It feels like it has been an eternity since we’ve had league football in Portugal. The Primeira Liga is finally back after a three-week hiatus, with some mouthwatering encounters scheduled for this weekend.
PortuGOAL looks ahead to the top action and as usual picks out five players to watch out for in the ninth round of matches in Portugal’s top division.
The extended break was caused first by the international break, with arguably the league’s hottest prospect João Neves making his full Portugal debut, Vitória goalkeeper and captain Bruno Varela debuting for Cape Verde and Braga’s in-form striker Simon Banza also taking his international bow for the Democratic Republic of Congo.
We were then treated to some Taça de Portugal 3rd round action last weekend which saw four Primeira Liga casualties. It remains to be seen if the early exits of Moreirense, Farense, Chaves and Rio Ave benefit those teams in league play, while other top-flight clubs used the occasion to rotate their team and give squad players a run-out.
So in what feels like a fresh start, what are the top matches?
Benfica v Casa Pia
First up out of the top 4 this weekend is Benfica who host Casa Pia on Saturday and after another disappointing loss in the Champions League they’ll be hoping to maintain their winning form in the league.
Despite having arguably the strongest squad in the league there still seems to be some issues in Roger Schmidt’s team. With the departure of Gonçalo Ramos in the summer there has been a noticeable drop-off in their striking options. Despite Petar Musa’s best efforts, Schmidt has felt the need to bring in Caspar Tengstedt and Arthur Cabral. Tebgstedt very much failed to take his opportunity with his surprise start last time out in the league against Estoril, while Cabral finally got off the mark against minnows SC Lusitania in the cup, only to look out of place again in the Champions League defeat to Real Sociedad.
Casa Pia are yet to take a point off Benfica since their return to the top tier. It has been reported that club captain Vasco Fernandes had been removed from the squad after an altercation with striker Felippe Cardoso but both club and manager Felipe Martins have played down that report. Regardless they’ll want to be at full strength at the back and continue their good form defensively. They have the joint second-best defence in the league alongside Sporting and Benfica, meaning this could be a close encounter and one where Benfica will need their floundering strikers to find their form.
Gil Vicente v Braga
This could prove to be one of the most interesting games of the weekend. Braga are coming off the back of a spirited performance against Real Madrid and before that loss were on a 5-game winning streak. Gil Vicente have had perhaps the most contrasting home and away form this season, looking lethal at home and shambolic when playing away. Despite Braga’s results, defensively they have looked suspect and that’s where this game may be won or lost.
We’ve seen various combinations of players used by Arthur Jorge in his back four but they have looked best when Serdar Saatci and Sikou Niakate are the centre-back partnership, and are even more solid when the back line is protected by Vitor Carvalho alongside Al-Musrati. However, Arthur Jorge seems to be favouring the more creative Zalazar to partner Al-Musrati which may lead to Gil Vicente getting more chances.
When they’ve been on song, Gil Vicente’s attack has looked formidable. Félix Correia is having more and more of an influence on the team as the season has progressed, Maxime Dominguez has proved to be a really astute signing and strikers Depu and Baturina are both fighting for that starting spot. They have the tools to cause Braga’s defence all sorts of problems and given their home form Gil could get something here.
Vizela v Porto
On Sunday Porto travel to Vizela and will be looking at this match as an opportunity for a convincing win – something we are yet to see from the Dragons in the league this season. Plagued by injuries and with an unbalanced squad, Porto and Conceição have really struggled to find consistency this season. However, we are starting to see the players Conceição can trust and who he may now rely on going forward.
André Franco is someone whose future at Porto was is under some doubt, but as the season’s gone on we are seeing him more and more involved, even in the Champions League. He’s been played in a number of positions this season in midfield (and even LB in the cup) and is fast becoming Porto’s most creative player.
Vizela have continued with young Spanish coach Pablo Villar as manager. The 37-year-old has had to focus on defence after a disappointing loss to Portimonense and goalless draw against Farnese and teams with a well-organised defence have done well against Porto this season.
