Not for 70 long years has there been so much to play for on the final day of the Portuguese league. Even in a country grown used to FC Porto, Sporting Lisbon and Benfica taking the lion’s share of domestic glory, a scenario that saw all of Portugal’s big three still in with a chance of the title come the final matchday sent excitement levels through the roof.

In fact, with FC Porto being held 1-1 at home at the half-time interval by lowly Desportivo das Aves, the virtual champions were the green-and-whites of Sporting, who were cruising to victory over local rivals Belenenses.

However, Jesualdo Ferreira’s men were not to be denied, a devastating second-half display culminating in a 4-1 win and a second successive league crown. In the 86th minute of a pulsating encounter, with victory and the title all but assured, the fans packing the Estadio do Dragao were able to pay an emotional tribute to one of their most-loved players. Having finally given in the crowd’s incessant chanting, coach Ferreira sent on veteran shot-stopper Vitor Baia in place of Helton for the keeper’s 700th appearance in official matches. This year’s success was the 30th trophy of Baia’s glittering career and his tenth domestic league title, a record only beaten by the legendary Eusebio’s tally of eleven.

“I’ll celebrate this title as if it were the first of my career because of all the effort and hard work that has gone into it,” said the visibly moved Porto No99, who has so far resisted attempts to clarify his future plans.

After the final whistle, the 50,000-plus supporters who had experienced the Dragões’ victory first hand made their way into the streets of the northern Portuguese city to celebrate the blue-and-whites’ 21st league title. “I’m really pleased to have won my first ever title as a head coach, but more than anything I’d like to pay tribute to everybody involved,” said coach Ferreira, who joined the club from cross-town rivals Boavista with the season still in its infancy. “This victory belongs to them all. Playing matches at this stadium is a real pleasure.”

Key to the Portistas’ success has been the defensive solidity of Jose Bosingwa and highly regarded Brazilian centre-back Pepe, while Argentinian international Lucho Gonzalez and Portuguese wing-wizard Ricardo Quaresma have been superb in midfield. At the sharp end of the Porto attack, strikers Adriano and Helder Postiga weighed in with more than their share of vital goals. Ferreira’s spirited group also performed admirably in the UEFA Champions League. The Dragons eventually fell to a narrow last-sixteen defeat to the Chelsea side of Jose Mourinho, the man who led Porto to European football’s biggest prize in 2004. 

The chasing pack
Runners-up Sporting, who ended the campaign with the league’s best home record, have a golden opportunity to ease their disappointment by adding another title to their already heaving trophy cabinet. On 27 May the Estadio Nacional will host the Portuguese Cup Final, pitting Os Leões against the team they thumped 4-0 on the final day of the season, Belenenses.

The green-and-whites can also point to the presence of the league’s top striker in their ranks, Brazilian sharpshooter Liedson. The man nicknamed O levezinho (the nimble one), needed just 15 goals to take the bola de prata Staying in the capital Lisbon, Benfica, champions two years ago, ended the season as the only team able to boast an unbeaten home record. Os Encarnados may have missed out on the title, but they can console themselves with third position and a place in the UEFA Champions League qualifying rounds. Coach Fernando Santos for one refused to be downhearted after a topsy-turvy campaign. “Not picking up any silverware is never a good thing, but I think it’s going a bit far to say that we had a poor season,” said the former AEK Athens tactician. “I think that we can take a lot of positives from the way we recovered from that poor start that cost us 11 points.” 

Tears of sadness and joy
One of the biggest success stories were newly promoted Pacos de Ferreira, whose sixth-placed finish was enough to ensure they join Sporting Braga and Belenenses in next season’s UEFA Cup. Having earned a reputation as something of a yo-yo club since their first foray into the top flight in 1990/91, Pacos are now set to taste European football for the first time since their formation in 1950.

Uniao de Leiria, for their part, will need to negotiate the Intertoto Cup should they wish to keep their dreams of European competition alive.

Down in the lower reaches of the betandwin.com Liga, the fans of CD Aves and Beira-Mar were left to ponder their team’s failure to handle life with the big boys. A place in the Liga Vitalis (second division) awaits them for the 2007/08 campaign. Changing places with the unfortunate duo will be Leixoes and Vitoria de Guimaraes.