With the Liga NOS at the exact midpoint of 2016/17, it’s time to assess how each of the perpetual title challengers have fared up to now.

PortuGOAL’s Benfica, Porto and Sporting experts give their verdict of how their respective team has done so far this season as well as their forecast about what awaits the Big Three in the remainder of the campaign.

In addition, our tactical guru Tiago Estêvão summarises the issues Rui Vitória, Nuno Espírito Santo and Jorge Jesus have faced this term.

 

BENFICA MID-SEASON ASSESSMENT

by Marco Lopes (Twitter: @FootyML)

 

1) How do you appraise Benfica’s overall performance this season?

Benfica have been solid, without being spectacular. The Liga doesn’t feel anywhere near as competitive as last season, and Benfica themselves have neither suffered a patch of indifference, nor have they been especially convincing. They’re scoring considerably less goals on the whole, and they’ve had to deal with an unusual number of injuries to mostly first team players. Yet, to be in 1st place, 4 points ahead, and intact in all cup competitions despite these challenges is a firm reinforcement of the recruitment, squad management and tactical policies the Eagles have employed thus far this season.

 

2) What have been the positives and what have been the disappointments?

Disappointments are fairly obvious: Benfica’s Champions League campaign could have been far more convincing. The two draws against Besiktas, in particular, represent an unhealthy combination of poor game management and tepid mentality. Napoli were worthy group winners but one can’t help but feel Benfica were ham-fisted in their overall European display. There have been some odd league displays as well; the near-collapse at home to Boavista and the unimpressive display at the Dragão weren’t completely overshadowed by the equalising goals that rescued both matches.

One of the other disappointments has a streak of silver lining to it. Benfica have had a consistent string of injuries, undermining the opportunity to use their first team players at many stages. However, this has meant some healthy rotation for the most part, with the likes of Gonçalo Guedes and Franco Cervi, in particular, benefitting from the expanded minutes. There have been great cameos from new signing Rafa Silva, and more recently Andrija Živković. The form of youngsters Álex Grimaldo, Ederson and Nélson Semedo has been wonderful to behold in the way it’s helped carry the team to their current position. For Benfica to be where they are, with Jonas in particular having only recently completed his return from injury, is great news for the Eagles - and somewhat ominous for everyone else beneath them.

 

3) If Benfica could buy one top player this transfer window, which position would most improve the team?

It’s odd, but you’d have expected a team that lost first team talent like Nico Gaitan and Renato Sanches to have struggled to replace both of them. Yet the replacements (Franco Cervi, Rafa Silva and André Horta, Pizzi respectively) have all done decent to good jobs in producing output to fill the void left from last season’s stars. That said, Benfica’s weakness in the squad is largely one of quality, and the midfield in particular, while functional, “feels” less capable without the physicality and drive of Portugal’s young starlet from last season. So while Pizzi has no doubt been instrumental in some of the team’s best output (6 goals and 4 assists in the Liga alone), and is a key part of the Eagles’ attacking routines, his is arguably the role that could be given a different dimension through a transfer, especially given that he could be equally employed to good effect on either wide position as well.

 

4) Where will Benfica finish in the table?

It’s difficult at this stage to see them losing first place with key players returning from injury, and a deep squad that has delivered when rotated accordingly. However, the odd lapses in performance may yet serve to give the Eagles some much needed tonic for complacency, and that ironically could be enough to ensure they keep the results going regardless of the performances that deliver them. I’d expect Porto to improve and run Benfica close in the final weeks, too.

 

5) On a scale of 0-10, how many marks do you give coach Rui Vitória?

8/10 - it seems a harsh score perhaps, but Benfica are a better team than some fixtures suggest (once again, the draws against Besiktas come to mind).  Game control and management has appeared to be an issue in a handful of games this season, and it’s been a few times that if not for Ederson’s heroics, Benfica would have been punished for not solving their issues sooner. That said, it’s hard to reflect too much criticism on Vitoria when ultimately, Benfica are alive in every competition they’re in and looking on course for a 4th consecutive Liga title.

 

6) Which rival player in Portugal has most impressed you in 2016/17?

