As the proposal for a European Super League is hotly discussed throughout the football world, it is more important than ever that Portugal’s club sides snap out of their recent slump and start making an impact in UEFA competitions, if they don’t want to be definitively left behind.
Given Benfica and Porto’s rich past in the European Cup/Champions League, each club having won the world’s elite club competition twice, they will feel hard done by if overlooked when it comes to formulating any new continent-wide league. But recent results by Portuguese clubs have only lent weight to the argument that they are now in Europe’s second division. This week marks the start of efforts to invert that perception.
Betting on Portuguese teams to do well in Europe used to bring the prospect of winnings in the recent past but nowadays playing online casino games including the possibility to pay by mobile slots games will have been more profitable. Porto are first of the trio of Luso clubs in action hoping to bring back the success of yesteryear.
Champions League – Porto eye knockout phase
Sérgio Conceição has a mixed record as Porto coach in the Champions League. In his first two seasons in the dugout he successfully guided the club to the knockout stage, before things came to an abrupt end with heavy aggregate defeats against eventual finalists Liverpool. Given that the English team would go on to finish runners-up in 2017/18 and win the tournament in 2018/19, you could say Porto did as well as could be expected. Last season, however, the Blue and Whites crashed out to a shock defeat against Russian team Krasnodar in the qualifiers, and the disappointment was compounded by a meek showing in the Europa League.
Conceição will therefore be itching to do better this season, especially as domestically things have not started well, with Porto trailing Benfica by five points after just four matches of the new season. There is also an extremely pragmatic reason why Porto need to prosper in the competition. Doing well in the Champions League is akin to winning big in the lotto, and the financial rewards of a deep run will go a long way to helping Porto overcome their well-documented monetary difficulties.
Porto lock horns with Manchester City, Marseille and Olympiacos in Group C in search of a top two finish to remain in the tournament beyond Christmas. It is no easy task but Conceição is looking forward to the challenge:
“Last year when we did not play the Champions League I said our place was not the Europa League,” the Porto boss told UEFA.com. “With all due respect to all the teams in that competition, Porto’s place is in the Champions League. Porto is one of the three teams who have played in it the most. It’s a huge motivation for us and brings us enriching experiences. It’s the highest level and extremely challenging and it’s by testing yourself against the top-level coaches that you can grow and improve.”
First up is theoretically Porto’s toughest assignment, with a trip to England to face Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. Curiously, there could be as many Portuguese footballers in the opposition team as in Porto’s line-up, with Rúben Dias, Bernardo Silva and João Cancelo in the Citizens’ squad. Porto’s starting XI in the 2-2 draw against Sporting on Saturday contained only three Portuguese players: Wilson Manafá, Pepe, and Sérgio Oliveira.
Conceição has so far been reticent to use Porto’s major new recruits, with Mehdi Taremi, Toni Martinez and Marko Grujic barely featuring yet, and Felipe Anderson coming in for severe criticism by Conceição after a disappointing late cameo at the weekend. But City themselves have not been without problems, some of the sheen taken off Guardiola’s reputation by a hugely disappointing 2019/20 and the EPL club must also make do without star midfielder Kevin de Bruyne and centre-back Aymeric Laporte.
Wednesday, 21 October, 8.00 pm: Manchester City v FC Porto
Benfica seek redemption in the Europa League
The return of Jorge Jesus to the Benfica dugout and a summer spending spree has led to big expectations for the Lisbon club, but hopes of a better Champions League run than in recent seasons were immediately quashed by a surprise defeat to Greek outfit PAOK in the qualifiers. Hence, Benfica will have to content themselves with the Europa League this season, but with Jesus having guided the Eagles to the final of the competition twice in his first spell at the club, and signs that the new recruits are starting to gel, hopes are high of a deep run in international play.
In stark contrast to Porto, Benfica’s new signings have immediately become major cogs in the team, with forwards Luca Waldschmidt, Darwin Núñez and Everton Cebolinha in particular impressing.
Benfica were drawn in Group D alongside Standard Liège, Rangers and Lech Poznan, and anything other than top spot in a section with Belgian, Scottish and Polish opposition with far inferior budgets will be a disappointment. JJ’s team kick off the campaign in Poland on Thursday against Lech Poznan.
Thursday 22 October, 5.55 pm: Lech Poznan v Benfica
Braga looking for repeat performance
Braga’s Europa League draw saw them placed in Group G with Leicester City (England), AEK Athens (Greece) and Zorya Luhansk (Ukraine), and the Guerreiros do Minho will feel confident having topped a tougher looking section last season, which included wins over Wolves and Besiktas (twice) as they completed the group phase unbeaten.
Coming off two successive wins and boosted by news that highly sought-after striker Paulinho has signed a new long-term contract, Carlos Carvalhal’s side will be gunning to get off to a positive start at home to AEK at the quarry on Thursday.
The emergence of Braga as a force in Portugal and a team to be respected in Europe has been one of the most positive stories in Portuguese football over the last decade and a half, and the northern team will look upon this season’s Europa League campaign as another chance to further consolidate their growth.
Thursday 22 October, 8.00 pm: Braga v AEK Athens
As mentioned at the start of this article, European football could be about to have a major overhaul, and the current group stage format of the two competitions may soon be a thing of the past. For now, it is time to wish luck to the three Portuguese teams involved. May the action begin.
By Tom Kundert