LISBON, (Reuters) - On Sunday evening the busy streets of Lisbon will fall silent as, for the first time in several seasons, the two giants of the capital meet on almost level terms once again.
With Benfica’s six-point lead over Porto in the Primeira Liga under threat after a less than convincing start to the second half of the season, third-placed Sporting have an opportunity to inch closer to the top of the table.
Led by young coach Marco Silva, who has withstood president Bruno de Carvalho’s attempts to dethrone him over the winter break, Sporting go into the derby boosted by six consecutive victories.
Before last season’s distant second-place finish behind Benfica, Sporting’s record of fourth, third, fourth and seventh place in 2012-13 could be put down to disruption behind the scenes.
Not only have managers come and gone with startling frequency, three tried out the hot seat in 2012-13, presidents have done too.
The void in recent years was filled by an increasingly competitive Braga side that supplied the main threat to the domination of Benfica and Porto.
Sporting’s re-emergence under first Leonardo Jardim and now Silva has thrown them back into the limelight.
Benfica, though, go into Sunday’s game in indifferent form and with a weakened squad because of injuries and the transfer-window exits of Enzo Perez and Bernardo Silva.
The Eagles must field deputy goalkeeper Artur Moraes due to the thigh injury that has ruled Julio Cesar out until March while flying winger Nicolas Gaítan is sidelined.
A deflating 1-0 defeat at mid-table Pacos de Ferreira on Jan. 26, when a Lima spot-kick miss was followed by the concession of a penalty at the other end in the last minute, left Jorge Jesus fuming.
The coach, who turned out against Benfica in the 1975-76 derby, has since seen his side overcome Boavista 3-0.
There have been no such recent jitters in the Sporting camp and victory on Sunday will confirm them as serious title contenders.
Silva has built up a young squad with copious use of the famed Sporting Academy, one of the most productive conveyor belts of talent in Europe.
In addition, Sporting are boosted by the return of striker Islam Slimani from African Nations Cup duty.
Editing by Tony Jimenez