It’s been a tremendous start for Andre Silva. The young centre forward has shown a predatory instinct, and a hunger not seen in a Portuguese striker for some time. It’s fantastic to see that he’s scored some goals too; often the output doesn’t always follow the performances, but not in his case.

 

7) Who will win the Liga NOS?

Benfica - but again, given their circumstances at present, it’s hard to see a situation where they could capitulate enough not to win the Liga. 2016/17 seems to be far more about the narrative where Porto and Sporting haven’t been consistent enough to challenge as they should. Naturally there is time for this to change, but Benfica’s squad, current advantage and returning quality should be enough to equal any improving pace in their rivals.

 

BENFICA TACTICAL LOWDOWN

by Tiago Estêvão (Twitter: @TiagoEstv)

One could make a strong case that Benfica has managed to improve on last season by now: two more points than what they had a year ago, this with Jonas only playing 285 minutes, a ton of injuries involved and the integration of some new transfers.

But not everything is fine and dandy. Starting from the backline, Grimaldo has proven to be – in my view – one of the league’s top players already and a very important asset but his injury has had an impact: on and off the field, seeing as he was mentioned as someone who could’ve been sold this month. In the heart ofc, Lindelof’s performance indices have dropped slightly from last year and beside him Luisão just seems to be fighting his own fight against the drop of his physical levels. Positional and timing errors occur more often than usual and it just seems odd with players like Jardel and Lisandro, who proved to be reliable time and time again (let’s not forget how important Jardel was last season).

The man who usually covers it all up defensively is Fejsa – surely one of the most reliable players in the team – and while you can trust him on the pitch, you can’t trust the Serbian international while building a squad: he’s injured again (something expected due to how injury prone he is) and not having a reliable replacement will have a tremendous impact while he’s out. 

Offensively the Champions have been effective, Pizzi coordinates everything from the heart of midfield and bringing Guedes into the middle gave him a new dimension. Direct and always a threat, in my eyes he shines defensively through the way he pressures the opposition: even with Jonas + Mitro back in charge I think he’ll be key in the UCL stage. Finally, a mention for Cervi whose efforts have been so remarkable that Rafa is yet to really crack into the team after returning from injury, but that isn’t worrying most SLB fans.

 

 

FC PORTO MID-SEASON ASSESSMENT

by Simon de Sousa (Twitter: @FCPortoGlobal)

 

1) How do you appraise Porto’s overall performance this season?

While the need to win the league is at an all-time high, Porto certainly didn’t have the best looking squad on paper compared to recent years, so level-headed expectations are currently sitting at what most would consider satisfactory or expected. There is a lot of youth in the team, especially the attack which has caused expected growing pains. November was a particularly dreadful month for results but the players have learned fast and form picked up through December to keep the team in the hunt just 4 points off at the halfway mark.

Nuno himself is an inexperienced manager, so he must be commended for taking on a difficult task ahead of the season. The defence has done a complete 180 from last season where it leaked 49 goals across all competitions to now boasting the lowest goals against in Europe's top leagues. The quality of Casillas and the back line is what’s held together the title race for Porto. 

Champions League went as expected, advancing out of one of the weaker groups. The cash provided in the competition is much needed for the club. Porto should have been able to reach 1st ahead of Leicester, but it just so happened Champions League had many sharks finishing in both 1st & 2nd - the draw was dangerous for everybody!

 

2) What have been the positives and what have been the disappointments?

Danilo Pereira has been consistently commanding. He’s set such a high bar in quality now most people don’t bat an eye at his outstanding performances anymore because it’s his normal. He is certainly the best defensive midfield player in the country and at Fernando Santos’ disposal. 

Casillas has 15 clean sheets, which is 1 more than last season but the biggest turn around must be Ivan Marcano - now tipped to be called into the Spain NT by Lopetegui. Rock solid leader at the back.

For a 20-year-old, André Silva was thrown into the fire but he is surviving very nicely thank you. His finishing needs to be more clinical but it’s very exciting to have an academy striker finally break through. Surely he has a massive career ahead.

Hector Herrera had another poor start to the season, as he did in 2015 - which saw the captain relegated to more time on the bench than he would have liked, but as happened last season his form seems to be trending upwards after the holidays. 

