With many European leagues still on their winter break, the focus has largely been on some of the continent’s major countries as they navigate a packed fixture list, and as usual Portuguese involvement was strong again this weekend.

Rafael Leão is becoming an important figure with Lille in France and the Portuguese youngster was on the scoresheet again in their 3-1 win at Caen. Meanwhile, José Gomes secured his first win as Reading manager and Marco Silva got a much-needed three points at Everton, while Miguel Cardoso’s struggles at Celta Vigo continue and there was a Lazio debut for Pedro Neto.

Three in three for Leão

Portuguese youngster Rafael Leão is proving one of the emerging talents in France’s Ligue 1 after scoring in his third straight game to help Lille to a 3-1 win away at Caen on Friday evening. The 19-year-old had previously found the net in recent games against Nimes and Toulouse, and his most recent strike means Leão has four league goals from just six starts.

The former Sporting striker, who arrived at Lille over the summer, was joined in Christophe Gautier’s starting line-up by veteran defender José Fonte. The visitors took the lead after just eight minutes through key man Nicolas Pepe, and Pepe provided the second for Leão on 20 minutes for the Portuguese to coolly round goalkeeper Brice Samba and find the net.

Lille, who were reduced to ten men late on, made it 3-0 in injury time before Caen registered a last-gasp consolation. However, the win means Lille remain in second place and strong contenders to secure a Champions League place, representing a huge improvement from last season’s narrow escape from relegation.

Silva praises players after big win

Everton manager Marco Silva said he was proud of the character shown by his players after a 2-0 win over Bournemouth in the Premier League provided some much-needed relief for the Toffees manager.

The former Sporting boss led his side into the match on Sunday afternoon under pressure following a run of just one win in eight games. A poor start to the game led to very clear sounds of dissatisfaction from the Goodison Park crowd, but second half goals from Kurt Zouma and Dominic Calvert-Lewin gave Silva’s men the three points they badly needed.

“I was pleased with the result but more the character and personality the team showed this afternoon,” Silva said.

“It was a tough match, which we expected, and it is like an obligation for us to win again at home… not just because of the three points but after our last four matches at home. It was something we had to do and we did, by showing strong character and strong personality on the pitch. 

“We didn’t start well, how we expected, we know how and why in this moment, but of course it was important after the first 25 to 30 minutes to start playing our way. We finished the first half better and started the second half well. When we scored for 1-0, it was fair because in that moment we were the best team on the pitch.”

“An important step” - Gomes

Another significant victory came in the English second tier, as former Rio Ave boss José Gomes got his first win in The Championship on Saturday. With ex-Sporting defender Tiago Llori in defence, Gomes’ side beat Nottingham Forest 2-0 at the Madejski Stadium, with Portuguese duo Diogo Gonçalves and João Carvalho emerging as second-half substitutes for visitors Forest.

"Today, the players and the supporters got what they deserved," Gomes said after the game. "They worked very, very hard during the week. These three points are a direct result of the hard work they have been putting in.

"We didn't play as beautifully as I wish for. But the most important thing was the way they fought to get these three points for us. They knew we had to be clinical and they were.

"Now they have tasted the flavour of winning, they have got the taste for scoring goals. And I want to see them want it again in the next match.

"So this win was one very important step in the war we have in front of us. But we have 19 more battles ahead of us and this battle was very important to us."

More frustration for Cardoso in Spain

Miguel Cardoso’s Celta Vigo are now four games without a win in La Liga after losing a 2-1 lead to suffer a 4-2 defeat at struggling Rayo Vallecano. The loss means Celta slip to 17th in the Spanish league, having lost both games since the turn of the year after Monday’s 2-1 home reverse to Athletic Bilbao.

Cardoso lost his first match in charge of Celta in November at Real Sociedad but recovered with back-to-back wins over Huesca and Villarreal. However, the victory over Villarreal in early December is Celta’s last win and the Galician side now sit just two points above the relegation zone.

“It was a crazy first half, with Rayo putting a lot of players in our line. There was a lot of struggle on a field that was in bad shape because of the ice,” Cardoso said in the press conference.

 “We addressed that very well, we adjusted the middle and the team had an incredible reaction after the break. We controlled the match until the third goal, which didn’t reflect what people were seeing on the pitch.”

Lopes comeback trail continues as Pedro Neto makes Lazio debut

Rony Lopes is fully back up and running again after a difficult season with injury. The Portugal international marked his first start in four months with a goal last week in the French League Cup against Rennes, and Lopes followed that up with 90 minutes against Marseille on Sunday evening in Ligue 1.

The match ended 1-1, but it marked Lopes’ first 90 minutes in the French top flight since the reverse fixture earlier in the season which Monaco lost 3-2 to Marseille. The draw leaves Monaco four points adrift of safety in the French league with one game in hand.

Meanwhile, the Coppa Italia took centre stage in Italy this weekend, and the competition afforded the opportunity for Lazio to issue a debut to 18-year-old Portuguese forward Pedro Neto, who came off the bench in their 4-1 win over Novara.

Portugal U20 international Neto joined Lazio in 2017 from Braga alongside defender Bruno Jordão.  While in Portugal, Neto made his first-team debut for Braga at aged 17 and became Braga’s youngest scorer in the Portuguese top flight when he scored against Nacional shortly after.

Losing start for Caixinha; Nuno Morais spot-on as ever

Pedro Caixinha’s Cruz Azul were beaten 1-0 on the opening round of the Liga MX Clausura this weekend. Caixinha’s side were runners-up in the opening championship last year, and it was a frustrating start to the new campaign as Chivas Guadalajara ran out winners at the Estadio Azteca.

Finally, to Cyprus where there was a familiar story in champions APOEL’s 4-0 victory over Anorthosis Famagusta on Saturday. Veteran defender Nuno Morais scored from the penalty spot, notching his 11th goal in all competitions this season and putting the 34-year-old among the leading scorers in the Cypriot top flight.

By Sean Gillen

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“Starting the season how we started it is gratifying.”

Bruno Lage
(Benfica coach after thumping victory over Sporting in the Super Cup)