Primeira Liga Jornada 31 preview: top four face off in decisive double header

Spicy weekend in store: Porto v Sporting & Benfica v Braga

For many people at the beginning of the season, Jornada 31 stood out as a potential season highlight with not one but two clássicos as Benfica were scheduled to play against Braga, and Porto against Sporting. Coupled with the fact that there would be only three matches remaining in the season, it had the potential to be a title and season-defining moment in the whole season.

The way things have panned out, the drama we hoped might have been there hasn’t really materialised with Sporting well ahead in the title race, but we could still see the Lions crowned champions if they win their game against Porto, and Benfica were to lose against Braga.

Whether or not this weekend does turn out to be a decisive one, the opportunity to watch Portugal’s biggest clubs against each other doesn’t come around too often, so the chance to watch two heavyweight matchups in one weekend is not to be missed. 

Porto v Sporting

Naturally the most mouthwatering of the two games involves the league leaders Sporting who travel to the Estádio do Dragão to face FC Porto. Sporting have met every challenge posed to them over recent weeks; beating Benfica in Jornada 28 to put some clear daylight between them and their closest challengers, following that up by winning two games in a single weekend in the Minho to go 7 points clear at the top of the table, and consolidating their table-topping position by comfortably beating one of the league’s toughest teams in Vitória. They now face another tough challenge by facing Sergio Conceição’s Porto away from home, knowing a win could hand them the title, or at the very least put them one win away from getting their hands on the trophy.

That said, it’s worth noting that Sporting don’t need to win this game, their 7-point cushion gives them the luxury of dropping points without it irrevocably damaging their bid for the title. Nevertheless, don’t expect Sporting to enter this game with any other intention than to clock up another win, the likes of which they’ve made a habit of this season, winning 16 of their last 17 matches in the Liga. For Sporting a dream season is only reaching its climax, with the team peaking at just the right time of the season, playing the best football they have in 2023/24, with the majority of their talented squad fit and in great form, and looking far more likely to storm to a league title, rather than limping over the line.

From Porto’s perspective, it’s vitally important that they don’t allow this season to peter out into a disappointing Primeira Liga finish. Despite not winning the title they set out to win there is still an important Europa League spot to fight for, not to mention a question of pride. Sitting on equal points with Braga in third place, and with Vitória breathing down both their necks, a potential 5th-place finish could occur should they not finish the season strongly.

Another factor regarding Sunday’s match is that it is a dress rehearsal for the Taça de Portugal final to be played in one month’s time. A win against their cup final opponents Sporting this weekend would be the perfect way for Porto to gain some positive momentum ahead of a crucial final three league games and also a psychological advantage for the traditional showpiece end-of-season occasion at the Jamor National Stadium. Make no mistake, despite disappointing patches of form this season Porto have a squad containing many talented players, and whilst the return of Mehdi Taremi to the side has so far been underwhelming, he’s still one of the best strikers in recent Primeira Liga history, and if he can find a final wave of motivation he could leave the club with more fanfare than he’s currently receiving from Porto fans.

Benfica v Braga

Preceding that game on Saturday is Benfica versus Braga. Benfica are still mathematically in the title race but bar some dramatic results will finish second in the league this season, while Braga are level on points with Porto in third place and hoping to finish in a Europa League position.

Benfica were booed off the field with some of their fans even throwing drinks and other objects at the players after their 3-1 away win (yes win) against Farense on Monday. It’s hard to know how the players will react to not just that isolated event, but the fact that their season is now essentially over with no league position to fight for, and no other silverware remaining to be won. It also remains to be seen how Roger Schmidt will line up his team given the circumstances, and whether he’ll be tempted to rotate younger and fringe players into the starting XI. We’ve already seen more minutes given to new signing Álvaro Carreras, youngster Tiago Gouveia, and Argentine forward Benjamín Rollheiser. Many Benfica fans are clamouring to see more of Marcos Leonardo, but Schmidt has stuck with Arthur Cabral up front and the forward has started repaying that faith with good performances.

