Portuguese Primeira Liga: Season Preview

DUBLIN, IRELAND - MAY 18: Helton and Radamel Falcao Garcia of FC Porto lift the UEFA Europa League Trophy and during the UEFA Europa League Final between FC Porto and SC Braga at Dublin Arena on May 18, 2011 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)

After the success of Porto, Benfica and Braga in the Europa League, this season in the Portuguese Primeira Liga is shaping up to be a fascinating contest. Ben Shave previews the runners and riders ahead of Friday's kick-off.

It's difficult to pinpoint the exact moment, but at some point during 2010/11, Portuguese football managed to crowbar its way back into football's collective global consciousness. There are a number of candidates for the title of 'turning point' - Braga's elimination of Liverpool in the Europa League, Porto's thumping of Villarreal in the same competition, the Super Dragões lobbing a live chicken at Benfica's error-prone goalkeeper Roberto - but regardless of when it occurred, there is little doubt that the Liga is currently attracting significantly raised levels of attention.

Not since the exploits of José Mourinho's Porto in the 2004 edition of the Champions League has the Liga - its teams, coaches and players - enjoyed (or should that be endured?) such an extended period under the spotlight. It has remained a consistently entertaining product in the seven years that have passed since that night in, er, Gelsenkirchen but despite this, the Liga had trundled along - documented, viewed and enjoyed by many, but still undeniably on the outside looking in, at least when compared with the likes of the Premier League, La Liga and the rest of Europe's heavyweights. What, if anything, has changed?

Well, there was the Europa League. For all that it has been maligned in some quarters, the competition was given a real boost last season, and much of that was attributable to the performances of eventual winners Porto, along with defeated finalists Braga, and semi-finalists Benfica. The Portuguese trio navigated their way through the labyrinthine format to the latter stages, with Porto in particular earning plaudits from all and sundry for their successive eviscerations of Spartak Moscow and Villarreal. The Dragões exhibited a relentless, almost nihilistic commitment to attacking football under André Villas-Boas, a high-risk strategy which paid off in spectacular fashion. The side which dispatched Villarreal 7-4 on aggregate would arguably have given pause to any of the participants in the latter stages of the Champions League, and a European and domestic quadruple was a just reward.

In many ways, the other changes flow from the first. Two of Portugal's most promising young tacticians - Villas-Boas and Domingos Paciência - have moved up in the world, to Chelsea and Sporting respectively. The ubiquity of the Premier League ensured that the gazes of millions were, for 48 frenetic hours at least, trained firmly on Porto especially, but also the footballing culture which spawned Roman Abramovich's latest victim/saviour/delete as appropriate. Whilst President Pinto da Costa has refused to play ball with headline writers hoping for an easy summer by allowing his prized assets to depart on the cheap (or indeed the not-so-cheap), there is perhaps a level of residual interest from those who crashed the websites of A Bola, Record and Portugal's Commisão do Mercado de Valores Mobiliários in their thirst for information.

Whilst Villas-Boas stole the front page, the most consequential moment may yet prove to be the arrival of Domingos at Sporting. Had Abramovich chosen to pull the trigger on Carlo Ancelotti's time at Stamford Bridge a few months earlier, Domingos (an idol at the Dragão during his playing days) would have been a shoe-in for the Porto job, having made his intention to depart clear to Braga President António Salvador as early as January. The man who took Braga to their best-ever Liga finish in 2010 and their first ever European final the following year has already had a noticeable impact on a Sporting squad which has (had?), for much of the nine years that have passed since their last national title, been crying out for some clarity of purpose, organisation, and a general kick up the rear end.

Few would have bet on the staid, conservative figure of Luís Godinho Lopes to provide Sporting with a new lease of life upon his controversial election as President, but thus far, his back to the future strategy (centred around the expertise of seasoned club politicos Carlos Freitas, Luís Duque and Manuel Fernandes) has yielded levels of optimism and excitement not seen at the Alvalade for many a year. Even a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Valencia failed to quell Lopes' talk of "the rebirth of hope" - a phrase apparently inspired by the number of families amongst the 48,000 who made their way to Campo Grande on that warm Lisbon evening.

A number of Sporting's signings this summer have been undeniably shrewd. Alberto Rodríguez (who followed Domingos from Braga) ought to become the partner that Daniel Carriço has lacked since the decline of Anderson Polga began; Fábian Rinaudo looked (against Juventus) like the trinco Sporting have sought since Paulo Bento retired; Diego Capel is, at €3.5M, not only a bargain but a potential match-winner; and Ricky van Wolfswinkel looks the type of predatory striker who can perhaps fill the void left by Liédson.

