With his side top in Portugal and still in the UEFA Europa League, Jorge Jesus has honoured his promise to "awake the sleeping Lion" at Sporting CP – UEFA.com's Pedro Marques explains how.
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It was the big surprise of the summer in Portuguese football. Fresh from guiding Benfica to a second consecutive Liga triumph, Jorge Jesus left the Eagles to take charge of fierce Lisbon rivals Sporting CP – and promised to "awake the sleeping Lion". With his team two points clear at the top of the championship and through to the UEFA Europa League last 32, Jesus looks to be making good on that vow.
The 61-year-old's reign got off to an eye-catching start when Sporting beat his old club 1-0 in the Portuguese Super Cup. Though disappointment followed in the UEFA Champions League play-offs, Jesus made it clear that he was focused on winning the league, and a 3-0 victory at Benfica lifted the Lions top in October. They temporarily lost their grip after a 1-0 reverse at União da Madeira in December – their only defeat so far – but Sporting were back at the head of the class after downing Porto next time out.
The figures speak for themselves, with Jesus's men amassing 44 points in the first half of their campaign – their highest total since the introduction of three points for a win – as they became 'winter champions' for the first time in ten years. Much of that is down to the confidence Jesus has given the team, Sporting's self-belief having wilted since their last Liga title in 2001/02. Indeed, the newly-hungry Lions have made a habit of grabbing late goals, most notably edging Braga 3-2 after being 2-0 down at half-time.
Jesus has introduced an attractive style of play as well, based on efficient pressing and diagonal runs off the ball, with every player given several passing options. That approach has captivated supporters at the Estádio José Alvalade, while highlighting the quality of Sporting's home-grown midfield trio of William Carvalho, Adrien Silva and João Mário. Together, they have matured this term, and the latter pair are arguably enjoying the best season of their careers.
No player has stood out more, however, than Islam Slimani. Now in his third year at the club, the Algeria forward has already rattled in a personal record of 20 goals this season in all competitions, and he feels Jesus has had a huge impact on Sporting's fortunes. "He's a great coach," said the 27-year-old. "He's changed lots of things, introduced his methods and everything is going well. We are top, playing well and we've been accomplishing important things."
Meanwhile, several young talents have emerged, including wingers Matheus Pereira and Gelson Martins, who will also have their part to play as Sporting target glory at home and in Europe. Jesus has made a priority of winning the league, but, with his side out of both domestic cup competitions, it will be fascinating to see if they can replicate their momentum in the UEFA Europa League – where they face Bayer Leverkusen in the last 32.
"We're a team that believes in what it's doing and has a lot of heart, and also knows how to battle," says the coach. "We're on the right path, but that's no guarantee we'll still be top at the end of the season. The pressure will increase and most of our players have never been champions. It is something new for them, and there are times when it's important to have that winning culture."