Having reached the final of the UEFA Cup in 2005 as a player with Sporting Clube de Portugal, Ricardo Sá Pinto is striving to repeat the feat as coach of the Lisbon side. The 39-year-old, who has been handed a contract until the end of next season, was promoted from his role as a youth trainer at the club when Domingos Paciência was sacked in mid-February.
Story of the season
After overcoming FC Nordsjælland 2-1 on aggregate in the play-off round, Sporting gave an early hint of what was to come by confirming their place in the UEFA Europa League round of 32 with three group games to spare – the earliest point at which a team can progress and the first time a side has achieved the feat in UEFA club competition.
Following a 1-0 defeat at FC Vaslui, the Lions secured top spot in Group D on matchday five with a 2-0 home win against FC Zürich, before losing to S.S. Lazio. With a slump in domestic form leading to the dismissal of Paciência, Sá Pinto made his senior coaching debut in the 2-2 draw at Legia Warszawa in the round of 32 first leg.
A 1-0 victory in the return set up a tie against Manchester City FC which Sporting, by this time through to the Portuguese Cup final, won on away goals. After eliminating free-scoring FC Metalist Kharkiv in the last eight, the Lions of Lisbon are dreaming of going one step further than seven years ago, when they lost to PFC CSKA Moskva in the final at their Estádio José Alvalade home.
Semi-final pedigree (UEFA Europa League / UEFA Cup)
P2 W1 L1
Last: 2004/05 v AZ Alkmaar (2-1 home, 2-3 away, won on away goals)
Record against semi-final opponents
It has been more than 26 years since Sporting played Athletic Club, the clubs' only meeting in UEFA competition. Both sides won at home, but Sporting more convincingly, although they were knocked out in the next round – the quarter-finals – by 1. FC Köln.
1985/86 UEFA Cup third round
Athletic Club 2-1 Sporting Clube de Portugal
Sporting Clube de Portugal 3-0 Athletic Club (agg 4-2)
Having beaten Manchester City 1-0 at home and gone in at half-time during the second leg with a two-goal advantage, Sporting survived a late onslaught from the Premier League title contenders. Now 3-2 behind on the night, Sá Pinto's team had Rui Patrício to thank for producing a last-gasp fingertip save from opposite number Joe Hart which kept the Lions in the competition.
Ricardo Sá Pinto, Sporting coach
"We've achieved a historic feat. It's the club's fifth semi-final in 106 years, so we have to praise the team and the players who, once more, were extraordinary."
Ricky van Wolfswinkel's five goals have been instrumental in Sporting's progress to the last four, the pick of them being a cheeky near-post flick on matchday two against Lazio. "I'm looking forward to enjoying the spectacular atmosphere of the Europa League further still," said the striker, signed last summer from FC Utrecht. "I have never played against Athletic – they will be two very interesting matches for us."
The installation of Sá Pinto seems to have done wonders for Sporting captain Anderson Polga, in his ninth season at the club. The 33-year-old, a 2002 FIFA World Cup winner with Brazil, made his 70th appearance in UEFA club competition during the quarter-final second leg against Metalist.
With Daniel Carriço, originally a defender but now deployed as a holding midfielder, and Oguchi Onyewu and Alberto Rodríguez injured of late, the former Grêmio Foot-ball Porto Alegrense man has adapted well to playing alongside a third centre-back partner this term, winter signing Xandão.
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