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Jan 15, 2013

More questions than answers

Everyone's had the mournful conversation after a big game. With so much expectancy around the occasion and plenty riding on the result, they often fail to match the hype. That unwritten fear went out of the window in Lisbon on Sunday night, when Benfica and FC Porto provided a night of dizzying drama in the first classico of the season.

It was more than welcome. In this of all seasons, the Portuguese Liga is in need of some excitement. Some of the championship's top performers jumped ship at the top of the script with the teams barely out of mothballs, including the now-Zenit St Petersburg pair of Hulk and Axel Witsel.

While the big two may have made light of some weighty departures - and with Benfica leading Porto at the top by three points at the start of play, having played a game more - they have been able to do so in relative comfort, with little competition worthy of the name. Across Lisbon, Sporting's much-vaunted rebuilding programme has been a disaster, with president Luis Godinho Lopes overseeing an evolution from a period of flux to one of crippling debt and hitherto untouched depths on the pitch.

Given the power vacuum below Benfica and Porto, a wildly fluctuating Braga, commuting to a more adventurous style under Jose Peseiro, seem highly likely to seal the third available Champions League spot, with the vibrant challenges of Pacos de Ferreira and Rio Ave expected to die off.

So the onus was on the top two to provide some spark into the season. They couldn't have taken that responsibility on with any more vigour than they did, with all four goals in the 2-2 draw scored in the first 17 minutes of play. Both teams will believe that their own mettle saw them through a breakneck opening in a cacophonous Estadio da Luz, though a reasonable amount of luck on both sides certainly helped.

In fact, the initial wildness of Sunday night's classico was par for the course. It recalled the top-heavy thrills of the April 2011 edition of the fixture at the Luz, when Hulk's 26th minute penalty sealed a 2-1 win that gave Andre Villas-Boas' men the title with five games of the season still to go. The triumphant Porto squad's celebrations that night had been unorthodox, dancing and singing in a makeshift Cibeles fountain as Benfica turned the stadium lights off and the sprinklers on their exultant rivals.

Quite simply, Benfica and Porto's mutual enmity is the one element of Portuguese football that seems to become more intense - and alluring - as the years go by. It brings out the most extraordinary behavioural traits in the participants.

Nerves are one of those hallmarks. Some of the errors on display on Sunday were barely believable; leading Portuguese football site Mais Futebol headed a paragraph of its report "Que foi isso, Artur?" ("What was that, Artur?") in reference to the normally rock-solid Brazilian goalkeeper's lamentable miscontrol that allowed Jackson Martinez to give Porto the lead for a second time. He need not have worried too hard, as Argentina's Nicolas Otamendi air-kicked a clearance two minutes later to allow his compatriot Nico Gaitan to smash in a second equaliser for the hosts.

The madness gradually abated, giving way to a controlled tension which one might normally expect a game of this magnitude to unfold under. Porto showed the greater poise for most of the match, led by the perpetually excellent Joao Moutinho, but missed the cutting edge of their injured Colombian winger James Rodriguez. Benfica - a more explosive team by nature - had the best chance in the remainder of play, with Oscar Cardozo forcing Helton into an athletic tip onto the outside of a post in the closing quarter-hour. The dead-eyed Paraguayan had been clean through, and is the man you would bet a sizeable sum on to finish the job.

It was a final twist to an evening full of them. The aesthetic high point of proceedings had been Benfica's first equaliser, a splendid left-footed volley speared in from distance by holding midfielder Nemanja Matic from Jardel's cushioned header. The former Chelsea man's understated craft has been a highlight of Jorge Jesus' side during the campaign so far.

Other aspects of the confrontation were more predictable. Porto boss Vitor Pereira was heavily critical of referee Joao Ferreira, claiming that both Matic and Maxi Pereira should have been red-carded. "You need courage (in this situation)," he complained to Sport TV after the game. Given Maxi's miraculous escape with a yellow after an outrageous, flying two-footer on Joao Moutinho late on, he did perhaps have at least half a point. Benfica president Luis Filipe Vieira, however, gave Porto short shrift in response. "Not long ago, I heard (Porto president Jorge Nuno) Pinto da Costa say that only idiots talk about refereeing," he mocked.

These habitual battles will recommence in the weeks to come when the pair meet further north in May, on the penultimate weekend of the season. The transfer market may be their next playing field. Saturday's O Jogo identified 22 players over three continents that the pair are both interested in. Partizan Belgrade's teenage sensation Lazar Markovic, Feyenoord's Jordy Clasie and rising Brazil Under-20 star Fred were named among the possible mutual targets, with the clubs having fought over the signatures of Radamel Falcao and Alvaro Pereira in the recent past.

The posturing was present even amongst the more even-tempered players on both sides in the game's aftermath, with Matic claiming that "for Benfica, drawing is never a good result," while Jackson lamented that "the draw wasn't the result that we wanted."

Yet though neither side could bring themselves to say it, the stalemate is not too bad for either and is certainly the ideal for the competition in general. The prospect of the top two pushing each other all the way is the only thing stopping this season's Liga stumbling into complete torpor.

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