Laurent Depoitre has also had a difficult time adapting to the Portuguese League, minutes have been limited, and Nuno had to reach to Rui Pedro out of desperation but the fault lies in trying to fit in a player with characteristics that don’t match how Porto play.

Adrian Lopez, well... A massive loss of money.

 

3) If Porto could buy one top player this transfer window, which position would most improve the team?

Porto need another striker. To continue to rely on U21 aged players, especially with Juventus on the horizon, is folly.

 

4) Where will Porto finish in the table?

I believe in one of the two Champions League direct spots, but to predict who will win the league right now is too difficult.

 

5) On a scale of 0-10, how many marks do you give NES?

6/10 - It took him a while to not only find a regular XI for Porto, but to battle against using the classic 4-3-3 formation. Playing around with 4-4-2 and variations cost the club early points.

 

6) Which rival player in Portugal has most impressed you in 2016/17?

By rival I’m assuming you mean Benfica or Sporting. Bas Dost has adapted well to the league and any team could use his amount of goals.

 

7) Who will win the Liga NOS?

How do I say Porto without sounding biased?

 

 

PORTO TACTICAL LOWDOWN

by Tiago Estêvão (Twitter: @TiagoEstv)

This season’s Porto is highlighted by the solidity of their entire defensive process: NES’s men have conceded the least amount of goals out of any team in the league, with only seven goals against them, keeping 11 clean-sheets, and have only lost a single match – like the champions. Felipe and Marcano partner themselves almost flawlessly, with the Spaniard having such a good season he’s being considered by Lopetegui to be called up to Spain. Felipe came in as a bit of an unknown player for non-followers of Brazilian football but adapted quickly. They’re at their peak, being experienced enough but still more than able to cope with the game’s physicality. Maxi is a sure thing and despite the shaky start Telles made the left-side his own and not only has he been key defensively but offensively too, mostly due to FC Porto playing “false left-wingers” that give him the wing.

While all of this is great, the key part to Porto’s offensive process is shown further forward where the attacking midfield trio in NES’s 4-1-3-2 has gotten used to recover the ball very high up the pitch constantly, being incredibly quick to put pressure in the right spaces after losing the ball.

Offensively Porto’s been great when it comes to creating chances – arguably the most important factor in the offensive aspect of football. Corona, Otávio or Brahimi and the brilliant Oliver coordinating everything behind the duo of Jota and André: they have it all but a final touch. No team creates more chances in the league, but no team has more 0-0 ties. Perhaps due to frustration and other psychological factors (you could mention lack of experience in their forwards), when up against a low block – especially away from home – the Dragons have real trouble, having drawn 0-0 away from home four times. If they had solved the puzzle twice in those four games, they would be top of the table by now.

Either way, the indicators are incredibly positive, and Porto have made the Dragão their absolute fortress, where they’re yet to lose and only tied once, via a last minute goal by Benfica’s Lisandro. Danilo is the team’s pendulum and was great last season but the Portugal midfielder has been raising the bar even higher in this one. He is instrumental in every play and is growing into a more complete defensive midfielder.

 

 

SPORTING MID-SEASON ASSESSMENT

by Richard Cole (Twitter: @leoeslions)

 

1) How do you appraise Sporting’s overall performance this season? 

Erratic. There have been moments on the pitch where the team has looked great and played fantastic football. Then there’s been everything else. There have been terrible performances when Sporting have needed a good performance the most, like against Legia and Benfica. There’s been the referees, which haven’t helped but they can’t be an excuse so frequently. Off the pitch, the upcoming elections seem to have thrown Bruno de Carvalho off the ball. A few weeks of good back-to-back results will hopefully calm things down.

 

2) What have been the positives and what have been the disappointments? 

I think Bas Dost has been the best signing. His link up play isn’t as good as Islam Slimani’s but he’s been a great presence on the pitch. Gelson Martins has been our best player of the season so far and capable of some really magical moments.

The disappointments? Count them - Lazar Markovic, Elias, Luc Castaignos, Marcelo Meli, André, Radosav Petrovic, Alan Ruiz and to a lesser extent Joel Campbell. It’s been an erratic transfer window that reminded me of prime Godinho Lopes. 

