By Daniel Alvarenga
LISBON, Feb 28 (Reuters) - Troubled Portuguese Premier League club Sporting are banking on youngsters as they desperately seek some respite from one of their worst campaigns when they host leaders Porto on Saturday (1945 GMT).
The Lisbon club have lost three of their last four matches and are down in 11th place in the championship, 30 points adrift of Porto.
"We knew since the start of the season that it would not be realistic to be champions, because Porto and Benfica are much above us," Sporting's 19-year-old Moroccan playmaker Zakaria Labyad told Dutch Voetbalzone magazine.
With Sporting's budget running thin, coach Jesualdo Ferreira, who took over last month, is betting on youngsters.
Technically gifted 18-year-old winger Bruma and 20-year-old defensive midfielder Zezinho caught the eye in the last few matches but Sporting will need to improve dramatically to get a result, having won only five in 20 league matches.
Another defeat would pretty much mean Sporting had failed their target of climbing to fifth place and reaching a Europa League spot.
Their sombre mood contrasts with the heroics of reigning champions Porto who remain invincible in the league and are thriving in the Champions League.
The twice European champions put on an impressive display at home to grab a 1-0 advantage over Malaga in the first leg of their last-16 Champions League tie.
Porto need to beat Sporting to keep up with fierce rivals Benfica, with whom they share the championship lead, both on 52 points from 20 matches.
But they have every reason to be confident ahead of the match,
Not only have Sporting failed to grab a single goal against them in their last three encounters, but Porto's attacking arsenal is full of resolve, mainly thanks to in-form Colombia striker Jackson Martinez.
Last weekend, Martinez went from villain to hero as he grabbed a brace in Porto's 2-1 win over Rio Ave after an embarrassing penalty miss.
He had a chipped penalty easily saved but then was cool enough to convert a second spot kick for 1-1.
"I saw that he was confident and, since I was the team captain, I told him to take it again," Porto's Lucho Gonzales told ESPN Argentina radio.
"It took courage to do that. Martinez is excellent and he was able to redeem himself. His evolution has been tremendous, he's so important to the team,"
The 26-year-old is the league's top scorer with 22 and has deservedly conquered home fans and grabbed international headlines during his debut season with his stunning goals and rounded performances.
He will be the number one threat against a Sporting side fighting to mend a damaged image and merit the tag of being one of Portugal's "Big three" clubs, together with Porto and Benfica.
Porto's visit also comes right in the middle of a fierce election campaign for Sporting, following the resignation of president Godinho Lopes.
The three candidates running for the job say they are concerned about Sporting's acute financial problems. (Editing by Alison Wildey)