Sporting Clube de Portugal return to the UEFA Champions League group stage after a six-year absence with Nani and a host of recruits reinforcing a talented young squad as the Lisbon giants continue their resurgence.
After arguably their worst-ever season in 2012/13, finishing seventh in the Portuguese Liga and missing out on qualification for UEFA competitions for just the second time in their history, Sporting came second last term – their highest placing in five years.
Leonardo Jardim's side surprised many by pushing for the title before ending up seven points behind rivals and eventual champions SL Benfica. Sporting did finish above perennial favourites FC Porto to seal a return to the UEFA Champions League group stage.
Highly regarded coach Jardim left for AS Monaco FC in the summer as Sporting, a club known for nurturing youth, hired another young manager. Marco Silva, who is in only his fourth campaign as a head coach, takes up a new challenge after guiding Estoril Praia to a club-record fourth spot in 2013/14 and two successive forays into Europe.
Sporting have recruited 11 players but, significantly, lost just two prominent players from last season as defenders Marcos Rojo and Eric Dier moved to Manchester United FC and Tottenham Hotspur FC respectively. Only two of their signings, including France's 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup winner Naby Sarr, are over 23 – a sign the Lions are looking to the future once again.
Nani, one of the most noteworthy products of the famous academy which has rolled out the likes of Simão Sabrosa, Luís Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo, rejoined the Lisbon outfit on loan from Manchester United to the delight of fans.
The strategy that led to the club's revival, though, has not changed and seems to keep paying dividends. Sporting claimed a 1-1 draw at Benfica on Sunday, having lost on their previous six Liga trips to their neighbours without scoring a goal.
Despite the raft of newcomers boss Silva, 37, has not made too many adjustments. Signings such as Ryan Gauld are still settling into their new home and, in the Scotsman's case, progressing with the B team.
"These youngsters have to be worked. When they are ready, they will have a chance," said Silva, who last week welcomed 20-year-old French forward Hadi Sacko from FC Girondins de Bordeaux. So far just two new faces have featured regularly in the starting XI: Nani and centre-back Sarr, landed from Olympique Lyonnais, who is cementing himself as a pillar of the defence.
The lineup continues to comprise mainly home-grown talents, with at least five academy graduates usually trusted. Three of them – William Carvalho, André Martins and Adrien Silva – remain the engine of the team in midfield, just as last season. Silva has faith in his young side: "We are at a club that has one of the best player development structures in the world. When we have such quality in our youth system these players are a sure bet."
Sporting will face Chelsea FC, NK Maribor and FC Schalke 04 in Group G on their long-awaited UEFA Champions League comeback. "We are proud to be in that competition," added Silva. "We lack experience but we have our weapons. It would be fantastic to finish in the top two, even though we know it will be very difficult."
The Lions certainly appear well-placed to continue their renaissance with several gifted young recruits, established home-grown stars and a renowned talent in Nani.
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