For Lisbon giants Sporting, summer 2011 was all about change. The appointments of a new president and coach, coupled with a major squad overhaul, generated enormous expectation among fans anxious to see their team back on the glory trail after two seasons to forget. And after a somewhat shaky start, Os Leões are finally delivering thanks to some fine performances and results, and two Dutchmen who have hit the heights at the Estadio Alvalade.
After finishing runners-up in the league for four successive seasons (2006-09) under the stewardship of current Portugal coach Paulo Bento, Sporting went into sharp decline. In the 2009/10 campaign, they finished 28 points adrift of champions Benfica and last season fared even worse, trailing in 36 points behind winners Porto. It was clearly time to ring the changes.
The man tasked with overseeing this new era was coach Domingos Paciencia, who made history in 2009/10 by leading Braga to runners-up spot in the league. He then guided Os Arsenalistas into the group phase of the 2010/11 UEFA Champions League, before finishing the campaign as beaten finalists in the UEFA Europa League.
The challenge facing the new incumbent was far from easy. With an unrecognisable squad featuring 14 new faces, the coach needed time to assemble a genuine team and was counting on the patience of the fans in his quest to make the Alvalade an authentic lions’ den once more.
And while the supporters’ faith was initially tested, it was soon to be rewarded. After two draws and a defeat in their opening three fixtures of this season’s Liga Sagres, there was no shortage of voices questioning the changes. However, the critics were quickly silenced.
The pivotal moment came in the fourth round, when Sporting found themselves 2-0 down away to Pacos de Ferreira with just 15 minutes remaining. It nonetheless proved sufficient time for a stirring comeback, their 3-2 win starting a run of seven consecutive victories that have brought them to within a point of joint-leaders Porto and Benfica – and all that before their Lisbon derby against the latter this weekend.
A touch of Dutch
It fell to Ricky van Wolfswinkel to hit the winner that day against Pacos de Ferreira. The Dutchman could not have picked a better time to open his league account for the Verde-e-Brancos, and he has not stopped scoring since.
Last June, aged just 22, Van Wolfswinkel left his homeland, where he had played for Vitesse and Utrecht. Such has been his form thus far with Sporting that it is not hard to see why he is considered one of his country’s finest prospects. The versatile forward is his club’s top scorer this term with 11 goals, seven of them in the league, where only Maritimo’s Baba (8) has had a better return to date.
While Wolfswinkel continues to show the composed finishing that has earned him the nickname of ‘Iceman’, his compatriot Stijn Schaars has been a constant, not to mention, crucial presence in midfield. Five years older and considerably more experienced than his team-mate, Schaars arrived at the Estadio Alvalade on the back of impressive spells with Vitesse and, to an even greater extent, AZ, and he has shown not for the first time that the Portuguese air is to his liking.
It was also in Portugal that the midfielder captained the Netherlands' U-21 side to the European title back in 2006. Now after graduating to the senior national team, with whom he travelled to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, he is again enjoying good times on Lusitanian soil.
An automatic starter for Paciencia, Schaars has chipped in with three league goals of his own and has been Sporting’s most-used player this season, helping his side battle back into contention in the title race and reach the last 32 of the Europa League.
It would be unfair, however, not to mention the outstanding contribution of Rui Patricio in goal, as well as that of internationals Oguchi Onyewu (USA), Alberto Rodriguez (Peru) and Anderson Polga (Brazil) at the back. Then, of course, there is the indefatigable Brazilian Elias in central midfield and the explosive Spaniard Diego Capel on the left wing.
For now, though, it is the flying Dutchmen who are grabbing most the headlines. However, unlike the ghost ship of lore that never finds port, these two Dutchmen have most definitely arrived.