As well as that, Rúben Semedo has blown hot and cold this season but as a younger centre-back I want to be more forgiving. Then there’s players like Bryan Ruiz and Jefferson who have regressed and players like Paulo Oliveira who I’d like to see more of.

Perhaps what have been more disappointing than some of the Summer 2016 crop, is that players like Iuri Medeiros, Daniel Podence, Carlos Mané and Francisco Geraldes were sent out on loan when they would have performed drastically better than some of the players that have joined. Recalling João Palhinha is hopefully an admission that the answers are usually closer to home.

Oh, and the results.

 

3) If Sporting could buy one top player this transfer window, which position would most improve the team? 

A left-back. A lot of people I see are talking about a right-back, I might be in the minority that like Ricardo Esgaio or would to give Mauro Riquicho a chance. I certainly didn’t see how Ezequiel Schelotto was getting into the team ahead of João Pereira.

At left-back, there’s Bruno César playing out of position and some games ahead of Marvin Zeegelaar and Jefferson, which is damning. As a Manchester lad, I want to see Patrice Evra there. Failing that, anyone good, really.

 

4) Where will Sporting finish in the table? 

3rd, with a slight improvement, 2nd if there’s a drastic improvement.

 

5) On a scale of 0-10, how many marks do you give Jorge Jesus? 

5/10 - It’s difficult to give a full assessment since a lot of the times Raul José seems to be the manager, the amount of times I see Jorge Jesus in the stands. 

When the team is purring, it’s fantastic. That said, there has been too many times this season that the team have looked pedestrian. I think a lot it is down to the signings so I’m hoping by the end of January, there’ll be a lot less deadweight and Sporting can get back on track. I certainly wouldn’t think of getting rid of Jorge Jesus just yet.

My main worry is that, although there’s the example of Gelson Martins breaking through the first teams, there’s all those prospects scattered out on loan. He doesn’t seem to trust youth as much as I would like.

 

6) Which rival player in Portugal has most impressed you in 2016/17? 

André Silva. He’s a fantastic prospect for the future of the Seleçao and that rarest of things: a Portuguese striker with goals.

 

7) Who will win the Liga NOS? 

Unfortunately, probably Benfica.

 

 

SPORTING TACTICAL LOWDOWN

by Tiago Estêvão (Twitter: @TiagoEstv)

As was recently admitted by president Bruno de Carvalho, a good chunk of Sporting’s summer buys haven’t produced the expected results and that has been one of the reasons why the team has been struggling. It’s hard not to agree but it’s beyond that.

Let’s start defensively, the sector where months ago everyone noticed Jesus just didn’t have the full-backs he wanted and where injuries added onto a problem. Zeegelaar’s consistent run was stopped by injuries, Jefferson was fit only sporadically and Bruno Cesar’s experiments in the backline started. On the right João Pereira was aging and, despite performing at a decent level, he’s not part of the squad anymore and Schelotto’s injury led Jesus to finally play Esgaio – thrown into the team when there was no other option. In the middle, Semedo has been more careless than last season, perhaps due to the pressure he is under, in a backline where Coates is the redeeming feature. The constant adaptations and full-back switcheroos has made the Lions’s backline shaky, to say the least.

A duo of William and Adrien, clearly the team’s spine, has played so often that they seem tired and sluggish – so much pressure, so many minutes and their performances haven’t been up to their usual standards as of late. Palhinha’s return will, hopefully, give Carvalho some breathing room and benefit both parts but Adrien is still “substituteless” due to how poor Elias has been, to the point of SCP being on the hunt for a buyer this month. Gelson started the season on fire but has more minutes than Rui Patricio or Adrien, his performances were bound to slowly be slightly worse. On the opposite side, Joel Campbell has been inconsistent and Markovic has been consistently… out of the team.

Dost, the team’s best player alongside Coates this season, was a brilliant signing. Not only are his qualities clear, but he’s willing to learn and has evolved so much under Jesus already. The Dutchman is more involved with the game with each passing match. But behind him, another question mark: Alan Ruiz was good against Moreirense and Feirense, didn’t show much in other fixtures and Bryan Ruiz, unfortunately for Sporting, doesn’t seem like the same player this season being incredibly low on confidence.

