Champions League guaranteed after win against Rio Ave
Sporting CP overcome Rio Ave 0-2 in Vila do Conde
A 0-2 win away to Rio Ave FC on Wednesday night not only meant that Sporting Clube de Portugal maintain their lead at the top of the Liga NOS table; it also guaranteed them a spot in the Group Stage of next season’s Champions League.
The victory came courtesy of goals from Pedro Gonçalves and Paulinho either side of half time, and had been inspired by a party of thousands of Sportinguistas waiting for the team bus before kickoff in Arcos to encourage their heroes.
Rúben Amorim made four changes to his first XI for the game, as Antonio Adán, Gonçalo Inácio, João Pereira and João Mário came in for Luís Maximiano, Luís Neto, Pedro Porro and Daniel Bragança, respectively. Pereira was making his first start in 2020/2021.
Rio Ave FC began playing a high line, trying to break up Sporting CP’s build-up from the back. They created a first half-chance of the game, when Ivo Pinto’s cross deflected off Nuno Mendes and hit the post. That was swiftly replicated on 7 minutes, when Sebastián Coates headed against the woodwork at the other end.
A great move by Sporting CP ended with João Pereira crossing, Pedro Gonçalves controlling and Nuno Santos shooting hard for an effort saved by goalkeeper Kieszek, and off the following corner kick, Nuno Mendes found João Palhinha, who struck the post with a header of his own.
Coates was a standout in the first half, with a masterclass in defending, positioning and covering any gaps in the Sporting CP back line, keeping Rio Ave FC quiet.
Half an hour into the game, after a Gonçalves shot parried by Kieszek, the forward had another chance to open the scoring: A ball into the area was met by Ivo Pinto’s hand, and referee Fábio Veríssimo awarded a penalty after consulting VAR. Gonçalves stepped up and converted, grabbing his 18th goal of the league season and returning to the top of the best marksman ranking.
Before the break, a direct free kick from Nuno Mendes went over and Júnior Brandão had a shot easily contained by Antonio Adán. Paulinho and João Mário came close to scoring a second for the team, but Kieszek made the save and Sporting CP went into the interval 0-1 to the good.
After the break, Rio Ave FC upped the intensity in search of an equaliser, albeit without any great opportunities on goal. The standout was a header wide by Júnior Brandão, and whilst unconvincing it did convince Amorim to shuffle the pack: Matheus Nunes came on for Nuno Santos and went to the right of the attack, as Gonçalves moved to the left. It was on his first intervention that Nunes created danger, heading a cross by João Mário off target.
Kieszek got to a ball played by Paulinho ahead of Nunes, in another close call, but there was still a need to score a second goal. That came on 63 minutes, when a poor clearance from the defence went to Paulinho, who chested down the ball and looped the ball from outside the area into the back of the net -leaving the goalkeeper rooted to the spot.
There could have been a third goal on 66 minutes, from Gonçalves, but that was to be his last involvement of the game of note. He was replaced by Daniel Bragança for the final ten minutes.
A counterattack by Jovane Cabral and a Palhinha shot wide from the rebound concluded the opportunities for Sporting CP, who controlled their lead and took the victory in Vila do Conde. With at least second place in the Liga NOS table assured, the leaders now go on to play Boavista FC at the Estádio José Alvalade this weekend.
Sporting CP: Antonio Adán [GK], Gonçalo Inácio, Sebastián Coates [C], Zouhair Feddal, João Pereira (Luís Neto, 83'), João Palhinha, João Mário (Jovane Cabral, 76'), Nuno Mendes, Pedro Gonçalves (Daniel Bragança, 83'), Nuno Santos (Matheus Nunes, 54') and Paulinho.