Benfica took another huge step towards a fourth consecutive league title by picking up a point against arch-rivals Sporting at the Estádio José Alvalade on Saturday evening. The Eagles made the worst possible start, with Ederson gifting Sporting an early penalty that was confidently dispatched by Adrien Silva. Nonetheless, the visitors were unfortunate to be behind at half-time, after referee Artur Soares Dias rejected no less than three penalty appeals.
Benfica equalised in the 66th minute, with the breakthrough coming from the unlikeliest of sources. After Eduardo Salvio had been felled outside the box, Victor Lindelöf stepped up to curl an unstoppable free-kick past the helpless Rui Patrício, scoring only his second goal for the club. The Encarnados held on for a precious point, guaranteeing them the league leadership heading into Matchweek 31.
Rui Vitória regarded his team's display as a clear demonstration of their title credentials, as he explained after the match:
"It was a really big challenge of our capabilities as leaders. We practically started the game losing, but afterwards we were the better team on the pitch, always looking for the goal (and) the ball, which intensified the rhythm of the match. We could have scored the goal earlier, and we were the better team during the ninety minutes."
"We played a very good match tactically. We lacked the directness to finish in the first half, but I liked the performance in general."
"We came (here) to win and we showed this! We clearly came here with this purpose. We didn't win, and, not winning, you (must) avoid losing. We are alive and ready for the fight until the end. We are ready!"
Jonas failed a late fitness test on his left calf injury, and was not named among the substitutes against Sporting. Getting a positive result in his absence only served to highlight Benfica’s strength in depth, according to their coach.
"We are a united team, everyone is switched on and ready... everyone deserves to play. If Jonas were available, it is obvious that he would have played. The best player of the past two seasons did not play (tonight), but we demonstrated why we are in first place, with a batch of quality players that always want to win."
Just four fixtures remain in the current league campaign: Benfica host Estoril and Vitória de Guimarães, and travel north to take on Rio Ave and Boavista. Vitória explained that with the title race far from over, each match must be given equal importance.
"You never know which game will define the championship... there are still four tough games (ahead), and we have to be alert and prepared."
Pizzi produced a tidy performance in central midfield at the Alvalade, and afterwards praised his teammates for refusing to buckle following Sporting's early opener.
"It was a keenly contested derby. From the first instant, our objective was to win. We faced adversity, with the very early goal against us, but the team gave a fantastic reaction. We were a real team, never dropped our heads, always with the will to win, and united. In the end, we were rewarded with the draw, but what we wanted was the victory."
Asked whether he had been surprised by Sporting's strong start, the 27-year old gave a bullish response:
"I did not see the stronger start of Sporting. I saw an unfortunate play on our part, which obviously boosted the morale of the opponent. From the moment that we were able to keep the ball on the ground we dominated the game. Then we were able to create opportunities. Unfortunately, we didn't manage to win, but it is necessary to highlight the strength of the team, and the fight (that they showed)."
"We wanted to win, and I want to leave a word for our supporters, that were tireless until the last moment."
Like his coach, the Portuguese international insisted that Benfica must show maximal respect to each of their remaining opponents.
"We are sad, because we wanted to win, but we remain in front, in the fight, and now there are four more 'finals' to achieve our objectives. We want to finish in first place and win the Tetra [fourth consecutive league title]. We wanted to continue with a three or six point advantage... we didn't manage, but we remain strong, very united, and this game was proof that Benfica are alive and kicking, and we remain together in the fight. There are no 'title-deciders'... all of the games are 'title deciders' from the beginning. We start them all to win, irrespective of the opponent. (Today) we started with great will... unfortunately it was not the result that we wanted."