The Liga NOS microscope is usually more focused on matters up in the higher echelons of the league table especially with this season’s arguably wider title race, but 2020/21 looks to have an extremely tight battle to avoid the drop on the cards also. This time around, as well as the obvious pandemic-related restrictions, sees the introduction of a fresh element to complicate the relegation argument: the addition of a play-off to determine a potential third team exiting the Primeira Liga, whereby 16th place in the division will face 3rd place in Segunda Liga (similar to a system implemented in Germany’s Bundesliga among others) to settle the final place in next season’s competition.
Here I take a look at the varying candidates who will be looking to avoid such eventualities this coming May.
Life back in Primeira Liga has proved very tough for the Algarve-based team, returning to the top flight for the first time since 1992/93 after being awarded promotion based on their league position in the ultimately prematurely abandoned 2019/20 Segunda Liga season.
A significant upheaval in playing staff occurred in the hiatus between campaigns, and to frankly little effect so far. Experienced and proven veterans in the shape of André Pinto and Líca have been shrewd moves, although both have been enforced into delayed starts with the side due to fitness issues. Injuries have also followed the club around all campaign, making it difficult to establish a clear best XI to work off. This, as well as other issues, cost manager Sérgio Vieira his job recently, and there is hope that new boss Jorge Costa can reverse their fortunes.
There are bright spots to the season amid the doom and gloom though, and plenty of reasons to suggest that all is not yet lost in their bid for maintenance. Scottish superstar Ryan Gauld has played at a consistently high level throughout the season, and has predictably made the smooth transition to this level that most in Portugal expected him to. The recent loan acquisition of promising Benfica full-back Tomás Tavares also gives the team strength in depth in defence.
It’s a big ask, but with the league as truncated as it appears now there is no certainty of any team’s position and a Farense fightback cannot yet be ruled out.
Player of the season: Ryan Gauld
Was last season an overachievement or this time around more par for the course? As ever it’s likely a case of a small pinch from either side of the argument but worth noting that one reason why Famalicão have looked a completely different team this season is because in playing terms they essentially are. As ever in these predicaments the hugely successful side of 2019/20, that led the league table in the opening weeks of the season and were agonisingly close to Europa League qualification, was laid to waste as a combination of bigger sides poaching their best talent and the club’s overall reliance on loan signings the summer previous meant that a near total overhaul was required for manager João Pedro Sousa.
Star performers from last season left in their swathes, none more pertinently than Pedro Goncalves who has taken his game to the next level with Sporting. Defensive stalwart Neuhen Perez and midfield metronome Uros Racic returned to Spain, while the team’s wealth of attacking talent including Fábio Martins, Diogo Gonçalves and Toni Martínez all left the club.
Any side would suffer under the weight of losing such talent from their ranks and so it has proved for Famalicão. Diogo Queiros, Gil Dias and Dyego Sousa all represented superb acquisitions on paper but the former pair have struggled to find their best form, and the latter followed suit and cut his loan deal from China short. The failures on the pitch meant a change in management as Pedro Sousa left his post, replaced by former Sporting and Belenenses SAD boss Silas. He’ll be enthused by some of the team’s more recent transfers: Rúben Vinagre, Pêpê and Alexandre Guedes in particular look a step in the right direction but improving on the team’s paltry three league victories all season appears a considerable task ahead.
Player of the season: Luiz Júnior
A simply disastrous season for a Boavista side that showed massive ambition in the transfer market following a cash-injection from new investors. The purchase of household names such as Javi García and Adil Rami grabbed headlines and suggested that the team were very serious in their hopes for the campaign that followed. Former Porto defender Chidozie Awaziem looked a shrewd move too, as did the deal to bring in exciting youngster Angel Gomes, who has swapped Manchester United for Lille via a season long-loan in Portugal (Boavista now being the satellite club of the French side).
Gomes has certainly not disappointed, lighting up the league on more than one occasion with some fantastic individual displays. However, to say the team as a unit has underperformed is an understatement: two league wins all season tells its own story and rather than looking up towards European qualification As Panteras now have a serious relegation battle on their hands, a situation that has unsurprisingly already cost one manager his job this season in the form of Vasco Seabra. The vastly experienced Jesualdo Ferreira has taken the reigns in his stead but even he is struggling to get the best out of a group of players than on paper should not be in this situation.
The latter point feels salient in this instance, that there feels simply too much quality within the group for Boavista to go down and that it’s just a matter of time before things click into gear. However, time is not on their side and their record so far points them in only one direction. Not to be written off but they need results, fast.
Player of the season: Angel Gomes
Another season of struggle always looked likely for Portimonense, who actually briefly were relegated to the second tier following last year’s 17th placed finish, only for registration irregularities at Vitória Setúbal being enough to condemn them rather than the Algarvians.
Paulo Sérgio remained in charge for the season and has done good work in the transfer market, bringing in experienced Liga NOS personnel in the guise of Maurício, Fahd Moufi and Bruno Moreira amongst others.
However, one of last season’s glaring issues has reared its ugly head once more: scoring goals. Only two sides have scored fewer than Portimonense so far and while their defence is far from the worst in the campaign, more often than not tight affairs just are not going Sérgio’s side’s way.
