Loss, win, loss, draw.
A glance at Benfica’s last four games would suggest they bottled the Portuguese league. FC Porto swept to their first title since 2013 and ended Benfica’s mini era of dominance, cueing jubilant scenes and colossal celebrations at the Estadio do Dragao. Benfica’s 0-0 draw with Lisbon rivals Sporting ended any hopes of either side catching Porto, but the league was won in the two weeks prior to that game. The reality is that, despite what recent results suggest, Porto won the Primeira Liga, Benfica didn’t blow it.
In a league where two teams are so dominant, the games between them become even more important, even more decisive. A game between Porto and Benfica is more than just an historic rivalry; its outcome determines who wins the league, it has a direct impact on players’ career, it even influences the social divide between Lisbon and Porto. It is a game defined by iconic moments, such as the last time Porto won the league, when Kelvin’s late volley sunk Benfica and reduced coach Jorge Jesus to his knees.
This season, Sporting Lisbon were vying with the top two for the title, adding another dimension to the league, but the drama of ‘O Clássico’ simply can’t be beaten. With three games remaining, Porto captain Hector Herrera turned a one-point deficit into a two-point advantage, rifling in a 20-yard strike in the 89th minute, silencing the Estadio da Luz crowd.
On the face of it, the win in Lisbon was the moment Porto won, the moment their title drought ended. But another stern test followed, with a trip to Maritimo on the island of Madeira. Porto’s last win there came in 2012, having had three draws and two defeats since then. If Porto were to pick up a crucial three points against their bogey team, they would need a little help from their fans.
A wall of noise, blue smoke and cries of ‘Campeões’ greeted the team at Porto airport ahead of their flight to Funchal. Players were mobbed for selfies, hugs and the opportunity to imbue the players with a feeling of irrepressible belief that they needed to win. The message was simple: we believe, get the job done, this is our title.
The underlying belief among Porto fans was that they were always going to win the title this season. As the only team to have ever won five consecutive Portuguese titles, there was simply no way Porto could relinquish that crown to their bitter rivals. It wasn’t a prospect Porto’s fans would entertain. To them, Benfica didn’t stand a chance, fate was on Porto’s side. And if any team has a reason to fear a twist of fate, it is Benfica.
After winning successive European Cups in 1961 and 1962, Benfica coach Bela Guttman supposedly cursed the club when they turned down his request for a pay rise, saying they would not win a European trophy for a century. Since Guttman left, 56 years and eight lost European finals have passed. Many fans from both Benfica and Porto believe in the existence of this curse, so if Porto fans believe it is their time to win in Maritimo, to deny Benfica a fifth successive title, and they can get it into the players’ heads, there is a good chance they’ll do it.
As it happened, they might not have needed to. Benfica succumbed to a 3-2 defeat at home to Tondela, around the time Porto’s fans were lighting up their city’s airport. The next day, another 89th minute winner, this time from Moussa Marega, put Porto five points ahead with two games to play. When Sporting and Benfica played out a 0-0 draw on Saturday, the game was up. A gripping fortnight where Porto seized the moment, pressured Benfica into defeat, and propelled themselves to victory with a hard-fought, unlikely win in Funchal, came to a close. Just have a look at Porto’s last four games.