Whilst mathematically he is correct, a glance at the Liga table leaves little doubt as to how important this game could turn out to be in the season of both participants, but Portimonense in particular. Currently four points behind Setúbal and safety, a defeat would surely see Portugal's Fourth Estate begin to bandy words like 'marooned' and 'adrift' around, in their dissections of a club who are competing in the top flight for the first time in two decades.
Apart from the obvious implications for their Liga position, the game contains an extra layer of intrigue by dint of the long association between Azenha and his opponents. It was Setúbal who handed the forty-four year old his first job in football just over a decade ago, as assistant to Jorge Jesus at the Bonfim. At the time, Azenha was a novice who had departed from a teaching post at the Faculdade de Motricidade Humana, in order to travel around Europe and improve his understanding of the coaching discipline. During this time he observed the likes of Lobanovski, Sacchi, and Van Gaal.
The Jesus-Azenha partnership lasted for just under two seasons, before Jesus departed for Estrela da Amadora. In a wide-ranging interview with Diário de Notícias last October, Azenha described Jesus as "the only person in football with whom I do not speak", and pointedly declared that "some people do not know how to handle success." But back to 2002, where his first great mentor was ready to step in: former Benfica midfielder and coach Toni. Azenha packed his bags for a two-year spell abroad, as assistant at first Dailan Shade in China, then Al-Ahly in Egypt, working under Toni in both posts. He was described by the Eagles legend as "a man with a passion for football."
Azenha then returned to his homeland to begin a three-year association with Jesualdo Ferreira, his second mentor. Beginning at Boavista in 2005/6, the pair then spent two seasons at FC Porto. Although they didn't coach together until 2005, they had known each for over a decade, indeed it was Ferreira who had introduced Azenha to Toni. The two worked well, with Azenha taking responsibility for the physical preparation of a Porto squad that won two successive titles during his time at the Dragão. However, after such an extended apprenticeship, Azenha clearly had the itch, and departed from Porto mid-season in the hope of securing a head coaching post of his own. Reports that he had fallen out with Ferreira (himself an imposing character), were neither confirmed nor denied by both parties.
Azenha was linked with the Benfica job during the club's 2009 elections, but the candidate with whom he met was ultimately unsuccessful. It looked as if another assistant post was to be his most realistic aim, something that would have come as a blow to his undoubted ambitions.
But once again it was Setúbal who, at the beginning of the 2009/10 season, gave Azenha a chance. It would have been a proud moment for the man from Montemor-o-Velho, but his first spell as a head coach was to prove disastrous. It all began acceptably enough with a 0-0 draw at home to Guimarães and a narrow 1-0 defeat away to Rio Ave, but then Benfica, the former club of his mentors Toni and Ferreira, stepped in. An 8-1 pounding at the Luz (Hélder Barbosa's consolation coming in the final minute) was followed by an abject 4-0 loss at home to União de Leiria, and the Setúbal board stopped the pain. Azenha was summarily dismissed, Manuel Fernandes was brought in to stop the rot, and although Setúbal's improvement was scant at best, they stayed up - just. In many ways, their continued malaise can be seen as a form of exoneration for the mistakes made during Azenha's short spell at the helm. Clearly, the problems at the club were/are too complex and deep-rooted to be solved by a change in coach.
In the aforementioned DN interview, Azenha noted that whilst it took years of work to build a reputation in coaching, "destroying a career is much easier." The truth in this statement was evidenced by the reaction of many when he was announced as the new coach at Portimonense. Having sacked Litos (the man who took them to promotion last season), President Fernando Rocha didn't exactly assuage the fears of fans and observers when he detailed his reasons for giving Azenha a second chance as a head coach. They centred around a meeting between the two "fourteen or fifteen" years ago, when Azenha was still teaching physical education. Rocha detailed how he was so impressed with Azenha's imparting of squash to his daughters, that he promised him a coaching post, should he ever become President of a football club. You couldn't make it up...
However, with Portimonense all but doomed under Litos, Rocha (who is scheduled to run unopposed in the upcoming Presidential elections) is perhaps counting on a number of factors uniting to shine brightly on Azenha's tarnished career. Firstly, the Portimão club should within the next month return to their home stadium, which, due to delays in construction work, has been unavailable to them since the season began.
Secondly, well, there is no secondly, it's a final throw of the dice from Rocha. But in Azenha, he has one of Portuguese football's more enigmatic figures, a man with links to both Benfica and Porto, who is entirely unafraid to speak his mind. For Azenha, it's a chance to stage a resurrection of Lazarus-esque proportions. Will it work? Honestly, I doubt it. But stranger things have happened...
Photo Credit: A Bola.