To go into the Santiago Bernabéu as a pronounced underdog on the Champions League stage is never an easy task, but that’s exactly the challenge Sporting Clube de Portugal faced as they kicked off their Champions League campaign against Real Madrid. They responded brilliantly to the challenge, though, and put the fear of an upset into Real for 85 minutes — but the 10 minutes that followed undid all their wonderful work and sent them slumping back to Portugal with a 2-1 defeat.
It was, for those 85 minutes, a performance of the ages for Sporting. Despite fielding what to many observers looks like a cobbled together team, full of loanees and players who failed with bigger clubs, they managed to not only go blow for blow with Real, but they also held them utterly stagnant while getting better scoring chances and, ultimately, taking the lead early in the second half.
How could Sporting’s motley crew have pulled this off, you ask? A game plan designed to neutralize the Spaniards as thoroughly as possible. It wasn’t even a classic bunker-and-counter like we so often see from underdogs in games like this, at least not until later in the match when Sporting were protecting their lead. Instead, they pressed high, not just to put pressure on the ball but also to cut off passing lanes between Real players all over the pitch, restricting their options as much as possible to prevent the defending Champions League winners from having beneficial options.
They still had to rely on being opportunistic rather than proactive in attack, but it was impossible to deny that what Sporting were doing was working, and it looked like it was all coming together for a positive ending when Bruno César snapped the back of the net with a left-footed shot just minutes into the second half.
From there it was all about survival for Sporting, and as their energy dwindled that aggressive defending we saw earlier in the match turned into a deeper and deeper drop to deny space and chances for Real to score. They held firm and kept performing well, but with five minutes left before stoppage time their fatigue became more apparent and cracks started to show in their defense — and four minutes later, after a sloppily allowed foul, a Cristiano Ronaldo free kick stunner leveled the score. Four minutes after that, it was an Álvaro Morata header that found the back of the net and ended Sporting’s dreams.
We would not get the David-beating-Goliath story that so many fans love to see. Instead, Goliath rubbed some dirt into his wound and squashed David flat. As disappointing as the end result was for Sporting fans — and to some extent for neutrals as well — we should also not forget to praise Sporting for executing such an aggressive and excellent game plan so well. They didn’t manage to keep it up for 90 minutes and that cost them the match, and there’s no moral victory there — that’s just football. But they established themselves as a legitimate threat and contender in a group that also includes Borussia Dortmund.
This group looked very cut and dried when it was drawn, but Sporting's performance suggests it might be very competitive. For that, the biggest winners are the fans who get to watch.