There is no getting away from it: Portugal’s Primeira Liga has seen a brutal downgrading of its talent pool in recent seasons – and the trend continues apace. As the financial disparity between Portuguese football and the rest of Europe’s top leagues grows ever wider, Porto, Benfica and Sporting are all fighting a losing battle to hold on to their best players and now seem incapable of attracting exciting young prospects like before, let alone players with an established pedigree, give or take the odd veteran.
It is a different world to the one when the Portuguese top flight boasted superstars such as Ángel Di María, David Luiz, Radamel Falcao and Hulk, not to mention key Seleção players such as Fábio Coentrão, João Moutinho or João Mário.
A collective drop-off in quality, however, does not necessarily equate to a drop-off in excitement and competitiveness – perhaps precisely the opposite. Braga, for example, look well positioned to break the status quo of Portuguese football and make a sustained push for the title. PortuGOAL looks at the major coming and goings at Portugal’s top clubs ahead of this weekend’s 2018/19 Liga NOS kick-off.
Porto, 2017/18 champions
Two of Porto’s major losses came early as Ricardo Pereira and Diogo Dalot both left the Estádio do Dragão in exchange for sizeable transfer fees paid by Leicester City and Manchester United respectively. Although both right-backs, Porto should not be badly affected by the losses in the short term judging by the stirring performance of Maxi Pereira in the Super Cup victory over Aves on Saturday night. Spanish centre-back Marcano, the most successful of Julen Lopetegui’s numerous Spanish recruits, also said goodbye, although this departure opens the door for promising youngster Diogo Leite.
Of more concern are the ongoing rumours suggesting key striker Moussa Marega and captain Héctor Herrera are being targeted. Marega, scorer of 23 goals and a key part of Sérgio Conceição’s high-tempo, high-powered, physically imposing offensive game plan would be particularly badly missed should he depart. A sentence nobody would have written 12 months ago…
The main incomers are defenders Militão (São Paulo), João Pedro (Bahia) and Mbemba (Newcastle), with the two Brazilians looking decent investments for the future.
Benfica, 2017/18 runners-up
The Eagles appeared to have got through the summer without any major losses, Raúl Jiménez’s switch to Wolves the only big-name exit, until news broke at the weekend that star striker Jonas was leaving for the Middle East. The Brazilian has been outstanding ever since signing for Benfica as a free agent in 2014, scoring a staggering 122 goals in 155 matches to become a club icon.
Early summer business saw Benfica bring in Argentine striker Facundo Ferreyra from Shakhtar Donetsk and combative Chilean No.9 Nicolas Castillo. Pre-season friendlies suggest they are two strong players, although whether they will offset the loss of Jonas remains to be seen.
Two other Benfica players who have stood out in pre-season are Alfa Semedo and João Félix, and it will be interesting to see if Rui Vitória maintains his excellent record when it comes to integrating academy players into the first team.
The Lions’ traumatic end of season, ongoing confusion surrounding the upcoming presidential elections (with Bruno de Carvalho trying to re-enter the equation) and a set of dispiriting pre-season displays does not augur well for Sporting.
Rui Patrício, William Carvalho, Gelson Martins, Piccini and Daniel Podence all left. That’s a lot of talent to replace given that all five would have played key roles this season had they remained at Alvalade.
Replacements include Italian goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano, winger Nani, returning for his third spell at the club, and former Vitória Guimarães attacking midfielder Raphinha, who scored 18 goals last season. Given the troublesome background, not much is expected of Sporting this season.
Braga president António Salvador insists he will one day lead his club to the Portuguese championship and given the strides the Arsenalistas have made since he took over, it is a legitimate ambition. With none of the Big Three looking especially strong going into the new season, is this the opportunity Braga have been waiting for?
Braga have not made any major moves this summer, but given their strong showing in 2017/18, a stable platform on which to build could be just the ticket for Abel Ferreira to build on a highly promising first full season as head coach. Free-scoring ex Rio Ave midfielder João Novais will give Braga more firepower, while in Fernando Trincão and Bruno Xadas, the northerners have two of Portuguese football’s most exciting prospects.
A huge squad turnaround does not usually bring immediate results, but pre-season performances have been extremely promising at the Dom Afonso Henriques.
With the likes of André André (ex Porto), João Carlos Teixeira (ex Braga) and Tyler Boyd (ex Tondela) coming in, backed by arguably Portugal’s most fervent supporters and led by a coach, Luís Castro, who has impressed wherever he’s been, don’t discount a surprise tilt at the top spots for Vitória.
by Tom Kundert