To think about the Portuguese domestic game is to think about only three clubs: Benfica, Porto and Sporting. Last season though, there was only one club that needed thinking about: The all-conquering treble-winning FC Porto side of André Villas-Boas. The Dragões won the league by a massive 21 points and were undefeated in the process.
It’s hard not to see Porto as favourites to win the title again this season – even with the departure of their coach to Chelsea. Fortunately to any neutral viewer of the Primeira Liga, the other two big clubs in Portugal can at least challenge them for the title this year.
There is at least an overall improvement so far in Portugal recently. The big three teams have all splashed out on improving their squads and only Fábio Coentrão is the major name departure from the Liga so far this summer, although that can all change. The Portuguese dominance of last year’s Europa League with Benfica, finalists Braga and eventual winners Porto has shown that Portuguese football is showing signs of becoming a force to compete with Europe’s big money leagues once more.
FC Porto will know there is no way they can realistically top last season – a season so successful is a rare occurrence and to even match it would be a mighty task. There is a chance that they will, at the very least, be able to make a big go of it. Porto have done well so far to resist selling any of their major players, Hulk and Falcao are still Porto players in spite of the interest from elsewhere in Europe. Porto are of course, more than those two star-names, João Moutinho in particular stood out and Fredy Guarín started to show just exactly what it is he is capable of.
Indeed, not only have Porto managed to hold on to their star names they have also managed to sign some of Brazil’s exciting young talents. Danilo and Alex Sandro especially are two young full backs who look like very exciting young players. Both players were a part of the Santos side that won the Copa Libertadores and then there’s the Brazilian forward Kelvin, who can only be described as a “hot” prospect, signed from Paraná Clube.
Some would of course argue that the real departure has been of the manager André Villas-Boas to Chelsea. Villas-Boas has been well under the spotlight of the English press as they still try and find someone like Mourinho. Vítor Pereira will have it much less stressful without having to have the next Mourinho label, but with the squad he has at his disposal trophies will still be expected.
Benfica were the closest team last season to Porto – although the distance between the two was staggering. They for themost part have managed to in many ways improve their squad for the upcoming season. The aforementioned Fábio Coentrão is the only major departure after he forced Benfica into selling him to Real Madrid. Perhaps a more emotional departure for Benfica though will be of Nuno Gomes who has joined Braga on a free transfer. Nuno Gomes is 35 years old now but regardless it’s hard for a club to lose someone who has been such a favourite with the Benfica fans over the years.
Jorge Jesus, who has now been the Benfica manager since 2009 (almost a long reign in the current managerial climate) has had some handy additions to the squad with the €30,000,000 they received from Madrid – although many of it remains unspent. Axel Witsel of Standard Liège cost the Águias €6.5m, Real Madrid defender Ezequiel Garay was brought in for €5.5m (for 50% of his rights) and Bruno César joined for €5.25m from Corinthians – a man who at 22 has remarkably signed for his eighth club.
Perhaps the side that has improved the most is Sporting Clube de Portugal – which is wise, because they’ve really had to improve. Since finishing in second place back in the 2008-2009 season, Sporting have failed to come close to their two main rivals – and even Braga have had more success recently. After the Presidential Elections at the club the eventual winner, Godinho Lopes, pledged to invest in the club – and he certainly has. So far Sporting have signed 12 players, with 1 other player-in-waiting to be signed and there is possibility that more reinforcements maybe on the way. Perhaps the most high profile of those signings has been Diego Capel, formerly of Sevilla, who signed for the Leões for a bargain price of €3.5m. The vast amount of new signings also brings with it a vast amount of exits. So far 7 players have left the club, with many going on loan and many more soon to leave.
It ensures that the new manager, Domingos Paciência, has his work cut out to unite a completely new team. So far, the man who excelled with Braga, seems to be on the right track with Sporting beating Juventus 2-1 recently in a friendly. The result was not the most important thing – it was done in a style that has been absent from the Estádio José Alvalade for years.