Braga find themselves in a very similar position to Porto, not just in that they’re tied for 3rd place in the league on equal points, but that they’re also in danger of letting their season slide despite still having something to play for. In Braga’s case Europa League football would certainly be a big achievement, and on the back of a Taça da Liga trophy already secured, would be a satisfactory end to the season. But the departure of Artur Jorge with 6 league games to go, and no immediate replacement lined up, was a puzzling decision. The immediate results left a lot to be desired, but recent wins have kept them in the hunt for third place, although not exactly instilling a level of confidence that they can overcome a team of the size and quality of Benfica in an important game. Ricardo Horta returning to the squad will certainly help, and the talents of Simon Banza, Roger, Rodrigo Zalazar, and others will be a further boost, but Braga still have defensive issues which have never been ironed out this season, and it feels more likely that they’ll be left behind by Porto in the fight for the remaining Europa League place.

Vitória v Boavista

Of course, as always, there’s more football to be played than just the top four clubs, and Vitória will be hoping that either of both of Braga and Porto drop points this weekend, which would give them an opportunity to get back into the Europa League hunt should they beat this weekend’s opposition Boavista. It was only a few weeks ago that we were talking about Vitória potentially qualifying for the Europa league, but a disappointing draw with Farense and a loss against Sporting now see them five points adrift from that target. Nonetheless they’ve guaranteed themselves Europa Conference league football and a top-5 finish this season which is a great achievement for Alvaro Pacheco’s side.

Last-chance saloon for Vizela and Chaves

At the other end of the table, it seems that both Vizela and Chaves have been cut adrift in the relegation battle, sitting 8 and 6 points off automatic safety respectively, although the lifeline of the relegation playoff spot is still mathematically within their reach. The only question remains will teams above them drop enough points, and they gain enough themselves to change their fate. All the signs currently point to that not being the case. Chaves grabbed a point last week in extremely controversial circumstances against Estoril, whereas Vizela fell to another defeat. Neither team has shown enough potential on the pitch to suggest anything other than relegation looms. That being said, both teams face surmountable opposition with Vizela at home against Rio Ave, and Chaves away to Casa Pia. They are must-win games for both sides to complete the most remarkable of great escapes.

Hipster’s choice

Lastly, as always we leave you with the connoisseur’s choice for a game to watch this weekend, and on Friday night Gil Vicente are at home to Arouca. Much has been said about Arouca already this season and the success they’ve had under Daniel Sousa with the Spaniards Rafa Mujica, Cristo González and Jason Remeseiro forming a formidable attacking trio. Gil Vicente recently appointed a new manager in Tozé Marreco who joined from Tondela in the second division and a poor run of recent form was inverted last weekend as he guided Gil to a 1-0 win away against 7th-placed Moreirense. Gil will want to follow that up with another impressive win in his first game in front of the home fans at the Estádio Cidade de Barcelos.


Three players to keep an eye on this weekend:

Victor Gyökeres (Sporting): The most spoken about player in the Primeira Liga this season, and the most obvious choice every week for one player in the league to keep an eye on, chosen this week with the possibility that this could be the week his goals fire Sporting to a league title. And what a stage to do it against one of Sporting’s fiercest rivals FC Porto. No matter whether Sporting win the league this weekend or not, he’s sure to be a key figure in this game.

Mehdi Taremi (Porto): The Iranian striker has been a talisman for Porto over recent years, one of the best Primeira Liga strikers in the last five years, a prolific scorer of important goals. It’s a shame therefore to see his reputation sour as he is set to depart to Inter Milan on a free transfer at the end of the season. Discarded by Sérgio Conceição for the majority of the season, he’s recently been brought back into the fold. It would be a pleasure to see him make one final impact at the end of his final season at the club, and leave with his head held high.

Rodrigo Zalazar (Braga): The Uruguayan playmaker was considered an exciting signing for Braga when he joined in the summer, but it’s been hard for Zalazar to make quite the impact he would’ve wanted this season. Despite moments of excellence, he has struggled to nail down a spot in the starting XI where Braga have an abundance of quality options. Last weekend, with Braga drawing 0-0 with Vizela, he was brought on at half time and scored two goals to give them a big win. Should he be rewarded with a start, it will be interesting to see if he can have another big impact against Benfica.

by Albert Carter-Phillips (@LongBallFutebol