An impressive 10 wins from the last 13 games sees Leiria sitting pretty at the top of the Portuguese second division. They currently hold a four point advantage over second placed Benfica B and six points over their closest rivals for promotion. After a devastating end to last season where they missed out on promotion during the final league game Bruce Parkers men look to have learned their lessons and are taking the league by storm.
The next month however will make or break the season as it so often does once the transfer window opens. Many of the clubs top players performances have attracted attention from big leagues around Europe. December’s player of the month Ivan Saponjic is wanted by Romanian side Astra Giurgiu. The £83k valued forward, who has 13 goals in 19 games this season, wanted to leave in the summer but signed a new deal keeping him at the club until the summer of 2023. Fernando Nogueira, who joined at the start of last season for £100k is linked to a move to Greek Super-league side AEK. Leiria would be well compensated should the young playmaker leave but would risk missing out on promotion should they lose such a key player.
Manager Parker’s feelings about the winter transfer window are well known but he has stated that he is happy with his current crop of players. ‘We don’t need to improve the squad at the moment, but we always have to scout for replacements. You can’t deny a player wanting to make the step up to the top level but if they could wait until the end of the season it would be best for everyone.’ The scouts will need to look for a replacement goal keeper as current number one Neiva suffered a fractured wrist and will be out for a month.
The manager himself has been subject to wild speculation about his future. A number of clubs from Liga NOS and the Premier League are interested in the 33 year old Dutch man but Parker has committed to the cause until the end of the season. ‘We are course for promotion back to the top league so I’m not going anywhere for the moment.’ Everton, Swansea City, Ipswich Town and Maritimo have all offered him a managerial position in the recent weeks but at the moment no project has appealed to Parker.
Although their current run has been good there is still weaknesses in the Leiria side. This was highlighted during the 4-0 away defeat to mid-table Tondela. Leiria’s narrow formation just couldn’t handle the wide players and the game was over within the first 30 minutes. In general the side has struggled away from home against a 4231. This has prompted a change in tactic which sees the attacking midfielder drop back into the central midfield and the addition of an anchor man to protect the back four.
This improved away results in general and saw Leiria take an impressive 2-0 win away from Varzim, their nearest rivals for promotion. The tactic is not yet perfect as it still allows the opposition to control the game but a more cautious approach to the game and a switch to more direct passing has helped recently.
Should this season continue in a similar way and Leiria gain promotion they may be able to cope at the top level better than many other sides. They have played six games against sides from the league above and been narrowly beaten in just two of them. They had a comfortable 3-0 win over FC Porto in preseason, which at the time no one read too much into, but looking back it may have been a sign of the season ahead. Since then only Benfica (2-1) and Boavista (1-2) have beaten Leiria. The win over Feirense on penalties set up a League Cup group with three Liga NOS sides. Leiria were eliminated but finished second in the table.
There is a strange feeling around the club at the moment. Since Parker arrived two years ago the club has always felt like it was building something. Now it feels as though the side is ready and if they were to miss out on another promotion one would get the feeling that they wouldn’t recover. The next month will be the real test as to the young sides promotion credentials as they face away trips to sides at the top of the league as well as transfer negotiations.