Real Madrid are in Lisbon today getting prepared for a clash against Sporting CP tomorrow. Sporting are in a precarious position in Group F, just treading water with an outside shot of qualifying for the Champions League Round of 16. This will be a tough match, given that Jorge Jesus’ men played Real Madrid tough in the first leg and are in a position where they must pick up three points if they’re to stand a chance of progressing to the next round.
To lend a hand and give us an inside look at how things are at Sporting currently, we reached out to PortuGoal’s Tom Kundert.
Kiyan: Tom, Sporting sit 3rd in Group F with just three points and a -1 goal differential. Bit harsh, don't you think? The team is doing well in the league and was terribly unfortunate to leave the Bernabeu with a loss.
Tom: Yes, the performances have been much better than the results in the Champions League. In particular in the away games against Real Madrid and Dortmund, on the balance of play they deserved at least a draw in both matches. But against high-quality sides mistakes are punished: a few missed chances, a few defensive mistakes and it was two defeats, and now only a miracle will keep them in the Champions League. On the bright side, the team will feel they have a shot at going far in the Europa League.
Kiyan: Lots of changes over the summer. How do you think Sporting have coped overall? Losing Joao Mario and Islam Slimani seem huge. Would you say Bas Dost has done a nice job filling in up front?
Tom: Sporting are a weaker team than last year for sure, at least for now. Mário and Slimani were two of the team's three outstanding performers last season - the other is Adrien - and the departures have disrupted the team badly. They were a well-oiled machine and a joy to watch last season, with everything falling into place perfectly and you could predict the starting XI easily, but this year players have come in and out of the side and swapped positions regularly, and none of the 11 newcomers have made a positive impact apart from Bas Dost. The big Dutch striker has settled quickly and is a potent goal threat, but he is very different from Slimani, who carried the same goal threat but was far more effective at pressuring and harrying the opposition defenders and had a manic work rate.
Kiyan: It's incredible to me that so many fans felt Real Madrid would walk through this group when the draw was made. Sporting have a very stable team, and put on a masterclass at the Bernabeu with their spacing. The way they closed down passing lanes was incredible, and the counterpress Jorge Jesus implemented made Real Madrid's deep midfielders very uncomfortable. Does Jesus stick with the same ideology tomorrow in a must-win match?
Tom: I guess he'll feel it worked at the Bernabeu so why not try it again. It seems to me that Real have improved since then, while Sporting may actually have regressed - the defence especially has been very shaky most of the season - so I'm not overly confident that Sporting can repeat that extraordinary performance against the champions of Europe.
Despite the problems this year, there have been bright spots, such as Gelson coming of age, William Carvalho getting back to his best, Adrien proving beyond all doubt what an exceptional player he is, and the centre-back partnership of Coates-Semedo which is the strongest Sporting have had for several years. In theory Sporting have nothing to lose so can just give it a real go in front of a sell-out crowd.
Kiyan: Will / should Andre - who scored a brace on the weekend - get the nod to start this one?
Tom: Good question. Finding the right partner for Bas Dost has been Jorge Jesus's biggest problem all season. I'm not sure a brace as a late substitute against a tiring third-tier side will guarantee he gets the starting spot. Joel Campbell would be my choice and the choice of most Sporting supporters to play behind Bas Dost, but it could be any of André, Markovic, Castaignos or even Bryan Ruiz or Bruno César as adapted second strikers.
Kiyan: Completely unrelated to Sporting, but: Which Portuguese club has produced the best wingers in the world time and time again?
Ha ha. Yes, it's been a lean time for Sporting over the last 15 years, but two things makes the club's supporters immensely proud. Firstly, the fact it produces by far the biggest proportion of players for the national side, (10 of the 14 players Portugal used in the Euro 2016 final were products of Sporting's youth academy). Secondly, the amazing conveyor belt of world-class wingers including two Balon D'Or winners: Futre, Figo, Simão, Quaresma, Ronaldo, Nani, Gelson.
Tom: I just can't see Sporting stopping Real Madrid from scoring, although I believe they can do some damage at the other end of the pitch. Sporting 1-2 Real Madrid, probably you know who’s getting the winner.