They’ve had their share of bad luck this season, losing the highly influential Lucas Fernandes and Pedro Sá to long-term injuries, although the latter is due back relatively soon. Alongside the previous point there are reasons to be hopeful for another survival bid. Last season’s barely used goalkeeper Samuel Portugal has looked rock solid between the sticks after winning the number one spot, and they’ve managed to keep hold of some important first team players that have been sought after elsewhere, namely Dener and Willyan Rocha. Additionally, Luquinha and Beto look promising young talents that have been promoted from the team’s youth academy.
Portimonense have more than every chance of survival but finding some consistency in their attack in particular looks the key issue to address: nine different players have been used across the front three with a lack of permanency given to any candidate, albeit this is a factor partly explained by the condensed schedule. If Sérgio can settle on a particular system, possibly even returning to a briefly utilised 3-4-3, some tranquility may follow.
Player of the season: Dener
A tough start to Gil Vicente’s second season back in Liga NOS in many senses, on field results suffered as those at the club had to cope with the tragic passing of former coach Vítor Oliveira. To replace the legendary manager Rui Almeida was brought into the hot seat but he was dismissed amid the poor results in the early weeks of 2020/21.
Ricardo Soares has since come in and steadied the ship a little, making some Taça de Portugal progress and securing important wins over Famalicão, Rio Ave and Boavista in particular.
Cracks are appearing of late though with four defeats in the team’s last five matches, seeing Gil Vicente slide to just two points clear of the relegation zone at the time of writing. On a brighter note there is more than enough quality to dig them out of trouble: goalkeeper Denis has been excellent throughout the campaign, while some good business has been done in the transfer market of late particularly. Experienced Liga NOS customers Paulinho and Pedrinho should prove fine moves, while the loan of promising young Sporting striker Pedro Marques provides competition in attack, especially to another talented youth in Samuel Lino.
Player of the season: Denis
A season of ups and downs for the Mariners is putting matters mildly. A promising start in which they responded to opening day defeat with consecutive victories, including a stunning upset of Porto at Estádio do Dragão gave way to a rotten run of form that saw Lito Vidigal dismissed from his post. Marítimo U23 coach Milton Mendes took interim charge of the seniors and has remained as much ever since, guiding the team through some highs (a run of six wins in ten matches in early winter, including eliminating Sporting from the Taça de Portugal), and more recent lows (five straight losses at the time of writing, including failing to build on their cup success with defeat to second tier Estoril in the round that followed).
The previous points encapsulate a difficult campaign for Marítimo who have flirted with both the European and relegation spots. One key plus for the islanders this season has been the sensational form of striker Rodrigo Pinho (no player from outside “the big three” has outscored the Brazilian this season).
However, having seemingly found a good tactical system in his 3-5-2 setup, the flaws in the formula appear to be there for opposition teams to exploit amid a terrible current run of form that has seen them slip towards the Liga NOS trap door. If they can keep Pinho fit and firing they should have enough to dodge too much drama, but this latest sticky patch needs addressing swiftly if they are to avoid being dragged too far into an unwanted relegation dogfight.
Player of the season: Rodrigo Pinho
Another tough year for this arm of a great club divided. On paper good business was done in terms of personnel last summer, particularly in continuity terms. Manager Petit has remained in place, and he has managed to keep the top talent at the club, both in terms of promising youngsters (Tomás Ribeiro) and the more experienced campaigners (Silvestre Varela, Gonçalo Silva, Rúben Lima). Additions to the squad looked good too, Miguel Cardoso had excelled previously for Tondela, while Afonso Taira and Afonso Sousa have added to the team in experience and youth respectively.
An air-tight defence has been the bedrock of Belenenses SAD’s season, very much in the image of their manager Petit, a tough-tackling defensive midfielder in his highly successful playing days. Mainly using 3-4-3, using any combination of Ribeiro, Silva, Cafú Phete or summer signing Henrique Buss, the back three in particular has been a key strength throughout the year, and whichever trio has been presented has had a choice of two excellent goalkeepers behind them in both André Moreira and Stanislav Kritsyuk both impressing.
This however has seemingly come at an extreme cost at the other end of the field with an extremely blunt attack that has yielded just nine league goals this season, a division low. The aforementioned Varela and Cardoso especially boast heaps of experience at this level but the unit simply is not proving cohesive, and it goes without saying that an area of a team so crucial to be lacking this obliquely creates serious dangers in the relegation battle.
However, such defensive stability is a quality few of their competitors in this scenario possess, and Petit has proven himself to be something of an efficient escape artist himself in his young managerial career. The team look in safe hands both playing and coaching-wise, if the attack sharpens up they should swim to more serene waters in Liga NOS.
Player of the season: Henrique Buss
The perennial relegation dodgers will likely have to do battle at the wrong end of the table this season if past evidence is anything to go by, As Auriverdes requiring a result on the very final day of the campaign in four of the last five Primeira Liga calendars to maintain their top flight status. This season has seen former Liverpool assistant coach Pako Ayesteran take charge of the Viseu side to a somewhat mixed effect, not quite finding a tactical formula to settle upon and also not being able to consistently get the best out of the more talented players in the squad such as Jhon Murillo and Salvador Agra. One big asset to their survival fight though is striker Mario González; the Spanish striker acquired from Villarreal has been superb in leading the line for Tondela this season, albeit when fit only having suffered a multitude of injuries in his short time in Portugal.
Keeping González fit looks absolutely integral to Tondela’s chances of being in Liga NOS for another season, and they will always look to summon their near-legendary powers of retrieval if they find themselves deep in the mire in May.
Player of the season: Mario González
By Jamie Farr