Table-toppers clash in Lisbon
© AFP

Topping the bill by some distance in Portugal this weekend is the meeting between leaders Benfica and closest challengers Braga, with just three points separating As Águias and Saturday’s opponents, the only team to have beaten them so far this season.

At the start of the season, few envisaged that Os Bracarenses would still be in title contention by their visit to Lisbon on the 24th matchday. However, while the goal-laden football played by Benfica has delighted their many fans across the globe, the Braga faithful are revelling equally in their side’s finest-ever league campaign, one that could still end in Os Arsenalistas being crowned champions for the very first time.

Furthermore, Braga’s 2-0 home victory over Benfica in late October last year, a win that underlined their intent to overturn the hegemony of the country’s traditional big three, will remain fresh in the memories of both clubs. Yet for the team from the Minho province, the statistics appear to be weighed against them handing Os Encarnados only their second defeat of the championship so far.

Indeed, Braga have beaten Benfica just once in 53 games between the two clubs in the Portuguese capital. That solitary victory for Os Minhotos came back in 1954/55 in a match held at Lisbon’s Estadio Nacional, but were they to repeat the feat over half a century later, Domingos Paciencia’s charges would snatch top spot from As Águias thanks to their superior head-to-head record.

Happy hunting ground
Adding extra spice to Saturday’s encounter is the fact that Benfica boss Jorge Jesus was at the Braga helm until last summer, while over the course of his coaching career he has never got the better of his successor Domingos. The two strategists have gone head-to-head six times previously in Portuguese league action, with Domingos recording two wins and four draws. Furthermore, the current Arsenalistas’ supremo has also found the Estadio da Luz a happy hunting ground in the past.

In the 2007/08 season, during his time in charge of Coimbra outfit Academica, the former FC Porto striker guided Os Estudantes to a shock 3-0 success on Benfica’s home patch, the club’s first win in the Estadio da Luz for 54 years, only to follow that up with another 1-0 victory in the same stadium the following campaign. And ex-Portuguese international Domingos will be fully aware that should his Braga side avoid defeat this weekend, there remains everything to play for over the remaining six games of the season.

A tale of two custodians
The shared history linking Benfica and Braga is not limited to the teams’ coaching staff, with the clubs boasting the last two goalkeepers to turn out for the Portuguese national side in Quim and Eduardo. Moreover, Quim spent no fewer than 11 years at Braga before making a summer 2004 move to Os Encarnados, where he has won one league title and two League Cup crowns. However, since that switch the former favourite of Os Bracarenses faithful has never beaten the club where he made his name, having recorded three defeats and four draws from seven meetings.

Both keepers could also have vital roles to play in the outcome of this latest match, with the two teams boasting the division’s best defensive records. And though Benfica’s miserly 12 goals conceded in 23 games is two fewer than Braga’s tally, Eduardo and Co would likely still be ahead were it not for a 5-1 aberration away to Porto on matchday 20. However, things have been quite different at the other end of the pitch, with As Águias, inspired by lethal forward duo Javier Saviola and Oscar Cardozo, having hit 60 league goals to Braga’s 34.

So, will Benfica’s superior firepower take them a giant step towards reclaiming a championship last won in 2004/05? Or can Braga coach Domingos mastermind another Lisbon triumph and put his charges on course for a historic first title?