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Rejuvenated Sporting on brink of Portuguese title

Reuters logo Reuters 04/05/2021
a group of young men playing a game of football: FILE PHOTO: Primeira Liga - Sporting CP v Vitoria Guimaraes © Reuters/PEDRO NUNES FILE PHOTO: Primeira Liga - Sporting CP v Vitoria Guimaraes

(Reuters) - Three years after fans attacked players at their training ground on one of their darkest ever days, Portuguese club Sporting are on the verge of winning a first title in 19 years following a dramatic transformation.

Ruben Amorim's side are still unbeaten after 30 games and victory at Rio Ave on Wednesday would take them nine points clear of nearest challengers Porto with three games left.

Sporting's relentless campaign was hard to envisage when the club finished fourth last season, 22 points behind champions Porto, and were struggling to fill the hole left after talismanic captain Bruno Fernandes joined Manchester United.

Fernandes was one of the few players left at the club who witnessed the shocking training ground assault in May 2018, when a group of hooded fans attacked players with belts and sticks.

The assault, which eventually saw nine people jailed for five years, led to a number of players and then coach Jorge Jesus ripping up their contracts. President Bruno de Carvalho was removed by his fellow board members a month later.

Things did not immediately improve for the team, however, until they hired fledgling coach Amorim in March 2020.

A former midfielder for city rivals Benfica, Amorim, 36, had been a top-flight coach for less then a year when Sporting paid 10 million euros ($12.02 million) to release him from his contract with Braga.

Their bold investment has certainly paid off.

Amorim overhauled a disjointed side by looking to promising Portuguese players who knew the league well while also digging into the club's academy, which has produced its share of world stars such as Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo.


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Three homegrown players in particular have stood out: 18-year-old left back Nuno Mendes, 22-year-old winger Jovane Cabral and 18-year-old forward Tiago Tomas.

Forward Pedro Goncalves, 22, a low-cost recruit from Famalicao last summer, is their runaway top scorer with 17 goals.

YOUTHFUL SPIRIT

The team's youthful spirit has been supplemented by more experienced players such as Euro 2016 winner Joao Mario, who returned to the club last year on loan, plus veterans Vitorino Antunes and Joao Pereira.

"This mix between homegrown players and experienced ones has been a huge success for us," Amorim said on Tuesday.

"Sometimes they don't play much, but they are just as important as those who participate more."

Amorim has also engendered a never-say-die attitude, leading the team to earn 22 points thanks to goals scored in the final 10 minutes of matches.

In their last three games alone they have scored five goals in the final 10 minutes, netting twice to draw 2-2 with Belenenses, winning 1-0 at Braga after having a man sent off early on and then beating Nacional 2-0.

"The biggest success of the coaching staff and these players was changing the dynamic of the club," Amorim said after Saturday's win over Nacional.

"It is very difficult to do this in one year, and I'm lucky to have a group of players who are at the level this club requires. We're almost there, although we still have a lot to do."

($1 = 0.8323 euros)

(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Toby Davis)

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