Anyone who has perused the sports press in Portugal recently would be forgiven for thinking the winners of the Primeira Liga 2020/21 season had already been decided. The return of charismatic coach Jorge Jesus along with heavy investment in a raft of impressive new players brought to the Estádio da Luz, alongside the apparent inertia of FC Porto in terms of squad reinforcement, appear to point in one direction: Benfica being crowned Portuguese champions in May 2021.

But is it really so clear-cut that Benfica will reclaim the crown of Portugal’s best soccer team in the coming season? 

Benfica’s credentials

The mid 1990s to the end of the first decade of the new millennium were the darkest years in Benfica’s history, with just one league win in 15 seasons. The club’s rebirth from 2010 onwards is largely down to one man - Jorge Jesus. The outspoken coach made Benfiquistas forget years of mediocrity on the pitch and never-ending crises off it, by creating an exciting, powerful and winning team.

JJ’s Benfica finally broke Porto’s seemingly unshakeable stranglehold on the domestic game, winning a total of 10 trophies in 6 seasons, including 3 league titles, which with a bit of luck could easily have been five out of his half a dozen years at the club.

So strong in fact were Benfica when JJ left in 2015, that many insist it was the foundations he had laid more than the work of his successors in the Benfica dugout that enabled the Eagles to continue their winning streak, claiming 5 championships in 6 seasons. That may sound too harsh on the jobs done by Rui Vitória and Bruno Lage, but one fact is indisputable: Benfica were incomparably stronger when Jorge Jesus left the club in relation to the pitiful state they were in when he arrived.

So much so that most Benfica fans are more than willing to forgive Jesus for the messy nature of his departure to cross-town rivals Sporting. And the coach’s reputation is arguably higher than it has ever been after an exceptional year in Brazil where he led Flamengo to the league and Copa Libertadores double, playing fabulous football along the way.

With Benfica president Luís Filipe Vieira desperate to win re-election in October, he went all out to get Jesus back and has been happy to bankroll the transfer demands of his returning coach. Benfica have spent big bringing in the likes of Everton Cebolinha, Jan Vertonghen, Gian-Luca Waldschmidt, Pedrinho and Gilberto. Although Uruguayan superstar Edinson Cavani appears out of reach, other reinforcements are expected at the Luz before the end of the transfer window.

Porto playing it cool

All the above has seen Benfica dominate the sports press even more than usual in recent weeks. News surrounding FC Porto’s next moves, in contrast, has been conspicuous by its absence. With the club still straightjacketed by UEFA’a financial fair play rules, the word is money must be generated through sales before the club can bring in new players.

On the one hand, Porto fans may be feeling frustrated as they see their bitter rivals from the capital seriously bolstering their squad. On the other hand, it cannot be forgotten that Porto are the reigning champions of Portugal, having finished five points clear at the top of the table and also beaten Benfica in the Portuguese Cup final.

Indeed, with Conceição having led Porto to the league title in two of his three seasons at the Estádio do Dragão, you can argue that Benfica being installed as such strong favourites is folly at best, disrespectful at worst.

Moreover, last season Porto left all their transfer dealings until the end of the window, and while the strategy backfired badly in Europe, with early elimination from the Champions League in the qualification stage after a shock defeat to Krasnodar, it worked out just fine in domestic play. Goalkeeper Marchesín, midfielder Matheus Uribe and winger Luis Díaz were all late recruits, and all three played crucial roles at different points during the campaign in what proved a highly successful double-winning season.

Therefore, if Porto manage to attract sizeable fees for some of their young gems, as has been reported in the press, it could pave the way for one or two important recruits, or at the very least ensure that the club can keep hold of their best players. Star defender Alex Telles, who when the season ended looked certain to depart, this weekend said he was all set to begin his fifth successive season at Porto.

FC Porto, a settled team, and a winning team, may not be making as many headlines as the expensively assembled side led by a media-magnet of a manager 300 kilometres to the south, but to suggest it is all over before it has even begun is just the sort of motivation that Porto usually thrive on.

by Tom Kundert

 

Comments (19)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

First of all, Tom, just who is suggesting that "the new season is over before it's even begun?" I haven't heard or read anyone suggest that notion up to now! What seems clear is that Benfica will surely have the strongest squad in Portugal next...

