By Daniel Alvarenga
LISBON, Dec 6 (Reuters) - Dispirited Sporting are looking to end their worst league start in nearly 80 years by winning Monday's derby against a Benfica side keen to retain the domestic top spot after a painful Champions League exit.
Knocked out of the Portuguese Cup and the Europa League, Sporting languish 15 points behind leaders Benfica and Porto in the championship to lie eighth and their three wins in 18 matches in all competitions represents the worst start to a campaign since the league was formed in 1933.
One of Portugal's 'Big Three' - alongside neighbours Benfica and the domineering Porto - Sporting have disappointed in recent years and are going through an acute confidence crisis.
Belgian coach Franky Vercauteren faces an uphill struggle as he tries to survive as Sporting's seventh coach in only four seasons. In 2012 alone, Sporting fired Ricardo Sa Pinto in October and Domingos Paciencia in February.
Although Vercauteren took over just over a month ago he is already aware of what the Lisbon derby at 2015 GMT means.
"I know it is the game of the year and I know how this match is lived around here, what it means to lose and win," Vercauteren said.
"But what does it matter to beat Benfica if we lose the next three matches? Our situation won't change much if this happens. We need to win all matches."
Sporting have failed to win the league title since 2002 and have finished 16, 28 and 36 points behind the champions in the last three seasons. They last qualified for the Champions League four years ago.
For former European champions Benfica, Monday's encounter is also a high-stakes game but they are favourites to win in their short trip to Alvalade.
They will want to heal wounds of their own after a goalless draw against Barcelona at Camp Nou on Wednesday relegated them to the Europa League. Needing a win to qualify for the playoffs, Benfica's profligacy in front of goal cost them badly.
"We will surely have a word to say in the Europa League and are candidates to win it," Benfica coach Jorge Jesus said.
The 'Eagles' are under pressure from champions Porto to retain top spot in the league with both sides unbeaten on 26 points after 10 matches. (Editing by Tom Pilcher)