If the green-and-white half of Lisbon is eagerly anticipating the off, those in red have overcome their initial jitters with a comfortable Champions League qualifying victory over Trabzonspor. But whilst Jorge Jesus has declared recently that "we have a better squad than last season", Benfica's ability to close the gap on Porto whilst simultaneously fending off the anticipated challenge from Sporting remains open to debate. There have been a number of excellent additions at the Luz: Artur and Eduardo are as good a goalkeeping one and two as any in Portugal; Garay ought to provide Luisão with a much-needed partner; Emerson arrives with a Ligue 1 championship medal and Joan Capdevila with a wealth of experience; and Axel Witsel is already looking like shrewd business at €8M.

But the nagging sense that Fábio Coentrão is irreplaceable, and (perhaps more worryingly) that Jorge Jesus has failed to absorb the tactical lessons of last season's failings, persists in some quarters. His flexibility (or lack thereof) may come to define Benfica's season - not to mention Luís Filipe Vieira's legacy as President. Vieira faces an election year in 2012, which will increase the tension and pressure at the Luz still further.

Amongst the três grandes, then, some things have changed, some things haven't. For the other thirteen participants, the picture has been less confused - players have departed in their droves (at the time of writing, over 200 have changed clubs), but there's nothing especially new there.

Money has been only marginally less scarce than a good word for FPF President Gilberto Madaíl (who after promising to depart last January, remains ensconced as the head of the national game), but again, the verge of a financial black hole has become familiar territory for all but Braga, who have broken their received transfer fee record for the second summer in a row with the sale of Sílvio to Atlético Madrid for a reported €8M. Indeed, the squad which reached last season's Europa League final have been scattered across Europe, and new coach Leonardo Jardim has been handed a set of players who will be unfamiliar to him and fans alike (just four regular starters remain from 2010/11).

Jardim showed himself to be a more than capable coach when steering unfancied Beira-Mar to safety amidst financial strife last season, and will need to draw upon similar levels of resourcefulness to ensure that Braga retain their seat at the top table. Veteran centre-forward Nuno Gomes is the club's marquee signing, and having stated his intention to participate in next year's European Championships, will not be short of motivation despite his advancing years.

Braga - and indeed, the entire Liga - have been handed a boost in the form of a third Champions League spot for 2012/13, but with the grandes having reinforced so strongly, the tussle for Europa League qualification may prove to be more engrossing. This year's representatives Nacional and Vitória de Guimarães will be in the mix once more, with the former looking particularly well-equipped: the additions of Candeias and Mário Rondón should result in an improvement on last year's paltry goal tally, whilst the impregnable central defensive partnership of Felipe Lopes and Danielson has survived the transfer window.

There are a number of clubs for whom Europe is a possibility, though the likes of Paços de Ferreira, Rio Ave and Olhanense will require an unlikely concoction of luck, circumstance and form to realise it. All three boast exciting homegrown talent (Hugo Ventura, Porto-owned but on loan at Olhanense, Caetano and Josué at Paços, and André Dias at Rio Ave), but contracting revenue streams and player turnover since last season concluded ensure that there is always an element of the unknown when making predictions.

Uncertainty may equal entertainment from a neutral perspective, but as one examines the likely relegation candidates, it's not hard to detect the unpleasant but necessary preparations for a nine-month struggle against the centrifugal pull of the top-flight trapdoor. No uncertainty here. Those closest to the exit (Beira-Mar, União de Leiria, Académica and Feirense) all begin the new campaign in various states of disrepair - Beira-Mar have just been taken over by an Iranian 'investor'; Leiria have been evicted from their stadium after failing to pay the rent; Académica have hired a rookie coach (although in fairness, Pedro Emanuel was an assistant to André Villas-Boas at Porto in 2010/11); whilst Feirense have a budget of just €2M for the entire season.

Yet with the aforementioned growth in interest in the Liga, the coming months present a host of opportunities for players and clubs alike. At one end of the scale, Benfica and Porto are hoping to top €30M per season in their latest round of television rights negotiations, and whilst the rest of the Liga remain locked in a perpetually hopeless revenue chase, the buzz that currently surrounds the competition will hopefully manifest itself in healthier attendances (for some fixtures, at least), increased merchandise sales, and the like. Put simply, the long-term health of the game in Portugal - and the entertainment of its devotees - depends on it. 

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