Zach Lowy rounds up the weekend’s action in European football, from underperforming managers to youngsters you must take note of. This week he focuses on the final matchday of the 2021/22 Primeira Liga season.
Araújo’s Match-Winning Brace for Benfica
The final matchday of the 2021/22 Primeira Liga season began on Friday night as Paços de Ferreira hosted Benfica at the Estádio da Mata Real. With Benfica confirmed to finish third and the Beavers set to finish mid-table, it had more of a preseason feel than anything; Nélson Veríssimo’s side’s real finale came a week earlier against Porto as they failed to prevent their eternal rivals from claiming their 30th league title at the Estádio da Luz, with Zaidu Sanusi’s 94th-minute winner giving Sérgio Conceição’s side the championship. With nothing left to play, the interim manager Veríssimo, who will be replaced by outgoing PSV coach Roger Schmidt in the summer, elected to give a rare starting opportunity to several academy players such as 21-year-old left-back Sandro Cruz and Henrique Araújo and Tomás Araújo, the latter two having started in the UEFA Youth League Final on April 25 as Benfica thrashed Red Bull Salzburg 6-0 to claim their first European football triumph since winning back-to-back European Cups in 1961 and 1962 and gain revenge for 2017 when a Benfica side featuring the likes of João Félix and Rúben Dias fell 2-1 in the Final to a Salzburg side featuring the likes of Amadou Haidara and Patson Daka.
Whilst Henrique Araújo partnered fellow academy talent Tiago Gouveia and 25-year-old Gil Dias in attack, Soualiho Meïté (28) played alongside João Mário – who, like Meïté, has found playing time limited as Adel Taarabt has mainly played with Julian Weigl in the double pivot under Veríssimo, as well as 20-year-old midfielder Paulo Bernardo. Tomás Araújo and Morato’s combined age of 39 paled in comparison to Benfica’s typical central defensive pairing with Jan Vertonghen (35) and Nicolás Otamendi (34), whilst Gilberto, the only player in the line-up who has maintained a starting spot in recent months, played at right-back. Helton Leite (31) wore the armband, the Brazilian goalkeeper beating out Odysseas Vlachodimos for a starting spot midway through the 2020/21 season before losing his starting spot this season under Jorge Jesus. He has played seven times in comparison to 26 last season, but he was nevertheless forced to make four saves from inside the box in what proved to be a challenging first half for Benfica. Gouveia robbed Juan Delgado of possession within four minutes after the Chilean international took a heavy touch and lost the ball, with the 20-year-old winger taking a few touches before threading a pass for Henrique, who made a deft run between the two Paços defenders before slotting past André Ferreira. The hosts aggressively pushed for an equalizer, registering 12 shots to Benfica’s 15, but they were unable to come up with an answer before Ferreira was forced to paw away a dangerous low shot from Gouveia which Gil Dias picked up before firing a cross towards Henrique who made no mistake from close range to put Benfica ahead 2-0 going into halftime. The 20-year-old striker, who, like Cristiano Ronaldo, grew up in the island town of Funchal, Madeira, scored a hat-trick in the 6-0 win against Salzburg a fortnight ago, and after making his first-team debut against Gil Vicente on February 2, he’d make a 9-minute cameo against Tondela before coming off the bench in the 74th minute on March 11 in a home match for Benfica, who were losing 1-0 to Vizela and had been playing with 10 men since the eighth minute after Adel Taarabt’s expulsion. Within seconds, he’d make an impact: after Pedro Silva failed to get a clear handling of Gonçalo Ramos’ low effort, Henrique converted from close range to score the equalizer, a 1-1 draw.
Benfica would prevail with a 2-0 win in a game that saw other players such as Diego Moreira and Martim Neto who were involved in the Youth League triumph make an appearance in a game in which neither Álex Grimaldo or Darwin Núñez were present. The Spanish left-back has been the subject of interest from Barcelona and could be set to return to his boyhood club, whilst Darwin’s 34 goals in all competitions and 26 in the league to earn him the Golden Boot award have peaked the interest of Europe’s biggest clubs. The Uruguayan has been a lone bright spot in what has been an impressive campaign on the European front for Benfica, but yet another year of playing catch-up to their two rivals, and it seems as though the Eagles will cash in on him while his value is skyrocketing. Boavista’s Croatian striker Petar Musa has been linked as a potential replacement after scoring 11 league goals following his loan arrival from Slavia Prague, whilst Benfica also have veteran forwards Roman Yaremchuk, Haris Seferović and Rodrigo Pinho in tow. However, their two best options for replacing Darwin’s goalscoring impact may very well be Henrique (20) and Gonçalo Ramos (20), both of whom are products of Benfica’s Seixal academy – Henrique joined from Marítimo in 2018.
