It has been a problematic season for Sporting. Their championship challenge never got off the ground, while early eliminations from the Taca de Portugal, UEFA Europa League and Taca da Liga left little for their fans to get excited about. Yet, after dropping uncomfortably close to the bottom of the table, Os Verde-e-Brancos have hit their stride in recent weeks, their pride restored thanks to a policy that has brought them great success in the past.
The turnaround in Sporting’s fortunes came about when Jesualdo Ferreira arrived in the dugout in January. Deciding to take a calculated risk, the new coach gave his backing to a clutch of youngsters to emerge from the club’s celebrated academy.
Though the three consecutive wins that marked the start of his reign were followed by some less positive results, Ferreira had marked the way forward. And as Sporting’s latest run of form has shown, the coach’s decision to inject some youthful vitality into a side short on confidence is paying off handsomely.
“When I came to Sporting I decided to share some ideas of mine with the board,” said Ferreira. “I wanted to put them into practice and that’s what I’ve done. I didn’t know many of these players but they’ve proved more than good enough to help us climb the table.”
The Lisbon club lay 12th in the table when Ferreira took charge, just one point above the relegation zone. Since then, however, they have climbed to seventh and lie just two points adrift of the Europa League qualification places.
“We need more points if we want to get into Europe, and we’ll be looking to these players to get them,” said Ferreira. “They’ve got the qualities you’d expect of young players. They’re carefree and they like to express themselves, sometimes a bit too much. Their confidence is a trump card for us.”
Following the stars
Not for nothing are Sporting famed for their ability to nurture young talent. The likes of Paulo Futre, Luis Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo, Joao Moutinho and Nani are just a few of the great players to have rolled off the club’s production line and make their names in world football.
Hopes are high that the current crop can chart a similar path to stardom, hopes that have been raised by three straight wins as part of a five-game unbeaten run, proof that age and experience does not always matter.
The average age of the Sporting line-up in those last five games was a mere 22, with the 26-year-old Miguel Lopes the oldest player in the side. Partners in the centre of defence, Marcos Rojo and Tiago Ilori, are 23 and 20 respectively, while winger Bruma, who is already attracting the interest of Europe’s biggest clubs, is only 18.
Another factor in the club’s recent revival has been the adaptability of their young assets. A prime example of that is 19-year-old Eric Dier, who was playing for the reserves when Ferreira made his entrance at the Alvalade. Promptly drafted into the first team, Dier played at right-back and at centre-half before his coach handed him a holding role in midfield, detecting his ability to offer something else to the team. Excelling in his new position, the England-born player is aware of the part the legends of the past play in inspiring Sporting’s new breed of stars:
“The club is very proud of its academy and the work it has done," Dier said. "We can’t compete financially with other big clubs in Europe and we know what it takes to make players develop here. The names of Figo and Ronaldo are always in our minds when we go about our work at the academy.”
A wise head between the posts
Sporting’s youngsters face the biggest test of their short careers this Sunday, when they take on unbeaten championship leaders Benfica at the Estadio da Luz. Despite the points gap that separates the two sides in the table, Os Leões are determined to disrupt As Águias’ title push.
Though just 25, goalkeeper Rui Patricio is one of the most experienced members of the team and yet another shining example of Sporting’s commitment to its youth policy.
Their first-choice custodian for the last six seasons and also Portugal’s No1, Patricio voiced Sporting’s desire and ambition ahead of this weekend’s Lisbon clássico: “Derbies are always tight games and we know it’s going to be tough, but we are Sporting and we’re going to the Luz to win. That’s what we’ve got our minds set on.”