The 2017/18 Champions League kicks off in earnest this week, and for the second season running, Portugal’s three strongest teams are in the group stage of the world’s greatest club competition.
Last season Benfica and FC Porto reached the last-16 stage before succumbing to Borussia Dortmund and Juventus respectively, while Sporting finished bottom of their group. How will the trio fare this time round?
PortuGOAL assesses the respective squads, strong points, weak points and European prospects of Portugal’s finest in this season’s Champions League, and runs through the rest of the Portuguese players spread around the old continent who will take part in the competition, all 16 of them.
Squad assessment: Benfica appear to have a squad split down the middle this season. With Jonas, Raul Jiménez, Seferovic and Gabriel Barbosa up front, and young wingers Zivkovic, Rafa Silva and Cervi to back up the experienced Salvio, creating chances and scoring goals should not be a problem for the Eagles, even if one can question the decision to let go of Kostas Mitroglou after the Greek forward’s two prolific years in the Portuguese capital.
It is in defence where one can foresee problems for Benfica. Goalkeeper Ederson, right-back Nelson Semedo and centre-back Victor Lindelöf were sold and none of the outstanding trio have been adequately replaced. With the ageing first-choice centre-back pairing of Luisão and Jardel increasingly struggling to stay healthy, left-back Grimaldo’s ongoing fitness concerns, and the brilliant but brittle defensive midfielder Ljubomir Fejsa also likely to be absent for a considerable number of games, Benfica’s defensive unit looks anything but watertight.
Star man: Pizzi. Player of the season in Portugal last year, the winger-turned central midfielder is a model of consistency, industry and efficacy in the middle of the pitch.
Strong point: Enviable attacking options, led by the evergreen Jonas, makes Benfica a threat to any team.
Weakness: Defence short on numbers and short on quality.
Group stage opponents: Manchester United, Basel, CSKA Moscow
European prospects: Benfica’s performance in the Champions League has improved noticeably under Rui Vitória, and a third consecutive qualification for the knockout stage is on the cards, but going further than the last 16 will be beyond the Portuguese Champions.
Squad assessment: Porto’s starting XI is not a whole lot different to last season, although the boost given by the return of loanees Vincent Aboubakar, Moussa Marega and Ricardo Pereira cannot be understated. Coach Sérgio Conceição has had an immediate impact on the Dragons, integrating the returning players effectively and overseeing vast improvements in the contributions of previously underperforming stars Óliver Torres and Yacine Brahimi.
The rock-solid defence remains intact from last year, which together with the protection provided by the superb Danilo Pereira lends Porto a strong foundation. The problem for the northerners is a distinct lack of depth in the squad. Just three strikers in a 4-4-2 and three centre-backs could prove costly when injuries and suspensions start to bite.
Star man: Powerful Cameroonian striker Aboubakar has at last been given the starring role he craved (and deserved) at Porto, and has responded with goals galore.
Strong point: Watertight defence.
Weakness: Significant drop-off in quality after the starting XI.
Group stage opponents: Monaco, Besiktas, RB Leipzig
European prospects: Four teams known for playing attacking football make this a mouth-watering group to follow. Porto to squeeze into second but their threadbare squad will prevent them from going any further.
Squad assessment: Sporting’s near perfect start to the season has raised hopes among their fans of a successful campaign after a miserable 2016/17. New signing Bruno Fernandes has hit the ground running, offering Sporting something they have not had for a long time: a free-scoring midfielder. Other summer recruits Marcos Acuña, Jérémy Mathieu and Rodrigo Battaglia have impressed, while three Portugal regulars, Rui Patrício, William Carvalho and Gelson Martins lend real quality to the team. With the irrepressible Bas Dost and back up striker Doumbia seemingly a guarantee of goals, the first-choice eleven looks highly competitive this season.
Like mentioned in the Porto section above, much could depend on fitness issues. Fábio Coentrão is by far Sporting’s best full-back, but his injury jinx has already struck, while if any of the centre-back pairing of Coates and Mathieu, Bruno Fernandes or Gelson Martins get crocked, it would leave a difficult-to-fill-hole in the team. Another problem for Sporting could be a lack of creativity beyond Gelson and Fernandes, especially as the full-backs (excluding Coentrão) offer little going forward.
Star man: Gelson Martins. Electric winger impossible to tie down.
Strong point: Top-notch midfield line of William, Fernandes, Acuña and Gelson.
Weakness: Apart from the injury-prone Coentrão, the full-backs are not the best going forward, which is usually an important aspect of JJ’s 4-4-2 system.
Group stage opponents: Juventus, Barcelona, Olympiacos
European prospects: For the second year running the draw has been unkind to Sporting. At their best, the Lions could give Juve and Barça a scare but a third-place finish awaits.
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Portuguese participation in the Champions League does not stop with its club sides, as 13 other teams in the competition have at least one Portuguese player in their ranks.
Cristiano Ronaldo, who single-handedly dominated the latter stages of last year’s edition, will be heading holder’s Real Madrid’s charge to make it three in a row. The Spanish colossus’s great rivals, Barcelona, this year line up with two Portuguese in their squad, midfielder André Gomes and right-back Nelson Semedo. Barça are in Sporting’s group, prompting Semedo to say: “as a Portuguese I would like Sporting to progress out of the group – but in second place behind us.”
There will also be homecomings aplenty in Group G, where ex Porto heroes Pepe and Ricardo Quaresma will return to the Dragão (this coming Wednesday) with Besiktas, and another huge former favourite at Porto, João Moutinho, will also come up against his old club, along with teammate Ronny Lopes for Leonardo Jardim’s Monaco.
Three more Portuguese players will face Portuguese clubs: Diogo Figueiras of Olympiacos (in Sporting’s group), Bruma of RB Leipzig (Porto’s opponents) and Basel’s young centre-back Pedro Pacheco (in Benfica’s group).
Portugal coach Fernando Santos will be hoping Bernardo Silva at Manchester City and Raphael Guerreiro at Borussia Dortmund get more action than they have seen thus far this season, with both players likely to play a big role for the Seleção in Russia next summer if fit.
Given the recurring injury problems for Guerreiro and Fábio Coentrão, Napoli left-back Mário Rui may also come into the reckoning for Russia 2018 if he makes an impact at his new Italian club, and Seville centre-back Daniel Carriço could also be eyeing a place in the Seleção squad if he has a positive season at Sevilla, given Portugal’s lack of options in that position.
Anderlecht centre-back Josué Sá and APOEL midfielder Nuno Morais complete the list.
by Tom Kundert