Jornada 18 preview: all to play for at the equinox of Portugal’s Primeira Liga

And just like that, we’re halfway through the Primeira Liga season. With 17 games played, the Primeira Liga table tells the story of a Lisbon title race, underperforming giants, plucky underdogs, and one or two teams having seasons to forget.

However, it’s vital to remember that there is still an awful lot of football still to be played, and the title race and relegation battle could both face huge twists and turns in the second half of the season. PortuGOAL previews first round of matches of the “segunda volta”. 

Kicking off earlier than normal due to Taça da Liga games next week, Jornada 18 is a mirror image of the first week of the season, and what a long time ago that feels now.

Benfica seek revenge over Boavista

An unlikely win for Boavista against Benfica (helped by a red card for the eagles) put Boavista on track for a whirlwind start to the season where it looked like they could defy the odds and be the team to upset the top of the table. Alas, they ran out of steam and a disastrous run has unfolded over the last dozen games, winning just 7 points out of a possible 36 in their last 12 league games. They have however picked up to good results in their last two games, drawing to Porto and emphatically beating Vizela 4-1, and with a new manager in place and issues around salary payments allegedly sorted (for now), they seem to have had a timely boost ahead of a very tough game against league giants Benfica.

Benfica themselves have improved in recent weeks, following up a tricky pre-Christmas period with some solid wins, and bringing in two important new signings to the squad in the form of Brazilian striker Marcos Leonardo, and Spanish left-back Álvaro Carreras (the third left-back signed since the departure of Alejandro Grimaldo in the summer). Despite Rio Ave causing Benfica some real problems at the Estádio da Luz in their last game, it’s hard to predict anything other than a Benfica win as things stand, but we would have said exactly the same thing ahead of Jornada 1, and Boavista will be hoping to cause exactly the same upset 17 games later, albeit a highly unlikely one.

Can Braga stop the rot?

Another team hoping to avenge an opening day upset is Braga, who fell to a surprise 2-1 loss against Famalicão in Jornada 1. Unlike Benfica, however, Braga are coming into a sticky patch of form, rather than getting out of one. For a team that are constantly aiming to outdo their perennial 4th-place identity, they’ve underperformed in big games so far this season with only 1 point out of a possible 9 in league games against the big 3, falling to a very lacklustre 2-0 defeat against Porto last weekend, which was preceded by a disappointing 1-1 draw against Vitória in the Minho derby the previous week.

A team struggling defensively, and missing talismanic striker Simon Banza to AFCON (his stand-in replacement Abel Ruiz managed just 15 touches in 90 minutes against Porto, registering zero shots in the whole game) badly need a win against Famalicão who, on paper, should be easier opposition than the last two teams they’ve faced.

Moreirense to test Porto’s revival

Moreirense proved stern opposition against Porto in Jornada 1, and could easily have earned a point or three in a game where Porto flattered to deceive. Moreirense’s season has proved a fruitful one since then though, and Rui Borges’ team currently sit in 6th place, 7 points clear of their closest challenger, and with more experience in the top flight they’ll be optimistic of getting more out of this encounter with Porto than their last one.

Porto have laboured through this season at times, struggling to dazzle in seemingly easy games, but with Mehdi Taremi away at the Asian Cup Sérgio Conceição has been forced into a new system and perhaps stumbled on a winning formula with a 4-2-3-1 formation. The last two games have produced two of Porto’s most enjoyable performances this season, against Braga in the league, and Estoril in the cup, with Evanilson showing he has what it takes to be a top striker for Porto.

Sporting aim to extend winning run

Sporting kick off the action on Thursday night and have on paper the easiest game of the big three, heading to Vizela whose season has gone from bad to worse. New leadership at Vizela has failed to improve on promising signs under previous coaches Álvaro Pacheco and Tulipa. Instead they’ve regressed under a series of youthful Spanish managers and sit second from bottom in the table.

Sporting on the other hand are top of the table with 14 wins from 17, averaging 2.4 goals per game, and looking as strong as we’ve seen them in recent weeks. Dangerman Marcus Edwards is back after missing two games with flu, and there appears to be very little stopping Sporting from getting this second half of the season off to a flying start to continue their quest for the title.

Estoril v Arouca

There’s a selection of interesting games from the rest of the league, but perhaps the pick of the bunch is Estoril vs. Arouca. The two teams are in very similar situations having had extremely poor starts to the season, before becoming rejuvenated under new management. Under the previous coach Daniel Ramos Arouca never recovered from the disappointment of failing to qualify for the Europa Conference League, but Daniel Sousa is getting much more out of a talented group of players.

Similarly Vasco Seabra took over Estoril in dire straits, but has quickly got a team bursting with talent performing at a level they deserve. Both teams will be looking at the January transfer window, and the second half of the season, as opportunities to really kick on, and will have aspirations of getting as close to the European places as possible.

 

Five players to keep an eye on this weekend

Guga (Rio Ave): It’s been a tough season for Rio Ave. With a transfer ban meaning no new signings joined in the summer, it’s been hard for the team to build momentum and motivation, but they have a new lease of life in January with the lifting of that ban, and the return of Yakubu Aziz (although yet to make an appearance). They put in their best performance of the season against Benfica last weekend, and their captain Guga was arguably the best player on the field.

Abel Ruiz (Braga): You sense it’s a make-or-break month for Ruiz, who has been given the starting spot up front for Braga with Simon Banza away at AFCON. So far he’s failed to make the required impact. He’ll get a third opportunity against Famalicão on Thursday, and really needs to start showing he can play at this level if he’s to have a future at the club.

Viktor Gyökeres (Sporting): Rather than keeping an eye on him, you can’t take your eyes off him at the moment! But the Swedish striker who’s made such an impact on the league this season hasn’t scored in Sporting’s last two games, despite the team scoring a combined 8 goals in that time. He’s been playing more off the left-hand side recently and acting as a provider more than a finisher, but against one of the league’s weakest teams he will want to get back on track in front of goal.

Jason (Arouca): There were multiple names you could pick from the game between Estoril and Arouca from either side worth keeping an eye on in, but Spanish winger Jason was the key man for Arouca in their recent game against Vitória, and is one of the more underrated players in the Arouca side at the moment.

Nuno Santos (Vitória): There was excitement about the return of Nuno Santos to Portugal after a spell in MLS, and whilst it took him a while to get up to speed he is now shining in a Vitória side having a great season despite early unrest. Nuno Santos was the MOTM in Vitória’s win over Arouca last weekend, and provided a moment of magic with a wonderful assist for the second goal, after also assisting for the first, as well as putting in an all-round great performance as a creator.

by Albert Carter-Phillips (@LongBallFutebol)