Tulips are making the Lions roar once again. Dutch duo Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Stijn Schaars have quickly become key men in Sporting Lisbon’s revolution, snaffled up by returning sporting director Carlos Freitas in business that looks truly sensational.
After a disappointing season in which Sporting finished third, 36 points off champions FC Porto, the club turned the page: A new president, Luiz Godinho Lopes (who was elected in May), a new board, a new coach (Domingos Paciencia, who reached the Europa League final with Braga last season) and last but not least the return of Freitas, a man who had departed Sporting in 2008.
Freitas’ previous spell at the Jose Alvalade was successful, with the club winning the Portuguese league twice, but also controversial as he received criticism for a series of expensive flops. However, the wheeler-dealer also brought the likes of Mario Jardel, Fabio Rochemback and Liedson to Sporting – Freitas demonstrated that, on average, he was always likely to uncover some gems.
Last summer Freitas was handed a credit card with more than €15M at his disposal, with the task of building Sporting a new team. The transfer supremo gambled, buying talented but overlooked players – stars such as Elias, Diego Capel, Jeffren and Van Wolfswinkel.
The signing of Van Wolfswinkel raised eyebrows, with Freitas sending €5.4M to Dutch side Utrecht for the striker. It was a price other clubs had considered too high for a player who, while undoubtedly talented, was also inconsistent, failing to truly make Eredivisie defences cringe.
After an excellent first half to the 2010/11 campaign, with 13 Eredivisie goals and six in the Europa League – including a superb hat-trick against Scottish side Celtic – Van Wolfswinkel’s form tailed off badly. As 2010 gave way to 2011, the nephew of Erik Willarts (a former Utrecht striker who had finished second in the scoring charts only to Marco van Basten in 1986/87) found the back of the net only twice, looking far from being ready to leave Holland.
Freitas however had a different view – and so far he has been proven right. After a difficult start, Van Wolfswinkel has proven his worth, with seven goals in the Portuguese league, two goals in the domestic cup and another two in the Europa League. The Dutchman was awarded the Player of the Month accolades both in September and October, in the process becoming the first Sporting player to pick up the prize since Liedson in March 2010.
“Van Wolfswinkel has the killer instinct of the great strikers”, commented Dutch legend Ruud Gullit, adding: “and he could be lethal in the box. He can learn a lot from his experience in Portugal.”
Gullit believes that the way Van Wolfswinkel has adapted to a different type of football means he may soon be hunted by bigger fish than Sporting. “For us Dutch it isn’t easy to play abroad, especially at the beginning. We come into contact with different styles of football, more physical. Technique is not always put first. However, this experience can help a good player to become a great player. Van Wolfswinkel has the potential to become Sporting Lisbon’s next object of desire in the transfer market.”
And the vultures are already circling, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant at Manchester United, Mike Phelan, admitting that the English giants are monitoring Van Wolfswinkel. The striker’s contract expires in 2016, however the Dutchman’s representatives wisely settled on a buy-out clause of €22M – well within reach of Manchester United and several other clubs.
Like Van Wolfswinkel, Stijn Schaars took his first steps into the professional game at Vitesse. The 27-year-old started as an attacking midfielder, turning out with the Arnhem side for three seasons before heading to AZ in the summer of 2005. At Alkmaar, Schaars developed into a more rounded midfielder, who can be just as effective defensively as in attack.
Then-coach Louis van Gaal helped Schaars to recover from a serious ankle injury that saw him miss the whole of the 2007/08 season – and in 2009 his comeback was complete as he lifted the Eredivisie title wearing the captain’s armband. In 2010, the Dutchman was included in Holland’s squad for the 2010 World Cup.
Schaars, who in 2006 won the European Under-21 Championship with Holland, was sold to Sporting for a little less than €1M in June – it took only 48 hours for Freitas to find an agreement with AZ. The 2009 Eredivisie champions were distressed sellers, with the player’s wages too high for the new economic model being implemented at the AFAS Stadion. Schaars himself was keen to experience a challenge abroad, while Sporting felt they had found a solid yet versatile midfielder who could bring much-needed experience to a team that was still, as labelled by coach Paciencia, a “work in progress”.
In Portugal, Schaars has quickly established himself as one of the league’s best performers, impressing for his ability to blend tactical awareness with character and toughness. The Dutchman has grabbed three goals so far, a clear sign of improvement for a player who had only scored more than one goal a season twice before in his career.
“Football in Portugal is a world apart from Holland”, said Schaars. “It is more physical and more focused on tactical discipline, especially when you are defending. Here we normally play with eight men behind the ball. The clean sheet philosophy here is very important.”
And the midfielder does not regret his move – quite the opposite in fact. “However, there is a lot of quality on the pitch. As I said, it’s just a different style of football. Harder to play, but not less exciting. I’ve never had any regrets about joining Sporting. For them I refused an offer from PSV Eindhoven.”
Sporting currently sit third in the Portuguese league and have just lost the Lisbon derby against Benfica (1-0), but the side will not be not disheartened. “We had a difficult start, but it was easy to predict, because our team is full of new players who come from different lands and play different styles of football”, said coach Paciencia.
“You need time to blend it all together in a winning project. We are performing well now, but the road is still long.”
Only time will tell whether Freitas and Paciencia have found the formula to topple Benfica and FC Porto, but with an Oranje injection, Sporting’s future looks bright.
Fonte: Inside Futbol