First of all, Tom, just who is suggesting that "the new season is over before it's even begun?" I haven't heard or read anyone suggest that notion up to now! What seems clear is that Benfica will surely have the strongest squad in Portugal next season, just as they did last season. But, just as last season proved, having the strongest squad on paper doesn't guarantee becoming champions.

On the other hand, Benfica will also have the best coach in Portugal next season. This, together with the strong squad being assembled, does make us the clear favorites for the title, but that's just in theory. We will have to wait and see what happens on the actual pitch. Last season we had the squad with the most quality and options in Portugal. But unfortunately, Lage just got worse and worse as the season progressed until he finally looked simply out of his depth by the final third of the season, kept making the same mistakes and selection errors and stubbornly refused to change things that clearly weren't working. I don't rate Conceicao at all as a coach really, and I think he plays a very limited and dull style of football: dependent on ultra physical play and getting goals primarily from corners and dead balls. But at least he is consistent and his tactics are clear and somewhat effective. Lage got so bad in those last few months, that in the end it was impossible for me to understand just what exactly his tactics were, if there were any at all, lol!

So I think that you could say that we lost the title last season because Porto at least had a coach who knew what he was doing
in order to get results, as boring as the football was (and by the way I've read/heard many Porto fans make this same point and they were not at all happy with the football Porto played last sesson). JJ will be a serious upgrade on Bruno Lage, and thus I think we will be the clear favorites for the title. But we got some issues to deal with too. The main one for me is all the changes in the squad and probably even in the starting 11 for next season. Sometimes a total face-lift is not in order and some continuity needs to be restored as well. For example, I read recently that the club is considering offloading Gabriel as well, which I think would be a big mistake. Gabriel is one of the players from last season who I think should remain as a first-teamer and could really get to a higher level under JJ. He was absolutely immense two seasons ago when we won the league and the club would really benefit from that kind of form again next season. So anyway in short, Benfica will have the strongest squad and coach next season, but that's no guarantee we'll win the league of course, and JJ will need to quickly mold a strong new team spirit with all the new faces in the squad. If he can do that though, then it could be exciting times ahead for the club...

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Hi Andre. That's very much the vibe I get from reading the opinion columns and watching TV shows of Benfica affiliated pundits. One yesterday said failure to win the league would render the season and LFV's strategy a complete failure...

As for...

Hi Andre. That's very much the vibe I get from reading the opinion columns and watching TV shows of Benfica affiliated pundits. One yesterday said failure to win the league would render the season and LFV's strategy a complete failure...

As for the rest of your comment, I agree. Benfica look very strong but have to show it on the pitch. I think the start will be crucial. Porto may be able to steal a march in the first few months while all the new players at Benfica are building cohesion, and if Porto manage to build a decent lead the pressure will really be on Benfica. If Jesus gets the team ticking from the off though, I expect them to win the league fairly comfortably.

Gabriel a curious case. He was superb in Lage's first season, like you say, but was unrecognisable, really poor, for much of last season, especially after the resumption. I suppose you can say that for a handful of Benfica players.

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"One yesterday said failure to win the league would render the season and LFV's strategy a complete failure"

I wouldn't go as far to say this suggest Benfica had already won the league, surely for Porto and Benfica not winning the league does...

"One yesterday said failure to win the league would render the season and LFV's strategy a complete failure"

I wouldn't go as far to say this suggest Benfica had already won the league, surely for Porto and Benfica not winning the league does render the season a failure?

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Fair point Pola!

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I think it's great that the media in Portugal, which usually has a big pro-Benfica bias anyways, is already so overconfident.

It means that many will be writing Porto off and Sporting as well.

Jesus the Portuguese Guardiola (since both are...

I think it's great that the media in Portugal, which usually has a big pro-Benfica bias anyways, is already so overconfident.

It means that many will be writing Porto off and Sporting as well.

Jesus the Portuguese Guardiola (since both are the most overhyped coaches in their respective countries), can have all that attention, because it means pressure.

I don't have much faith in Conceicao, but he has surprised on a few occasions. In the Benfica games last season, he showed he was quite capable of putting on tactical masterclasses, so we'll have to see if he can do that more consistently.

