Benfica fans had two reasons to cheer about Porto's unexpected 3-1 loss to Gil Vicente in Barcelos on Sunday evening. Firstly, and most importantly, it gave their side a five-point lead at the top of the Portuguese Liga and put them in an advantageous position to win what be only their third league title in the last 18 years. Secondly, but perhaps even more deliciously, it stopped Porto one game short of equalling Benfica's 1978 record of 56 unbeaten matches in the Portuguese top flight.
The record may be of secondary importance but in Portugal, these things matter. Excepting the occasional flourish from Sporting, the history of Portuguese football over the last 30 years has been the history of the rivalry between Benfica and Porto, in which head-to-head encounters assume massive importance and memories of symbolic successes are savoured for years.
Porto's 2010-11 league title triumph under André Villas-Boas was rich in symbolism. Not only did they finish the season unbeaten — the first team to do since Benfica (of course) in 1973 — but they secured the title with a 2-1 victory at Estádio da Luz, the home of their rivals. The locals' disinclination to join in with the title festivities was made plain when the lights in the stadium were abruptly cut and the sprinklers turned on while Porto's players were in mid-celebration.
Revenge has been a while in coming, but for the first time since that day in April last year, the balance of power feels like it has shifted back to the red corner of Lisbon. Benfica are unbeaten, have dropped just six points all season, and Saturday's 2-1 win at Feirense was their seventh successive victory. The next Clássico, at Estádio da Luz on March 4, is likely to prove decisive.
Compounding Porto's dejection is their bitterness over some of the key incidents in the defeat at Gil Vicente. The hosts were leading 1-0 through a looping header from centre-back Cláudio when Porto defender Nicolás Otamendi was adjudged to have handled the ball inside his own penalty area shortly before the interval, despite an apparent offside in the build-up.
Cláudio dispatched the ensuing spot-kick and, after Porto had seen two penalty appeals of their own waved away by referee Bruno Paixão, Barcelos native André Cunha twisted Rolando inside-out before planting the ball in the bottom-left corner to put Gil Vicente 3-0 ahead. Silvestre Varela pulled a goal back for Porto in the 77th minute with a fine left-footed effort but the visitors could not engineer a late comeback and coach Vitor Pereira was left to spit feathers over what he branded "shameful" officiating and a "listless" first-half performance from his side. "We didn't show the desire of a team that wants to win the title," he said.
Frustratingly for Pereira, Porto had appeared to be on an upward dynamic after producing one of their most convincing performances of the season to date in a 3-1 win at home to Vítor Guimarães in their previous game. Their next three matches are against sides currently residing in the bottom four — União Leiria, Vítoria Setúbal and Feirense — but there can be little doubt that their entire season will hinge on that trip to Lisbon in just over a month's time.
Last season's top scorer, Hulk, will have returned from a thigh injury by then and the Brazilian could find himself reunited with former team-mate Lucho González, who is poised to return to the club from Marseille in a swap deal involving Varela. Pereira can also now call upon the services of 20-year-old Brazilian right-back Danilo — the heir apparent to Maicon and Dani Alves in the national side — after he arrived from Santos.
There is clearly sufficient quality in Porto's squad to sustain hope of a late-season comeback, but with Benfica in such a rich vein of form and Pereira still to convince his critics — not to mention the distraction of a forthcoming Europa League tie with Manchester City — any more slip-ups could prove fatal.