The Relegation Battle
Saturday’s action commenced with a triple-header amongst the three teams that had yet to seal their top-flight status for next season. Two newly promoted sides who had just confirmed their safety the prior weekend, Vizela and Arouca, faced off against the two teams in the relegation zone, Moreirense and Belenenses-SAD, whilst 16th-placed Tondela faced off against midtable side Boavista. Whilst B-SAD have found themselves in the relegation zone since early November – almost all of it in last place – they nevertheless gave themselves a fighting chance with the appointment of Franclim Carvalho, who became the club’s third manager of the season after taking charge on January 11. Under the 35-year-old Franclim, who retired from playing at 24 and who had only served in assistant roles prior to this job, B-SAD’s form continued to plummet following the sale of star defender Tomás Ribeiro to Grasshoppers, with a 1-1 draw to Marítimo and a 1-0 win over Vitória sandwiched in between six losses in his first eight games. However, March began on a promising note as B-SAD drew three straight to Tondela, Boavista and Santa Clara, before beating a 10-man Portimonense side 2-0 on April 2. A 3-1 loss to Benfica followed, with Afonso Sousa putting B-SAD up within three minutes before a hat-trick from Darwin Núñez led Benfica to victory, before beating Vizela 1-0 and clawing their way back from a two-goal deficit and snatching a 96th-minute equalizer from ex-Spurs man Sandro in a 2-2 draw vs Estoril. Sandro would go from hero to zero the following match after being sent off in the 83rd minute, soon followed by Ricardo Horta scoring a late goal to snatch a 1-0 win for Braga. The penultimate match on Monday, however, was the biggest rollercoaster of them all: an own goal from Alex Nascimento gave B-SAD the lead just before the interval, whilst goals from Adrian Marín and Bruno Rodrigues put Famalicão in front with a quarter-hour left. When Yves Baraye looked to have sealed a draw in the 93rd minute with an equalizer, Pepe Rodrigues scored two minutes later to snatch a 3-2 win for Fama. Due to B-SAD’s failure to win, Arouca, who just a day prior had lost 1-0 to Braga via a late winner from Ricardo Horta, confirmed their status in the top flight.
Whilst Arouca and B-SAD would settle for a 0-0 draw, Vizela found themselves down to 10 men within 150 seconds as Ivanildo Fernandes compensated for a heavy touch by tripping up Paulinho Mota outside the box. The hosts took the lead as Rodrigo Conceição, on loan from Porto and son of Porto manager Sérgio Conceição, fired in a cross towards Sori Mané to head home. Moreirense would double their lead in the 16th minute as Artur Jorge headed home a free-kick from Pedro Amador, whilst Derik Lacerda added to the lead at the half-hour mark and Yan Matheus sealed a 4-0 win in the second half. Regardless of the Arouca vs. B-SAD result, B-SAD needed Moreirense to draw or lose in order to have a chance of finishing 16th and playing in the relegation play-off spot. With Moreirense in cruise control, the attention turned to one match: Boavista vs. Tondela.
Boavista had ample opportunities to take the lead early on, but it was the hosts who opened the scoring before the interval as Salvador Agra’s corner kick found Eduardo Quaresma, whose cross/volley was headed in by Modibo Sagnan. The Axadrezados would equalize after the break as Kenji Gorré chested home a cross from Yanis Hamache, but in the 77th minute, captain João Pedro, who had come off the bench for Iker Undabarrena, smashed a low shot into the bottom left corner to give Tondela a vital lead. However, Boavista would have the last laugh as Hamache swung in a deep cross towards Yusupha Njie to volley home in the 86th minute, securing a 2-2 draw and allowing Moreirense to finish 16th. Whilst Moreirense will face off against Chaves in the two-legged relegation play-offs, Tondela will play the first national cup final of the club’s 89-year history when they play Porto in the Taça de Portugal Final next Sunday, before heading down to the second division.
Porto Celebrate Title With a Win
Nearly three years ago to the date, Cláudio Ramos made five saves in a 1-1 draw against Sporting, before starting in a 5-2 win against Chaves on the final day of the season to secure Tondela’s safety. Ramos would leave for Porto on a free transfer in 2020, ending an eight-year spell at the Auriverdes and going from undisputed first-choice in goal to third-choice between Agustín Marchesín and Diogo Costa. He would, however, make his league debut for Porto in the final match of the season, the lone backup in an otherwise gala XI. Whilst Porto had already sealed their championship a week prior, they celebrated their triumph at the Dragão in a 2-0 win, with an own goal from Estoril left-back Joãozinho giving them the lead just after the break. Other players such as Rúben Semedo, Fernando Andrade and Francisco Meixedo would come on in the final minutes to make their league debut and be able to receive the national championship. Andrade, 29, had joined Porto in January 2019 before being loaned out to various Turkish and Saudi clubs, but his first league goal for Porto would come in the 88th minute, receiving a through ball at the edge of the box before firing a low shot beneath Thiago Rodrigues da Silva and collapsing into tears while being mobbed by his teammates.
