but reversed his decision. The president at that turbulent time, Bruno de Carvalho, was dismissed and Sporting had not really recovered from it until this season.
Now, when fans do eventually return, there will be a feeling of celebration and optimism not felt at Sporting for nearly 20 years. Not that Amorim will be allowing or his players to get ahead of themselves. There are still 12 matches to go.
Both Porto and Benfica have both been out of sorts this season, the latter reeling from the loss of Ruben Dias, but if the history of Portuguese football tells us anything it is that they will both bounce back quickly. So Sporting must see home their fine start to the season if they want to make the Big Two a Big Three again.
Do that, and we will be seeing plenty more of Amorim and Goncalves in Europe.