JDared Alvalade, the man who created Sporting Clube de Portugal in the early 1900s, originally intended to study medicine, only to drop out of his Harvard degree because he couldn’t stand the sight of blood. After spending two years as club president, he stormed into a row with his fellow managers, tragically dying of the Spanish flu aged 33. And perhaps the finest thing that can be said about Sporting’s performance against Manchester City on Tuesday night was that it was a more than fitting tribute to his legacy.
Disgusting, vindictive and over far too soon: Sporting’s big night, their first Champions League knockout game since 2009, imploded in a bouquet of boos and a haze of grassroots inconsistency. City didn’t just put the tie to bed: they embalmed her, sealed her in a lead coffin, bound her in chains and deposited her somewhere off the North Atlantic coast .
Long before half-time, the home crowd were already receiving chants of “you’ve had your day, now go fuck yourself at home” from the small pocket of delighted City fans in the bottom corner.
They didn’t, of course. They stayed and watched until the grisly end, even rising to salute their demolished team as the minutes passed. Who knows, after all, when this stadium will be able to see a match of this magnitude again?
Manager, Rúben Amorim has done an excellent job of resurrecting this fallen giant of Portuguese football and his reward will likely be a job at an elite club this summer or next. Their dashing midfielder Pedro Gonçalves will get his shot sooner or later. It’s sort of the fate that awaits any little league club that dares to outdo itself: growth, success, acclaim, dismemberment.
Just ask Ederson, Bernardo Silva, Rúben Dias or João Cancelo: all once-teenage products of Benfica’s talent factory, now turning to the highest bidder. This may have added a bit of grayness to the game, given Benfica’s history with their Lisbon rivals. And certainly Silva seemed to take a certain liking to crushing his former opponents: two goals in the first half, another disallowed, and the rest of the evening spent in a kind of sadistic trance whose aim was to humiliate as much as possible as much as possible. opponents as possible.
But City’s iron fist was wrapped in a velvet glove. Spectacular strikes from Silva and Raheem Sterling would dominate the showpiece forfeits, but perhaps the most impressive element of City’s part was their craftiness and tactility, the way they played over time as if it were the dough in their hands. Witness Phil Foden’s short pause and feigning eyes to engage the goalkeeper before shoving the ball in for City’s third: all about four yards from goal. Or Kevin De Bruyne’s delicate ankle pivot in the build-up to City’s opening goal, deflecting the ball towards Riyad Mahrez at the very last second.
Perhaps, for all the hazy coverage from Amorim and his league-winning Sporting side ahead of the game, we should have seen this beating coming. Just take a look at the two teams lined up before kick-off. As City stood still, as if it could be any game at any stadium in any city against any opponent, Sporting could barely contain their fear. Gonçalves took a deep breath to calm his nerves. Antonio Adán’s eyes scanned the entire arena. It was new territory and it was new feelings. Amorim’s greatest quality is the intensity and fervor he manages to draw from this team. But in a swirling, evangelistic noise, it was the cool heads that were most lacking here.
Mahrez scored City’s first goal after eight minutes, with the Sporting players still appealing for offside. Silva’s second goal, a killer half-volley off the crossbar, was a freak of a freak of a freak. The third goal somehow summed up Sporting’s evening. Mahrez’s cross was allowed to go through three sets of legs – Ricardo Esgaio, Matheus Reis, Sebastián Coates – on its way to Foden, a kind of bizarre croquet in the penalty box. City’s fourth goal and Silva’s second were deflected by Gonçalo Ignácio’s full-back, which again seemed entirely appropriate.
Four to nil at half-time and yet still contractually bound to play the last 135 minutes of this draw, City naturally slowed down a bit in the second half. Sterling scored a fifth and Oleksandr Zinchenko briefly threatened a sixth and João Cancelo played much better after a mixed first half, but all the dramatic tension had long since escaped the room. It was the eighth time this season that City had scored five or more goals.
And oddly, this game told us very little that we didn’t already know about them. This is the gift and the curse of the modern City: often we have no idea how they will fare in adversity because they so rarely encounter it. All we can really say with certainty is that the road to St. Petersburg in May will be paved with much tougher challenges than that.