NICK LEYDEN - Monday, May 21, 2012
Oguchi Onyewu missed out on his first Portuguese trophy as Sporting endured a disappointing defeat to Académica in the Taça de Portugal final.
Sporting CP 0-1 Académica de Coimbra
Having not won a trophy of any kind in three years, Sporting's supporters were looking forward to the matchup with an Académica team that finished 13th out of 16 in Portugal's first division.
Surely, the 19-time Taça champions should have been able to subdue the team from Coimbra that had not won the tournament since the 1938-1939 season.
Surely, Sporting's squad of international stars should have been able to overpower the Académica lineup, which included two Sporting loanees, Adrien Silva and Cedric Soares, who were castoff as surplus to requirements in Lisbon.
Unfortunately for Onyewu and the Sporting faithful, the underdogs did not cooperate with the natural order of Portuguese soccer and sent the Lisbon giants home from the Estádio Nacional shocked and frustrated.
The championship goal came in just the fourth minute after the Sporting defense gave the ball away 20 yards from goal.
With Anderson Polga on the turf following a collision with Adrien Silva, Académica took advantage of the hole in Sporting's backline and Marinho headed in a backpost cross from Diogo Valente.
Gooch and company could have been down by two in the seventh minute but Edinho sent his open header directly at Rui Patricio.
Sporting eventually settled in, however, and dominated possession for the rest of the game.
Their first clear chance came in the 15th minute when a dangerous Andre Carrillo cross narrowly missed both Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Diego Capel in the box, and that is the way their day would continue.
Too many Sporting passes were played a half-second behind their targets. Too many first touches left the ball a foot out of reach. Too many open shots were scuffed off target.
And even when the Lions were able to string together a promising move they were stifled by a packed Académica defense that was determined to keep significant numbers behind the ball and foul relentlessly.
Early in the second half Edinho again had two opportunities to stretch Académica's lead, missing clear looks at goal in the 47th and 49th minutes.
But Sporting's own inefficiency let the veteran striker off the hook.
Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Sporting's leading scorer on the season, was the primary culprit after failing on a breakaway in the 57th minute and sending a wide open header in the 62nd minute off target.
When shots were put on target Académica's goalkeeper Ricardo dealt with them confidently, including three headers from Gooch in the 45th, 56th and 82nd minutes off corners.
Ricardo also acrobatically pushed aside Stijn Schaars free kick in the 80th minute, and made a cup-saving stop on substitute Jeffrén in stoppage time.
With time running out Sa Pinto had moved Onyewu to center forward as a target for Sporting's desperate long balls. While the Académica defense comfortably handled most of the hopeful passes, Onyewu was able to expertly flick one into Jeffrén's path in the box.
Ricardo reacted quickly though and took the ball off the Spaniard's foot to save the game for the team from Portugal's medieval capital, handing them their first major trophy in 73 years.
For Sporting the loss marks the continuation of a pattern in recent years in which archrivals Porto and Benfica pick up trophy upon trophy while the Lions remain frustrated.
But for Onyewu, despite finishing a distant fourth in the league and falling in both domestic cup competitions as well as the Europa League, the season must be remembered as a success as it marked his return to health and resurgence as a star at the club and international level.