With another Primeira Liga season upon us, Portuguese giants Porto have a big season ahead of them if they wish to wrestle back the league title from their fierce rivals Benfica.
Ending Benfica’s 4-year title winning streak in 2017/18 seems a distant memory for Sérgio Conceição’s side, as two defeats to the Eagles last year as well as some costly dropped points in unexpected circumstances saw the Dragons relinquish their league championship after building a seemingly unassailable lead by Christmas, losing out to the tune of a 2-point margin at the end of the season.
As ever, the expectation will be on the side to add to their proud league history and win a 29th domestic championship, while also trying to go one step further in the Portuguese cups having been ousted in both the Taça de Portugal and Taça da Liga finals on penalties to Sporting in 2018/19, to leave the early season Supertaça as their only discernible silverware from the campaign. How will they go about reclaiming their status as Portugal’s premier team?
An influx of fresh talent will be relied upon as a number of their top performers from the past few seasons departed Estádio do Dragão this summer. Yacine Brahimi, Héctor Herrera, Éder Militão and Felipe were all first teamers to move on, while the exceptionally talented but underused Óliver Torres also returned to Spain.
The replacements certainly have promise in varying degrees. Shoya Nakajima returns to Portugal after an outstanding spell with Portimonense, in which a move to the likes of Porto had looked logical. He finally makes this step up via a brief spell in Qatar with Al-Duhail. Former skipper Iván Marcano has returned to the club after an unsuccessful year with Roma, while as has often been the case in recent times Porto have looked towards the South American market as well as within to aid the squad.
With regards to the former, Agustín Marchesín has arrived to fill the number one goalkeeper spot, which Iker Casillas has vacated as he recovers from his well documented heart condition that he suffered this summer. Mateus Uribe will be expected to fill Herrera’s void in midfield, while Luis Díaz adds to a number of exciting wing players at the club presently.
In terms of the youth setup, attacker Fábio Silva and defender Tomás Esteves have shown particular promise in pre-season despite only being 18 and 17 years old respectively, while 19 year old Romário Baró has also looked sharp after being called up from the B team.
Transfers out of the club has been a perennial issue for some time now and the aforementioned departures from the playing squad were as inevitable as they were weakening. Question marks still remain over the future of some of their bigger players that have remained at the club, namely defensive midfield general Danilo and star left back Alex Telles, both heavily linked with varying moves across Europe.
Porto seem to have resisted overtures for Telles in particular, but clubs such as Monaco are in the hunt for Danilo with some sources suggesting the speculation was distressing the player, with reports of him possibly falling out with the ever combustible Conceição a week or so ago.
Signs seem positive that they will be about to keep Danilo for the season at least, which would be crucial given he has arguably been the club’s best player in terms of consistency during the past three years.
However one similarly high-performing figure in Moussa Marega looks perhaps more likely to make a late transfer window move, with the English Premier League looking like a probable destination for the Malian having flirted with moves there on many occasions over the past year. West Ham United have been billed as long-time admirers, while joining Nuno Espírito Santo’s Portuguese revolution at Wolves has also drifted through the rumour mill on occasion.
Once heavily derided, Marega has been a huge player for Porto since the beginning of the 2017/18 campaign as he his absence has been felt even in the early stages of pre-season, the player given extra time off due to his participation in the 2019 AFCON as well as the ongoing doubt surrounding his future in Portugal.
Speaking of pre-season, the club racked up a number of matches as they remained in Portugal to sharpen up ahead of 2019/20. Failure to defend their league title, as well as the country’s falling co-efficient rank, has led to Porto needing to qualify for the Champions League group stage this year by virtue of two separate rounds, so they had to begin their preparations a little earlier than usual.
Training ground victories over Águeda, Varzim and Penafiel got the ball rolling, before travelling down south to the Algarve. There a 1-1 draw with Real Betis was sandwiched by narrow triumphs over Fulham and Getafe. Contests back at home against Monaco and Braga closed their preparations, ahead of their first competitive match of the season against Russian side Krasnodar tomorrow night.
The club made their long trip to Russia yesterday ahead of the 3rd qualifying round 1st leg of the Champions League, and despite Porto being the favourites it should represent a stern test for Conceição and co. A positive recent record against Russian teams should give them some confidence, and they’ll need it for what is a demanding beginning to the campaign.
In between the two legs they open their Primeira Liga season with a trip to newly promoted Gil Vicente, before a home match with Vitória Setúbal precedes the first ‘Clássico’ of the season in Jornada 3. Porto will travel to the Estádio da Luz to take on Benfica looking to strike an early blow in the title race and as ever it promises to be a fiery affair. Should they progress past Krasnodar, two extra matches will be added to a busy schedule as Olympiakos or İstanbul Başakşehir will stand in their way of progression to the Champions League proper.
Overall a club of Porto’s size do not settle for less than the best domestically so the expectation will be to at the very least provide an extremely stern challenge to Benfica’s title defence, as well as attempting to end what has been something of a recent hoodoo in the Taças. The Eagles sent out a devastating warning message to the rest of the league with a 5-0 demolition of Sporting in Sunday’s Supertaça, so making a fast start will be essential if Porto wish to re-establish domestic dominance in Portugal.
By Jamie Farr (@FRfutebolJamie)