NICK LEYDEN - Friday, January 13, 2012
Oguchi Onyewu had a potentially crucial goal ruled out for offsides as Sporting needed a second half comeback to secure a tie in the first leg of the Taça de Portugal semifinals.
Sporting entered their semifinal matchup as not only the clear favorite to advance to the championship game, but to win their first trophy since the 2008-2009 season.
A painful first half in the Estádio José Alvalade, however, put their hopes in serious jeopardy as they surrendered two unanswered goals in addition to losing their top scorer, Ricky van Wolfswinkel, to injury.
Venezuelan striker Mario Rondon opened the scoring for Nacional in the 35th minute when he made a near post run and neatly flicked a header past Rui Patricio.
The visitors' advantage was doubled in the 45th minute after a dreadful mistake by Anderson Polga.
The veteran Brazilian, who has been Onyewu's regular partner in the center of defense, had the ball on the sideline near midfield before turning to apparently make a back pass to the goalkeeper.
Polga was too deliberate in his movements, however, allowing Candeias to swipe the ball and head straight for goal, where he beat a helpless Rui Patricio.
Having already replaced van Wolfswinkel with Valeri Bojinov due to injury and Renato Neto with Andre Carrillo, Domingos Paciencia had only a single sub with which to maneuver in the second half.
The former Braga manager made the bold move of using his third sub at the interval, bringing on first choice winger Diego Capel for Jeffren.
The moves seemed to work right away, as Sporting's Chilean midfielder Matías Fernandez drew a fine save from Vladan within a minute of the restart.
The Lions continued to dominate the second half, creating several dangerous chances through Capel, Bojinov and Carrillo.
The hosts finally pulled one goal back in the 75th minute when Elias was able to volley home from ten yards out.
Nacional's lead could have completely evaporated on two occasions just minutes later.
First, Vladan produced another outstanding save to deny an Elias header, and then Onyewu had an apparent goal called back in the 78th minute as he received a flick from a player ruled to be offsides.
Five minutes into stoppage time, however, Sporting eventually found the equalizer when a Stijn Schaars free kick from deep on the right wing curled past a chaotic cluster of players inside the six and straight into the goal.
With such bleak prospects at halftime, Gooch and company will be happy that the second half comeback provided a legitimate chance to progress to the championship game when they travel to Funchal for the second leg on 2/8.
Sporting have no time to relax, though, as they must prepare for a critical league game against Braga on 1/15.
The teams will enter the match tied for third place.