Despite the improvement of players like André Franco and Galeno, Porto have lacked goals which may come as a surprise considering the strength in depth that they have in the forward positions. Their top goal scorers Toni Martínez and Evanilson have just two goals each in the Primeira Liga, and with Taremi badly out of form and new striker Fran Navarro yet to make an impact, someone needs to step up soon to get Porto back to their best.
Boavista v Sporting
Tucked away on Monday night is certainly the best game this round. League leaders Sporting face previous league leaders Boavista. Sporting’s start to the season has been excellent and a bit of a surprise to some people. They are showing a consistency they haven’t shown for a few seasons and their two big signings Viktor Gyökeres and Morten Hjulmand have both made an instant impact. Rúben Amorim has got Sporting playing some of their most effective attacking football seen in a long time. The improvement in Marcus Edwards and the new dimension Gyökeres has brought to their play means they have been breaking down teams more easily and playing quicker football.
Boavista also had an impeccable start to the season but have faltered for a number of reasons in recent weeks. Financial issues have followed them for a few seasons now and their transfer embargo has meant that when injuries or suspensions surface they really feel it. There has also been the issue of unpaid wages for various staff members at the club which has resulted in missed training sessions and a lot of bad feeling at the club that has certainly had an impact on the pitch. Manger Petit is possibly the best suited manager to guide Boavista through this stormy scenario and has already shown he is able to get more out of the sum of Boavista’s parts. Whether he can do it against high-flying Sporting is another question but I certainly wouldn’t rule anything out.
Chaves v Vitória Guimaraes
I’m going to dub this game the Moreno derby. Having failed to take Vitória forward in the Europa Conference League, Moreno left Vitória to the surprise of many. Chaves was not the obvious pick for his next job but so far it seems to be a great fit. Vitória have replaced Moreno with Álvaro Pacheco, a really exciting appointment but not one that will guarantee success. Vitória’s squad is not full of household names, and despite a decent points haul, they have at moments looked like a team that have had three different managers this season. The break will hopefully have given Pacheco time to imprint his vision and the opportunity to build on their decent start to the season.
Chaves needed to change things fast and Moreno has got those who performed so well for them last season back to top form. Héctor Hernández has found some excellent goal-scoring form, João Correia is contributing from right-back and new signing Leonardo Sanca is starting to make a real impact. Moreno may well be looking to inflict some revenge on his former club and this could be a hotly contested match.
Five players to keep an eye on:
Carlos Ponck (Moreirense): Ponck (pictured) was sent off for Moreirense after 40 seconds in their Taça de Portugal loss to Liga 3 side USC Paredes, but has been a solid figure in Moreirense’s back line since joining from Chaves in the summer. Who knows, maybe he’ll provide similar drama in the league.
Artur Cabral (Benfica): Who will start up front for Benfica this weekend? Roger Schmidt has been introducing €20m signing Cabral to the team slowly, and the Brazilian got his first goal in a Benfica shirt in the Taça last weekend, but looked poor in the Champions League against Real Sociedad. The new man up top has a lot to prove if he’s going to win over his manager and Benfica fans.
Artur Serobyan (Casa Pia): A 20-year-old Armenian winger signed by Casa Pia from the Armenian Premier League, Serobyan got his first goal for Os Gansos in the Taça de Portugal. A tricky winger with excellent close control, he could test Benfica’s full-backs in arguably their weakest area.
Jhonder Cádiz (Famalicão): The Venezuelan striker is no stranger to casual observers of the Primeira Liga having played in Portugal as far back as 2016, and he seems to have found a home of sorts with Famalicão and is playing some of the best football of his career. Three league goals this season is a solid return and he’ll fancy his chances of adding to that with a game against Estrela this weekend.
Evanilson (Porto): How badly do Porto need one of their strikers to step up in form? Mehdi Taremi hasn’t got anywhere close to the level we’ve expected of him over the last few seasons, and Evanilson has had his own injury worries, but 5 goals in his last 3 appearances in all competitions including a fine Champions League hat-trick in midweek bodes well for the young Brazilian getting back to his best.
by Barney Carter-Phillips (@LongBallFutebol)