Moving away from the big three of Portugal, it’s been a hard summer for Braga. Last season’s beaten Europa League finalists and having lost out on third place in the league on the last day to Sporting – it seemed to be a great season for them but has resulted in many of their stand out performers leaving the club.
Domingos Paciência and Alberto Rodríguez have moved on to Sporting, goalkeeper Artur has moved to Benfica, Sílvio to Atlético Madrid and the young goalkeeper Cristiano to Valencia. It’s meant that the new manager Leonardo Jardim, who made his name by bringing Beira-Mar to the first division and keeping them there, has a massive task on his hands if he wants to try and turn Braga in to the “fourth” club of Portugal.
Vitória Guimarães have been another side to improve having finished a respectable fifth place last season. The Branquinhos most famous signing will be that of Pedro Mendes who was released by Sporting. The veteran is still only 32 (despite how old he may look) and could be a great signing as he returns to the club where he began his career.
Nacional are the final team in Portugal to be in Europe having finished sixth last season. Having beaten Fimleikafélag Hafnarfjarðar of Iceland (or FH for a club that perhaps the acronym was invented for) in the second round of Europa League qualifiers and will soon have to beat Bollklubben Häcken of Sweden to progress into the group stages. Nacional have managed to avoid too many departures with so far only goalkeeper Rafael Bracalli leaving on a free to Porto – where he will watch Helton from the stands. Perhaps the most important thing for Nacional is holding onto their defence that was one of the best preforming defences in Portugal last season.
Outside of the European positions, Paços de Ferreira have lost Mario Rondón to Nacional but have managed to sign young Portugal U21 midfielder Josué who was on loan at VVV-Venlo in the Netherlands last season.
Rio Ave finished a respectable eight position last season and it will be interesting to see if João Tomás can have another great season after he scored 16 goals last season. He was beaten only by Hulk but age is not on his side, he will turn 37 in May.
Marítimo lost young forward Kléber to Porto but so far have managed to keep hold off to Senegalese striker Baba who hit the net 11 times last season for the Madeiran outfit.
União de Leiria have brought in the Brazilian forward Hugo Alcântara who has now signed for his third club in 2011. He had signed for J-League side Motedio Yamagata but fled the country after the disasters that affect the country back in March.
Olhanense frequently rely on loan signings, usually from Sporting to equate for a part of that squad. Wilson Eduardo, Sporting’s 21-year old forward will spend this season with the Olhão club after spending last year at Beira-Mar. There was a possibility that former Fulham goalkeeper Ricardo Batista would return to the club on loan again but he has been handed a two-year ban from football after failing a drugs test.
Vitória de Setúbal have brought in the Israeli-American-Portuguese young forward Alexander Zahavi who was at Maccabi Haifa after spending his youth career with Benfica, Arsenal, Barcelona and Sporting. The young man has certainly gotten around. Cláudio Pitbull, one of Setúbal’s star players does look set to leave the club though.
Beira-Mar did well to stay up last season after having been promoted as Liga de Honra champions the previous year. The club may not be so lucky this year as a large amount of their players have left the squad, and not to mention the coach Leonardo Jardim’s move to Braga. Former Sporting and PAOK man Cristiano has joined the club though but only time will tell of the Brazilian can recapture his form from when he was a Paços de Ferreira player.
Académica de Coimbra narrowly avoided relegation and new manager Pedro Emanuel, a former assistant to Villas-Boas at Porto. The club has managed to keep former U21 international Diogo Valente after his loan spell with the Students last season. Rui Miguel, the man who was at Kilmarnock last season returns to his first ever club after his travels to various clubs across Europe.
The two promoted sides Gil Vicente and Feirense will have a tough time of it. Feirense have signed Brazilian Edmar Figueira, a man who bagged 28 goals in Indonesia for Pume FC last season – but it will be interesting to see if he can do the same in Portugal. Gil Vicente have lost one of their best players from last year, Rodrigo Galo, to Braga and have yet to really bring in many players. The club has brought in a large amount of players from Brazil but they look like they’re going to have a tough task of managing to stay up this season.
You can follow Richard on Twitter @filippoinzaghi.