If we're comparing both managers on performance in the Liga, Jesus has 3 league titles in 28 seasons of management, whereas Conceicao has 2 titles in 6 seasons. I still don't really get the media's obsession with pumping Jesus up.

I'm really hoping Porto can retain their academy players since this crop is exceptional, and possibly one of the best classes in decades. I think Porto's decision to retain or sell them will ultimately be the biggest factor in how they perform this coming season.

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Hi Chris. I'm with you with on Porto's brilliant young players. I really hope they keep most of them and gradually integrate them into the team, but if the Portuguese media is to be believed that's not happening.

As for JJ, come on Chris,...

Hi Chris. I'm with you with on Porto's brilliant young players. I really hope they keep most of them and gradually integrate them into the team, but if the Portuguese media is to be believed that's not happening.

As for JJ, come on Chris, that's a completely disingenuous stat! Are you saying he failed because he did not win the league with Amora, Felgueiras, Estrela da Amadora, etc!!!

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Tom, you know how I feel about you and this site, big fan and advocate of both.

But I'm tired of seeing everyone pump up Jesus more than he actually deserves. I have a family member who once told me Jesus is better than Mourinho.

Compare...

Tom, you know how I feel about you and this site, big fan and advocate of both.

But I'm tired of seeing everyone pump up Jesus more than he actually deserves. I have a family member who once told me Jesus is better than Mourinho.

Compare their cv's. This guy can't get a job at a proper big club and keeps making his money scamming Portuguese clubs.

What did he do at Sporting? All the hype, all the promise, and ultimately, no league titles. He was a failure there but for some reason, people let that go.

I call it as I see it. Conceicao won my club 2 trophies and brought back the Porto identity, but I feel he has big holes in his approach.

People pump up Jesus and forget that he's not good enough to win unless he's at the best club in the league (Benfica, Flamenco are perfect examples). And that is my point; outside of Benfica, he has done NADA in Portugal.

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Hey Tom! Yeah you make some good points there, mate! I agree for sure that the start of the season will be crucial, especially after all the commotion and disruption of the Covid and everything. And yes it could be especially crucial for SLB...

Hey Tom! Yeah you make some good points there, mate! I agree for sure that the start of the season will be crucial, especially after all the commotion and disruption of the Covid and everything. And yes it could be especially crucial for SLB because of the "face-lift" at the club with a very changed starting 11 to last season, and an entire new coaching staff. Porto should have much more continuity and a much more similar 11 to last season, which would be beneficial to them in theory. However, we will also have to wait and see how many of Porto's biggest players end up getting sold before the start of the new season, a few of them will likely leave.

What gives me comfort is how well JJ knows the league and Portuguese football in general, and the club itself, and thus should be able to hit the ground running from the start. And I remember the first few months of his first spell back in 2009, I recall he made an absolutely blistering start to that season. Hopefully it happens again!

Regarding your point about Gabriel's poor form last season. It's true, he was a shadow of the player from the previous season. But then again, by the second half of last season virtually every single player in the squad (with the exceptions of Odysseus, Dias and Vinicius) was in terrible form, week in week out. And when you have a situation where virtually every single player is in such poor form, the blame really has to go the coach. Look I don't wanna be too hard on Bruno Lage and I really thank him for the great achievement he brought of winning the league the previous season. But time passes quickly in this game, and the only season that matters in the end is the current one. And the play and form of the team in the second half of last season was simply unacceptable at a club like SLB, and clearly Lage knew that himself. So I wish him all the best, he's a young coach with a lot of potential and hopefully he gets a good new coaching position soon. And I really hope Gabriel stays because his kind of tough and physical play could be very important to bring more defensive strength in CM, to balance JJ's all out attacking approach.

Last point I will make is let's also not completely write off Sporting and even Braga for the title fight next season. Both have made some interesting signings and have quality coaches. If both clubs make strong starts to the season then they could well end up being in the mix of the title fight. Vamos ver!

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Sporting has the best coach right now.

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Porto have the advantage of having a settled team - this shouldn't be underestimated plus Sergio did bring some of the younger players into the team after the re-start so I see no reason to write them off.

I'll wait til I've seen quite a few...

Porto have the advantage of having a settled team - this shouldn't be underestimated plus Sergio did bring some of the younger players into the team after the re-start so I see no reason to write them off.

