It seems like only yesterday that Sporting Clube de Portugal were looking on in envy as old foes FC Porto became the champions of Europe. Ten months on the tides have taken a significant turn, leaving the Lisbon club three ties away from European glory of their own – and in with a shout of stripping Porto of their Portuguese crown.
Recent victories against Middlesbrough FC and Porto have convinced Sporting coach José Peseiro that his men can match Porto's 2003 victory in the UEFA Cup and secure the Portuguese championship crown too. The fact that this year's UEFA Cup final is being staged at their own Estádio José Alvalade on 18 May makes their quest even more exciting, even if they face a tough challenge from Newcastle United FC in the quarter-finals next month.
It has been a momentous week for Sporting. After sweeping aside Middlesbrough to reach the last eight of the UEFA Cup, they defeated Porto 2-0 in the SuperLiga, a loss which has seriously dented Porto's chances of retaining their title. Although SL Benfica head the table with 51 points from 26 matches, Sporting are one of four clubs hunting them down. They may be six points adrift, but with eight matches to play Peseiro believes his in-form side have what it takes to close the gap and become champions for the third time in six seasons.
Will to win
"We are six points behind Benfica and have the advantage of being in the UEFA Cup," said Peseiro. "It would be great if we were in the Portuguese Cup as well.
We have perhaps 13 matches left this season and we want to win them all. We want to become champions."
Though Sporting have already lost seven league matches this season – the same number as last term when they finished third – they have never been out of the title chase. They now look a far more solid unit under Peseiro who replaced Fernando Santos, sacked at the end of last season.
The club also signed Chilean striker Mauricio Pinilla, Cameroonian striker Roudolphe Douala, Nigerian defender Joseph Enakarhire and Portuguese midfield player Hugo Viana at the start of the season, although Viana, on loan from Newcastle, will not be able to play in the last-eight fixture. Brazilian striker Liedson, meanwhile, has been sensational, scoring 21 goals in 25 domestic league matches as well as eight in the UEFA Cup.
Peseiro admits he would rather not be playing Newcastle at this stage of the competition after drawing 1-1 with them in the group stage, but ultimately, he says, there are no easy options left. "We want to reach the final and we cannot choose our opponents," he said. "Spanish and Italian teams are very difficult too.
"At least we will play against a side we know," he added. "I just want them to meet a motivated Sporting team. At our best we are very strong. I know there are some things we've been doing wrong, but we have the capability to improve."
Although Sporting have enjoyed domestic success over the years, their one and only European title came when they lifted the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup in 1964. If Peseiro's confidence seeps into his players, the long wait for more European glory could soon be over.
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