You cannot be champion if you still have four undefined positions in the team by January. In my eyes, the main thing that needs to be defined is: where does Jesus want Bruno César to play. Sporting had an outstanding game in Madrid, a game that will be in the hearts and minds of Sportinguistas for the rest of their lives, and a lot of it came due to his influence in the middle of the park. In front of the usual midfield duo where, in my eyes, he should be more often. It would not only resolve the second forward situation but also relieve some pressure from Adrien and William due to his defensive contribution. Of course, the full-back situation still needs to be solved and, mainly for the left (if Bryan is to play as a left-midfielder), a offensive option would be key.

 

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  • Guest - Andre/UK

    Here's some of my thoughts to add to the good analysis of SLB so far this season in the article. First I have to mention the injury crisis, which is still going on as I write this, with 4 players (3 of them first teamers) still unavailable for selection. It has been beyond ridiculous really, the number of players constantly unavailable going back to pre-season is unreal, and it's been so bad that it has affected every single area of the team: goalkeeper (Julio Cesar was recently injured), full back, center back, central midfield, wingers and forwards. Not for one single week in a season coming up to 5 months long already, have we had anything remotely resembling a full choice squad to choose from. No player was missed more than our top scorer of the last 2 seasons and arguably the best forward in the league, Jonas.

    Now with all this mind, it has been mighty impressive how Benfica have managed to basically lead the table for most of the season up to now, as well as make the knock outs of the Champions League and progress to the semi finals in both cups. This shows firstly, the amount of depth available in the squad (easily the most depth of any squad in Portugal this year), and secondly the talent that Rui Vitoria has as a coach and namely the ability to get the best out of the players he has available. He continues to trust in the talented youth and this is something most Benfiquistas are loving to see, the talent from Seixal who really have the club in their hearts, being given real opportunities in the senior team. So in this respect we have done very well.

    But how does this season's SLB compare to last season? Well in my opinion there have been some improvements in some ways, but in some other aspects the opposite. I think, despite the usual of losing a couple of key players in the summer, there actually seems to be more depth than last season, more options. The whole squad is being utilized more than last season, albeit the injury crisis has rendered this inevitable. Players are less sure of their starting place than last season, and this is often a positive because it keeps everyone focused and working hard. Of the two key players who left, I always thought we'd miss Renato Sanches the most. Gaitan is a great player, but we're stacked with talent on the wings. Renato has a unique style of play, and offers a dynamic energy and drive, which quite frankly has been missing from our central midfield this season. Pizzi has done very well in the center and has been our best overall player so far this season, but he just doesn't have the physical presence of Renato and the same ability to grab a game by the scruff of the neck, as it were. So as such we haven't been able to really dominate games as much as we did last season. A player who I thought might cover some of the loss of Renato was Danilo, but for whatever reason Vitoria seems unconvinced with him so far this season. I agree I would like to see another CM brought in this January, but that's not looking likely.

    In attack we have been less spectacular and scored less goals than last season (but again let's not forget we were missing our top scorer Jonas until very recently), but have still been able to get the job done in most matches. Defensively we haven't been as solid as last season. Lindelof was outstanding last year but his form has dipped somewhat this season, especially since all this transfer talk starting going haywire. Fejsa is critical to the defense too, when fit he's easily the best DM in the Liga, but the problem is he's just always injured and we never look as good defensively when he's not playing. Where we really have stacks of quality is in wide areas, more so than last season. Semedo and Grimaldo have been superb, what a pity the Spaniard had to also join the never-ending injury list! While we're spoiled for choice with wingers. I have been highly impressed with Zivkovic lately, and will go so far as to say he should be a starter on the right wing at the moment. Very creative, energetic, good decision making, and by far the best crosser of the ball of the wingers we have. So despite some of the problems I have mentioned, overall I'm pleased with the team's performance so far this season and with the squad we have. I think Benfica are the clear favorites in all 3 domestic competitions at this point, but I've also been following this sport for long enough to know that things often change very quickly and we're still only at the halfway point of the season, so as such one must always stay focused and not look much further than the very next game.

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