I'll wait til I've seen quite a few Benfica games before I have an opinion on their new look team. I also wouldnt sell Gabriel - he's a more complete player than Weigl. Wasn't his drop in form because he was coming back from injury as well as the team nose-diving? He cant be blamed for their drop in levels. He's a classy player.

If Sporting keep their players they should be exciting to watch and I can see them keeping pace and having a say in the title race.

Also dunno if anyone saw but Benfica lost the youth league final to Real Madrid. Great game and Benfica really should have won, having enough chances to score 5 or 6, and that snot including the missed penalty. Lots of promising players but if theyre going on a spending binge then we wont be seeing anything of them in the first team next season!

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Sergio brought young players mostly after the league was clinched. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad he did it.

But it honestly felt more like a showcase in order to sell them, rather than because he wants them to get into the first team.

I hope I...

Sergio brought young players mostly after the league was clinched. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad he did it.

But it honestly felt more like a showcase in order to sell them, rather than because he wants them to get into the first team.

I hope I am wrong. The level of talent of these academy kids is exceptionally high, and they would help cover up some of Conceicao's bad habits, like a formation that crumbles into chaos once Porto passes the opposition half line.

But I think the tradition of selling young players will continue, to the detriment of Porto's success in the league as well as the Champions League.

One factor to consider, and this is a question for Tom and Andre as well;
Since Jesus is traditionally a donkey in the Champions League, will he write the competition off outright anyways in favour of league objectives?

Or will the money LFV splashed out on Jesus and players force Jesus to for once try in the Champions League? This is a factor that I feel will heavily impact Benfica's performance.

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Jesus has made a point of emphasising that this job will not be his last, and he still has big ambitions - which means coaching one of Europe's super clubs. The only way he can have a shot at that is by doing something that catches people's...

Jesus has made a point of emphasising that this job will not be his last, and he still has big ambitions - which means coaching one of Europe's super clubs. The only way he can have a shot at that is by doing something that catches people's attention in European competition. So to answer your question Chris, no I do not expect JJ to write off the Champions League - quite the opposite. I expect him to go all out to try and make a splash in the competition, especially after winning the South American equivalent last year.

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Sporting to win the treble! perhaps not in our universe but in the infinite universes Sporting will win the treble, I'll be happy if Sporting in our universe win the league. That's not asking for much right? Perhaps Messi will come play for us if...

Sporting to win the treble! perhaps not in our universe but in the infinite universes Sporting will win the treble, I'll be happy if Sporting in our universe win the league. That's not asking for much right? Perhaps Messi will come play for us if he wants a real challenge. Going to PSG or Man City is too easy for a man with his talents.

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One thing we can be most certain about (Tom please save this comment for future reference.) is that JJ will ignore his Portuguese players, especially the academy players who just made the final. This in turn will result in the next Bernardo Silva...

One thing we can be most certain about (Tom please save this comment for future reference.) is that JJ will ignore his Portuguese players, especially the academy players who just made the final. This in turn will result in the next Bernardo Silva to hone his craft elsewhere.

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It's apparent JJ has evolved his approach to game. He's at an age in his life where results matter more than grass roots development or abstract philosophical idealisms, therefore, he'll be trying his best to build the best team he thinks he can,...

It's apparent JJ has evolved his approach to game. He's at an age in his life where results matter more than grass roots development or abstract philosophical idealisms, therefore, he'll be trying his best to build the best team he thinks he can, whether the players are young or mature, home grown or from elsewhere. He's hungry for results in all stages and due to his communication skills seemingly being limited to Portuguese, Benfica appears to be the easiest vehicle to achieve that.

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Sporting will shock everyone and win the league title 2020/21. Mark my words. They have been quietly going about their business. Ruben Amorim for a full season will make a big difference. They should sign another striker though.

Jorge Jesus is ...

Sporting will shock everyone and win the league title 2020/21. Mark my words. They have been quietly going about their business. Ruben Amorim for a full season will make a big difference. They should sign another striker though.

Jorge Jesus is alrewdy unhappy , SLB pulled the bait and switch on him and they aren’t getting half the players that they wanted.

Porto is getting owned by Sporting in the transfer market. Conceicaos crying can only
Go so far.

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--Z-- only comes out at the beginning of the season. The only time Sporting has a theoretical chance of winning.

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