The Portuguese Cup and the Growth of the Portuguese lower leagues

The Portuguese Cup and the Growth of the Portuguese lower leagues

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Cup competitions have a particularly intriguing peculiarity: while the tournament is set up in way so the two best teams face each other in an intense final that’s immensely awaited, the early rounds of the cup are – albeit in a different way – equally celebrated. And that’s exactly why everyone loves cup competitions, right? Everyone loves to watch a match between one of the big title candidate clubs and a semi-professional or even an amateur side.

Because of the “David v Goliath” aspect of it or purely due to the joy of watching “regular people” – from teachers, to construction workers or football players who never experienced first division football – playing against athletes that make more money in a few months than any of the men on the other side do in a lifetime and that are idolized by millions.

The earlier in the season it is, the higher are the possibilities for more and better cup upsets: there are more teams within the competition and the difference between them is bigger than at any other point. This disparity between the clubs, for example if we were to compare a first division side with a semi-professional one, is obviously not only related to their financial and social status but to their playing and managerial resources as well.

With that said, the smaller clubs do have factors to their advantage in the confrontations with the country’s football powerhouses: the amount of pressure on their side is insignificant or just isn’t there, the opponents are often too passive and complacent, and the fatigue factor is also nonexistent compared to their adversary – although the players that play their trade at such a low level don’t have the same physical preparation, no one gets tired playing a match that is one of the peaks of their career.  To add to this last point, when a group of players with such a low amount of pressure on them has the chance to face off against a side used to play at such a higher level, they tend to do something extremely important: enjoy the match. The pure enjoyment of a pressureless match against a team full of superstars tends to lead into moments of inspiration and fluency in the team’s offensive process.

Luckily for us, the draw of the past weekend’s Portuguese Cup matches lead to an interesting round of fixtures. The three biggest clubs of the country played a team from each different tier: Porto won by 2 goals to nil against Varzim from the Segunda Liga (“EQUAL” to the Championship in England), Benfica struggled to beat Vianense from the CNS (a subdivided tier that is comparable to the English League 1) 2-1 and Sporting won by 4 goals to nil versus Vilafranquense – a squad from the equivalent of the English League 2.

Out of the three matches, this was one was – by far – the most troublesome for the first division side. Varzim pressured high from kick off, giving Porto some trouble when trying to generate plays from the back. During the first half, Varzim managed to keep Lopetegui’s men from having an overabundant amount of chances – even retaining the ball within FC Porto’s midfield during quite a solid amount of time. With that said, due to fatigue and a number of other factors, Varzim dropped their lines as the match went on. This lead to Porto being even more in control in the second half, creating what was an incomparable amount of chances – although most of them ended up wasted by Osvaldo. And even during the first half, although Porto didn’t create a lot of chances, they did manage to score the first of the match when Bueno finally picked up the ball in between defensive lines, assisting for Tello’s goal. Nevertheless, Porto had a difficult match against an organized squad who showed quality.

Benfica had the most exciting match to watch out of the three: Vianense managed to tie the match with a fantastic outside of the box shot after watching Benfica score the first one through Carcela-Gonzalez. It wasn’t until the last minute that Rui Vitória’s men got themselves on the lead again – with Jardel scoring a header from a corner to close out the match.
With that said, while we should give credit to Vianense for holding Benfica off for so long, the team from Lisbon had no problem creating a lot of chances during the match. An immense amount of credit should be given to Jonas Mendes, the Guinean keeper that kept Vianense in the match for so long.

Sporting turned out not only to have the easiest match on paper but on the pitch as well. The sheer difference in the quality of the players was shown right from the start of game, with Sporting’s creative youngsters accompanied by the experience of Aquilani and William in midfield managed to easily tear through Vilanovense’s lines. The game ended in a quite expressive result of 4-0 for a Sporting full of new faces, with both Matheus and Paulista scoring their first goals for the club.

What do all these results even mean? Weren’t they all extremely predictable? Why is this even a topic for analysis?

Well… While one could argue that no upsets happened – the analysis of these three matches shows us some important differences between clubs. It shows that a second tier side (Varzim, that played v Porto) had a completely different way to approach the game than the other two squads from even lower levels. These other two did what they could, trying to sit back, contracting their lines, hoping to hold off their opponents. Out of these last two that had a similar approach to their matches, Vianense (the third tier team) managed to pull off a decent result while Vilanovense, the fourth tier team, just couldn’t.

This shows some evolution in Portuguese football. While a few years ago, there was a lower amount of competitiveness amongst every other tier within Portuguese football that wasn’t the first division – something proven by the fact that every single team would opt for a purely defensive game with tight lines against the big teams – now we see an higher amount of competency in the smaller sides. Not only that but we can see teams from the second division actually trying to tactically outmatch the bigger sides, and an actual difference in quality between the teams from every division – Portugal went from being a country with a solid first league, followed by an overall mess quality-wise within the other tiers, to a country with a really good first league followed by a sequence of divisions with quite a bit of quality. For this we can mainly thank the set of newly Sports graduates who fill the lower division club’s technical staffs and the youth training centres – raising the overall quality of coaches, players and competitiveness in the area.