The attentions of most football fans around the world at this time of year traditionally turn to England’s Premier League and the frenetic festive schedule of matches. Therefore, it went almost unnoticed and largely unreported that between the Christmas and New Year celebrations, FC Porto made history upon beating Belenenses 2-1 on Sunday evening in the Taça da Liga (Portuguese League Cup).
It was Porto’s 16th successive victory in all competitions, setting a new club record.
Doing something that had never been done in the club’s previous 125 years of existence is further proof of the remarkable job Sérgio Conceição has done since taking over at the Estádio do Dragão a year and a half ago.
From prodigal son to miracle worker
The former Portugal international originally made his name as a never-say-die, fiery, skilful winger at Porto in the 90s, meaning that his appointment as coach in 2017 was always going to be a popular one. However, whereas the Dragons were the undisputed kings of Portuguese football when Conceição was playing for them, the scenario awaiting Conceição as the Porto manager was entirely different.
The club was in the midst of an unprecedented trophy drought in the 35-year reign of president Pinto da Costa, with hated rivals Benfica having wrested the mantle of Portugal’s dominant club back from the northerners, having won the championship title for four years running. Furthermore, UEFA’s financial fair play rules severely limited the squad-building options, as the club were forbidden from spending in the transfer market and were forced to sell star striker André Silva.
Conceição didn’t blink an eyelid at the unpromising circumstances. Proving to be a master motivator and an astute and flexible tactical thinker, he led Porto to the title in 2017/18, completely transforming players who Porto had previously discarded, such as Moussa Marega and Sérgio Oliveira, or who had not fulfilled their potential, such as Héctor Herrera and Ricardo Pereira. And betting on Porto to continue their success using ladbrokes bonus code for new customers may not be a bad idea.
As if winning the Primeira Liga title during a time of disinvestment was not miraculous enough, Conceição seems intent on repeating the trick. Again, the portents were not good pre-season as Porto’s precarious financial position led to the departures of key defenders Ricardo Pereira and Iván Marcano, and one of Portugal’s brightest up-and-coming talents, Diogo Dalot, who had just started to make his mark for the first team.
Nevertheless, at the halfway stage of his second campaign, Conceição’s Porto are in rude health. The practical outcome of the record-breaking winning run sees the Dragons top of the table, into the last 16 of the Champions League, the semi-finals of the Portuguese League Cup and the quarter-finals of the Portuguese Cup.
Since losing 1-0 to Benfica in the Portuguese capital in early October, Porto have played seven league games, five domestic cup ties and four Champions League games. And won them all. As for much of Conceição’s reign in the Dragão dugout, the football has often not been brilliant, but the side always find a way to win - an obstinate refusal to accept coming second among the team’s strongest assets. Porto have fallen behind in each of their last five matches, but each time they have turned a losing situation into victory.
The previous record of 15 consecutive wins came in the 1984/85 season, under Artur Jorge – a team and a coach that would become European Champions two years later. Since then, Bobby Robson, José Mourinho, Jesualdo Ferreira and André Villas-Boas have all built teams capable of rubbing shoulders with and often beating Europe’s finest sides, but none of them managed such a long winning run.
Conceição, though, is not reading too much into the achievement. Commenting before the Belenenses match he said, “if we break the record, none of our supporters will be going out to celebrate on Avenida dos Aliados.” The avenue in question holds special significance for Porto fans, as the traditional congregation site to commemorate the team’s conquests. Conceição is acutely aware that the record will count for nothing without the tangible reward of silverware at the end of the season.
The 44-year-old’s managerial ascension is threatening to match his stellar playing career, and another successful campaign could see him competing with compatriots Leonardo Jardim and Paulo Fonseca as viable candidates should vacancies arise at Europe’s elite clubs.
Where do this Porto team and Conceição rank?
Porto fans have been spoilt over the past three decades with a series of magnificent players (e.g. Paulo Futre and Deco), magnificent teams (e.g. the European Champions of 1987 and 2004) and magnificent managers (e.g. José Mourinho and Bobby Robson). The bar could hardly be higher, but statistics don’t lie: not even those teams managed to string together such a long winning run as the current vintage. So how do Porto version 2018/19 and the present incumbent of the hotseat at the Estádio do Dragão compare to those legends of the past?
For answers PortuGOAL turned to Jorge Bertocchini, part of the A Culpa é do Cavani podcast, which despite its title is 100% dedicated to all things FC Porto. Jorge is evidently very happy with the way things are going, but thinks such comparisons are wide of the mark.
PortuGOAL: Porto have just set a new club record: 16 successive wins never achieved before in 125 years. How does this Porto team compare to the great Porto teams of the past?
“I would say it doesn’t. And it really doesn’t, no matter how many wins it gets, it will never enter the hall of fame of great Porto teams because those are reserved for those special and unforgettable moments that every Porto fan has stored in our own memory: European success. Sure, everyone remembers Lucho and the stability of Jesualdo, Jardel and the San Siro win, Kelvin and the wackiness of those final minutes, but in my view historical squads are those that win international silverware. And as much as I might be confident of domestic success and satisfied with the current set of players, I’m pretty certain that European wins, at least in the Champions League, are not happening any time soon.”
PortuGOAL: How much of the credit goes to Sérgio Conceição, and can Porto hold onto their coach beyond this season?
“Sérgio is doing a massive job and although there are certain pockets of fans that are not sold on the quality of the football we play, it’s undeniable even for the biggest naysayer that the team delivers results. Some are achieved with relative ease, others not so much, but it’s a definite winner we have on our hands. The spirit and tenacity he brought to the club may have been at the expense of thoughtful, constructive, well-planned strategy, but the wins are there and the stats are on our side. He’s been around as a player but I really don’t know if he wants to leave Porto any time soon and if he continues winning, there’s no reason to leave anyway. Unless we lose the Liga or a big offer comes up, he has the support of the board and most importantly the support of the players and the fans. But hey, we are a manager-selling club so you never know when you’ll get more money for a manager than for any player.”
PortuGOAL: Does this record run mean Porto are in for a memorable season? What silverware are you expecting them to win this season and can they make a splash in the Champions League?
“Define memorable season. We have had so many of those in my lifetime that it gets hard to include any other seasons in the memorable category. We won the Champions League; we won the Intercontinental Cup; we won the Europa League and in the same year were undefeated in the Liga. It’s a lot to live up to! I like Sérgio and I am expecting a win in the Liga, a decent attempt at a Cup and reaching as far as possible in the Champions League, but I’m not expecting this to be a record-breaking season other than the straight wins thing. But I’ve been wrong in the past way too many times, hope I’m wrong this time too!”
So there you have it. If dyed-in-the-wool Porto supporters are yet to be convinced this is a truly special team, it’s a good indication the current iteration of the Blue and Whites are still a way short of their illustrious predecessors of the recent past.
The smart money is on Porto extending their winning run for at least two more matches, away to Desportivo das Aves and home to Nacional da Madeira. Should they also win the match after that, in the city where they last tasted defeat as they travel to a rejuvenated Sporting on 12 January, it may be time for a reappraisal.
By Tom Kundert
[Our thanks to Jorge Bertocchini. You can follow Jorge on Twitter at: @portadezanove]