It’s that time of year again. The slate has been wiped clean and football fans all over Europe have convinced themselves (however flimsy the evidence) that something magical has happened at their club in the close season, setting them up for a glorious campaign. After all, whoever their team, they currently lie joint first in the standings!
When it comes to the Portuguese title race in particular, for the first time in a long time, thanks to Sporting shattering the Benfica-Porto duopoly last season, all three of the traditional contenders appear to have a reasonable chance of finishing top of the pile come May next year.
PortuGOAL takes a look at the squad adjustments that have been made and the arguments for and against Sporting, FC Porto and Benfica becoming the 2021/22 champions of Portugal.
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Last season: Champions
Players in: Ricardo Esgaio, Rúben Vinagre, Gonçalo Esteves
Players out: João Pereira, Vitorino Antunes, João Mário, Pedro Mendes, Eduardo Quaresma
Preseason friendlies: 7 wins, 1 draw, 0 defeats
The preseason friendlies have shown a Sporting team bubbling with the confidence and forward momentum afforded by last year’s convincing title win. The side is extremely settled, with João Mário the only regular first-teamer departing (so far) and the two main signings, Ricardo Esgaio and Rúben Vinagre, bought as backups rather than immediate starters. Beyond the solid-looking XI, the squad as a whole remains packed with rising young stars, all hungry to taste more success and make a name for themselves in the game.
Coach Rúben Amorim has forged a strong identity based on youth, an unbreakable spirit of togetherness and a clear tactical blueprint since arriving at Alvalade. The man in the dugout, himself a youngster in managerial terms at 36 years of age, has displayed a Midas touch ever since becoming a head coach in the Primeira Liga. A sensational record of 48 wins and just 7 defeats in 66 matches in all competitions as Braga and Sporting manager tells its own story.
While there is plenty of optimism around the Lions, new challenges include having to contend with a packed schedule, including a minimum of six Champions League matches, no more “surprise factor”, and as reigning champions being seen as the team to beat. The possible loss of one or two top performers before the transfer window closes, namely Nuno Mendes and João Palhinha, and a lack of cover for main striker Paulinho, are other concerns for Sporting fans.
Last season: Runners-up
Players in: Pepê, Fábio Cardoso, Bruno Costa
Players out: Moussa Marega, Felipe Anderson, Malang Sarr, Loum
Preseason friendlies: 6 wins, 0 draws, 0 defeats (2 friendlies remaining)
He may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but nobody can doubt the competitive fire that burns fiercely in Porto coach Sérgio Conceição, and which he has imbued throughout his team. Given the lack of serious investment in the squad since the former Porto and Portugal winger’s return to the Estádio do Dragão as manager, his record of two championships in four seasons points to his motivational skills, and the excellent European campaigns suggest he is also more tactically astute than given credit for.
Despite the fact many of Porto’s key players have not participated in pre-season training because of their involvement in international summer tournaments (Luis Díaz, Agustin Marchesin, Matheus Uribe, Jesús Corona), the team has already shown signs of clicking into gear and Conceição has stressed the need to start the campaign strongly. “If last season had started in week 8 we would’ve been champions,” he said after the impressive 2-0 defeat of French champions Lille on Sunday, alluding to the costly dropped points at the beginning of 2020/21.
Porto were top scorers last season, and with three wing wonders to call on in the shape of Corona, Díaz and Francisco Conceição, and arguably the Liga’s most complete centre-forward in Mehdi Taremi, the Dragons have goals a-plenty in them. The potential problems are at the other end of the pitch, with the defence still relying on 38-year-old Pepe, and the full-backs attracting much criticism last season. Another potential negative is the fact fan unrest has been bubbling under the surface at Porto for a couple of seasons in relation to the club’s neglection of a superbly talented set of youth players, with very few of the 2018/19 Youth League winners afforded opportunities with the first team. Should Porto prosper this will become a non-issue; should they go trophy-less again, calls for a different philosophy – and possibly a different coach – will grow.
Last season: Third
Players in: Rodrigo Pinho, Gil Dias, João Mário, Soualiho Meïte
Players out: Pedrinho, Jardel, Franco Cervi
Preseason friendlies: 5 wins, 2 draws, 1 defeat
One of the enduring attractions of football is how quickly fortunes can change, be it individually, at team level, or throughout an entire club. As Benfica reeled off five championship titles in six seasons from 2014 to 2019, Portugal’s most popular team appeared to have wrested back hegemony of domestic football after decades of Porto domination. With the northerners further handicapped by falling foul of UEFA’s financial fair play rules, and Sporting in a seemingly eternal cycle of internal strife, the path was clear for Benfica to hammer home their advantage as the dominant force in the Primeira Liga. Fast-forward a couple of years, and it is Benfica who are in a state of complete flux. The police detention and subsequent resignation of president Luis Filipe Vieira, followed by the multiple scenarios being heatedly debated as regards the future direction of the club, has rocked the organisation as a whole.
Focusing on the playing side only, the lead-up to the new season cannot be more of a contrast to 12 months ago. The return of Jorge Jesus and big spending meant great things were expected of the Eagles last campaign, not least because of JJ’s own preseason bluster, only for the team to flop spectacularly on all fronts, ending up empty-handed.
This year, lower expectations may work to Benfica’s advantage. Jorge Jesus has proved time and again he can mould high-quality players into fabulous teams, and despite their horrible season last year, it is a squad packed with quality. Everton Cebolinha and Darwin Nuñez have the potential to “explode”, while the guile of João Mário, physicality of Soualiho Meïté, and the vast improvement in Julian Weigl could well transform what was Benfica’s weak spot last season – central midfield – into their strongest sector.
Like Porto, Benfica have been criticised for forsaking homegrown talent, with Diogo Gonçalves the only academy product likely to feature regularly. Indeed, Benfica are more reliant on veterans, especially at the back where Nicolas Otamendi and Jan Vertonghen will be key players again. But with Jorge Jesus desperate to redeem his reputation, the entire “made in Seixal” debate will be put on hold should Benfica get back on track with a title win, a new president and a new cycle.
By Tom Kundert