An Emotional Day of Farewells at the Estádio José Alvalade
After Porto’s celebratory win and a 1-0 win for Portimonense against Marítimo that saw Ewerton put the visitors ahead in the 80th minute, Sporting ended their campaign at the Estádio José Alvalade in a game that saw backup goalkeeper João Virgínia and Daniel Bragança and Bruno Tabata given rare starts. Tabata opened the scoring just before the break with a lovely half-volley, whilst a wingback-to-wingback goal would see Nuno Santos swing in a cross for Pedro Porro to convert at the far post in the 51st minute. Pablo Sarabia made it three shortly after volleying in a cross from Pedro Gonçalves, whilst substitute Marcus Edwards quadrupled the lead after launching a shot from outside the box and into the top-right corner.
Despite neither team having anything to play for, it was an emotional day of farewells, including Hidemasa Morita, who joined Santa Clara in January 2021 and has been linked as a potential midfield reinforcement for Sporting as João Palhinha and Matheus Nunes’ futures remain uncertain. Pablo Sarabia, who joined on loan from Paris Saint-Germain on deadline day as a makeweight in the Nuno Mendes deal, has emerged as Sporting’s best player this season and has racked up 15 goals and 7 assists in 29 league appearances. The Spaniard, who wears the #17, was given a standing ovation in the 17th minute by a grateful Alvalade crowd, and one Sportinguista even held up a sign that said, “Let’s all give €10 so we can afford to pay Sarabia’s salary.” While Sarabia (30) has likely played his final match in green and white, his departure will open up the door for Edwards (23) and Tabata (25) to compete with Gonçalves (23) for a starting spot and get more consistent minutes, both of whom have shown positive moments in the dying weeks of the season.
Vitória de Guimarães Thrash Gil Vicente
The final league match of the season was a decaffeinated 5-0 win for Vitória de Guimarães against Gil Vicente. Just last weekend, Gil Vicente had won their first match since March 13 to seal fifth place and European qualification for the first time in the club’s 98-year-history. Vitória, with nothing left to play for, chose to use this opportunity to carry out a ‘punishment’ that was administered for events dating back to January 4, 2020, when Vitória fans threw flares and chairs onto the pitch in a 1-0 loss to Benfica. They played the game behind closed doors and took the lead within 20 minutes via top scorer Óscar Estupiñán, who headed home his 16th goal of the season ahead of a summer that will see the 25-year-old Colombian striker leave on a free transfer. Ruben Lameiras doubled the lead shortly after halftime, whilst Nicolas Janvier, Bruno Duarte and Ricardo Quaresma added to the scoring in the final minutes. Vitória, who were set to finish sixth no matter what, will now wait for the Taça de Portugal Final on May 22; if Porto beat Tondela, Vitória will play in the Europa Conference League qualifiers alongside Gil.
Things Get Heated in the Penultimate Match of the Season
The penultimate match, meanwhile, pitted Famalicão against Braga. Famalicão had clinched safety a fortnight ago after beating 10-man Estoril 3-1, before following it up with a 3-2 win against B-SAD. Braga, meanwhile, had conceded just three goals in their last seven games – all of which came in the second leg of their Europa League quarterfinals tie at Ibrox as Rangers turned around a first-leg deficit and booked their ticket to the semifinals. Despite having clinched fourth place, Braga bounced back from their elimination with a stalemate against Estoril, before beating Porto 1-0 at home and giving them their first loss in league play since October 2020. Had it not been for Ricardo Horta’s winning goal, Porto would have stretched their unbeaten run to 59 games and gone one game clear of Fabio Capello’s Milan as the longest unbeaten streak in the history of Europe’s top six leagues. Braga would defeat relegation battlers Arouca and B-SAD 1-0 in the following weeks via goals from Horta, who went level with Mario Laranjo as the club’s all-time leading scorer; Laranjo had scored 92 goals in 129 appearances between 1946 and 1954. Horta, 27, has been the subject of interest from Benfica in recent weeks and could be set to return to the club where he played from 2004 to 2011.
In what will all likelihood go down as the final Braga match for Horta and manager Carlos Carvalhal, Horta opened the scoring within a minute to become the club’s all-time leading scorer, twirling past Alex Nascimento before rolling his shot past Ivan Zlobin. The visitors doubled their lead in the 19th minute as Ricardo’s younger brother André picked out Vitinha with a daring cross, who towered above the Fama defence and fired in a header from close range. Zlobin was forced into making a number of saves to keep Braga’s lead at just two, and the hosts made them pay as Simon Banza headed in a cross from Bruno Rodrigues to cut the lead to one just before the break. Bruno came close to equalizing in the 56th minute from close range only to sky his effort, but he’d make amends 24 minutes later after heading home from a corner kick. With just a minute left in regular time, Bruno sprinted down the left flank, picked up a pass from Ivan Dolček, and took his time before cutting inside and firing a cross towards Banza, who headed home his 14th league goal of the season to secure a 3-2 victory. No less than a second after the referee blew the final whistle did players from both sides meet in a messy, physical scuffle that saw Riccieli from Famalicão and David Carmo from Braga sent off.