Primeira Liga Jornada 31 preview: Benfica aiming to take huge stride towards title against Braga

With just four games left of the season it’s time to get your calculator out and start crunching the numbers.

The phrases “mathematically possible”, “if other results go our way” and the like will be ringing around cafes and bars all over Portugal as we speak - and don’t forget we’ve got head-to-head results to contend with rather than goal difference.

But do not worry! The Long Ball Futebol Podcast crew are here to help you make sense of this weekend’s Primeira Liga football. 

Three races to run

There are now three main races to run, with some closer to the finish line than others:

  • Of course Porto and Braga are keeping the title race alive despite Benfica picking themselves up in recent games after a dip in form;
  • Arouca are on the home stretch for a European place but are still looking over their shoulder making sure there's enough distance between themselves and Vitória de Guimaraes;
  • and finally what we’re dubbing it the ‘relegation marathon’ (a race that no one wants to win), where Santa Clara could be the first ones to cross the dreaded finish line this weekend. Paços are not far behind but still have a slim chance of survival, whilst Marítimo will be hoping that Estoril move back to within touching distance.  

Benfica-Braga blockbuster

The game that stands out the most this weekend is also arguably the most important game of the rest of the season, when Benfica host Braga on Saturday night. If Benfica were to lose, and Porto win their game against Arouca, then Benfica’s lead at the top of the table would be cut to just one point.

Braga have already beaten Benfica 3-0 this season and have been on a sustained run of form that has kept them firmly in the top three. A win on Saturday would put them just three points behind Benfica, and in with a genuine shot of the title.

We’ve seen the pressure get to Benfica recently despite winning their last two games. They had to work hard against both Estoril and Gil Vicente in order to keep their season on track. We anticipate an exciting match. Both teams have shown us this season they can really play, and have individuals who can produce moments of real magic.  

Monday night test for Porto

We have to wait until Monday for Benfica’s rivals Porto to play. As mentioned, they’re up against Arouca, a side who’ve impressed many this season. Like Benfica, Arouca currently have a 4-point cushion over their rivals Vitória for the last Europa Conference League place. Having lost to Rio Ave last week, they will be looking to bounce straight back to the kind of form which saw them climb into 5th place in the league.

Porto might not seem like the best team to bounce back against, but the Dragons have flattered to deceive lately with their performances despite continuing to earn wins against smaller opposition. Their array of attacking talent has got them through games with the likes of Mehdi Taremi, Toni Martinez, and Danny Namaso all rescuing wins for them in recent weeks.

There are a surprising number of similarities between Armando Evangilista’s Arouca and some of Sérgio Conceição’s Porto teams over the years. There’s a robustness and a tenacity that has seen Arouca become a team difficult to beat, and more importantly a team adept at winning games. This is certainly the Monday Night game of the season.  

Paços eye Sporting scalp

Sporting are seven points off Braga and the last Champions League spot. They’ll have their eyes on Benfica versus Braga, but shouldn’t get too distracted from their own trip to Paços de Ferriera who themselves are fighting to move up into 16th place, and the slim lifeline of the relegation playoff position that Marítimo currently occupy.

Paços will be without talisman Vitor Antunes at left back, but will welcome the return of key players Jordan Holsgrove, Rui Pires and Nuno Lima. They’ll need to be at their best to get a result against Sporting who themselves have benefited from key players coming back into the team. With Morita and Ugarte preferred as the midfield duo, Pedro Gonçalves has settled into the attack alongside Marcus Edwards and Francisco Trincão. As talented as the three attackers are, they do still seem to lack that cutting edge in front of goal.

Santa Clara on the brink

Right, got those calculators at the ready? Marítimo’s result this weekend could relegate Santa Clara due to the head-to-head rule. If Marítimo beat Rio Ave and Santa Clara lose to Gil Vicente, that would increase the gap between Marítimo and Santa Clara to 9 points with three games to play. If Santa Clara were then to win their remaining three games and Marítimo lose theirs, Santa Clara would end the season on the same number of points as Marítimo, but as earlier in the season Marítimo beat Santa Clara 3-1 in one game, and lost to them 2-1 in another, they would finish above them having effectively won 4-3 on aggregate over the two games. This would keep Marítimo in the play-off spot and Santa Clara in the relegation zone. It really is as simple as that.  

To make it simpler, Santa Clara simply have to win against Gil Vicente if they’re going to survive this season. They may well fancy their chances on Saturday, especially considering Gil Vicente haven’t scored in their last 6 games, but Santa Clara’s own dismal form gives very little indication that they will get another single point this season, let alone three in this game alone.

Marítimo, on the other hand, have found their shooting boots recently, scoring six goals in their last three games. But with only three points out of a possible nine in those games they need to stop the silly mistakes and sloppiness at the back which have let them down so often this season.

Five players to watch out for

Félix Correia (Marítimo): The 22 year old Portuguese winger on loan from Juventus has really added some quality to Marítimo’s attack recently. In the islanders’ last two wins Correia has contributed with either goals or assists, and he’ll be looking to do the same against Rio Ave. 

Fran Navarro (Gil Vicente): This man needs no introduction to anyone who’s followed the Primeira Liga in recent seasons. The Spanish striker scored 12 goals in the first 20 games of this season, but a rare dip in form has seen him score only 1 in his last 10 games. A game against the league’s worst side should give him the opportunity to get back on the scoresheet.

Bruma (Braga): Since Bruma joined Braga in January they have only lost once and drawn once, winning all other games he’s played in. In that time the former Portuguese prodigy has grabbed 3 goals and 4 assists, including 3 assists in his last 4 games. This is arguably the biggest game he’s played in for Braga. Will he step up?

Marafona (Paços de Ferreira): The Veteran goalkeeper returned to the line-up last week after a three-game suspension and pulled off some big saves in the win against Vizela. Paços conceded 8 goals while he was suspended, but had only conceded 1 goal in the 3 previous games he had played. He could be vital to getting some big results in the last few games of the season. 

João Neves (Benfica): 2023 has been a breakthrough year for 18-year-old Portuguese midfielder João Neves. Another player that has benefited from Enzo Fernandez’s departure, Neves made his debut against Braga in December, before making a string of cameo appearances off the bench. Roger Schmidt has trusted Neves with starts in Benfica’s last two games and the young midfielder has repaid that faith with great performances. The upcoming game against Braga will be a real test should he get another start.

By Barney Carter-Phillips