League Focus: Portugal on the rise

THE PORTUGUESE Primeira Liga could be one of the most interested title chases in Europe this season. It’s no surprise that the contenders are Porto, Sporting and Benfica, but there’s been something of a shift in the balance of power in Portugal and the club we always associate with the Iberian nation, Benfica, is struggling to keep pace with the other members of the “big three”.

Porto ended 2021 with a 3-1 victory against the Eagles of Lisbon and thus remained unbeaten in league games for the calendar year, a remarkable landmark even in such an imbalanced league. For Benfica, who replaced their manager, Jorge Jesus at the end of December, it was another blow to their sagging confidence. Prior to meeting Porto, Benfica had been beaten twice in the league, both at home and their most recent setback was at the hands of Sporting, their Lisbon rivals. But they had also qualified for the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, no mean feat given they had Bayern Munich and Barcelona in their group and they face Ajax in February. 

There were stories that Jesus had “lost” the dressing room and that he was eyeing a return to Brazilian club Flamengo. The combination of player unrest, which came to a peak with an altercation involving club vice-skipper Pizzi and the coach, a defeat against Sporting and the cup defeat at Porto probably combined to force the Benfica management to act. 

As Jesus recently said, Benfica have to be challenging for honours, so with the league drifting away and a cup exit, two possible prizes already look beyond them. Such a situation was always going to be unpalatable for the people upstairs but even then, the parting of the ways was an emotional event, with club president Rui Costa and Jesus embracing. “I never wanted to be the problem at Benfica,” said Jesus. “I wanted to be part of the solution”.

Benfica’s solution was to appoint Nélson Veríssimo and the Porto clash was his first game in charge. Unfortunately, the 3-1 defeat was worse than it looked as Benfica were poor and are now seven points behind Porto and Sporting. 

Primeira Liga, top four

PWDLFAPtsg.d.
1Porto16142041944+32
2Sporting16142030744+23
3Benfica161213471537+32
4Braga16943301631+15

League Table as at January 1, 2022

Sporting surprised many pundits by winning the league in 2020-21, but they’re back at the top this year and the second half of the campaign is likely to be a two-way battle between the Lions and Porto for the title. Sporting also fought their way through to the last 16 of the Champions League and will meet Manchester City. This was an achievement given they lost their first two games in the group against Ajax and Borussia Dortmund. There’s a warning for Benfica as Ajax emphatically completed the double over Sporting, 5-1 and 4-2.

Sporting and Porto were recently penalised by UEFA for “non-compliance” with Financial Fair Play rules. Sporting were fined € 250,000 and Porto € 300,000. Importantly, there are two Portuguese clubs in the Champions League last 16 for only the second time in the past decade.

Porto never made the cut in the Champions League having finished third in a tough group that included Liverpool, Atlético Madrid and AC Milan. They have the consolation of Europa League football and face Lazio in the next round. Portugal have a fourth club in the knockout stages in the form of Braga, who have been drawn against Sheriff Tiraspol. 

Braga won the Taça de Portugal in 2020-21, beating Benfica in the final, and are currently in fourth place, but they are too far behind to make a title challenge. They have, however, established themselves as Portugal’s fourth club, consistently present in the upper echelons.

Portugal remains one of Europe’s best producers of talent and the top clubs have become experts at player trading, notably in bringing players from Brazil to Europe. Reigning champions Sporting, for example, are renowned as a club that develops its own players – around half dozen of their regular line-up has come through its youth set-up at some stage of their careers. Cristiano Ronaldo, of course, is a past product of Sporting’s system. Portugal, generally, is not only committed to nurturing young players, it is also good at producing top coaches.

The Premier League, in particular, has a penchant for Portuguese players. There are around 20 Portuguese among Premier squads, although nine players are employed by Wolverhampton Wanderers. The market attraction of Portugal’s best players was evidenced in Euro 2020 when only six of the 26-man squad were playing domestic football.  

Currently attracting envious glances is Sporting’s Pedro Gonçalves, who netted 23 goals in the Primeira last season from midfield. He was voted the young player of the year in both 2019-20 and 2020-21.

There is a growing feeling that the Primeira Liga is now stronger than France’s Ligue 1, which has been ranked among the top five for a few years now. Although UEFA’s coefficients would suggest France is marginally ahead of Portugal, the fact that Ligue 1 is invariably a one-horse race does indicate a lack of strength in depth. The UEFA data gives France’s top four clubs (PSG, Lille, Lyon, Marseille) and average of 60,000 points, while Portugal’s big four have an average of 56,250. Over the past five years, whenever Portuguese and French clubs have met, the Primeira Liga comes out on top with a 75% win rate.

It is not easy to envisage Portugal becoming a more democratic football landscape given the massive financial gulf between its top clubs and the rest of the Primeira Liga. Benfica, Porto and Sporting all draw big crowds, with Benfica enjoying more than 50,000 per game, but at least 12 of the 18 top flight clubs survive on 10,000 and lower. However, it is far more realistic to anticipate the big three becoming more competitive on the international stage. It might not mean that their will be a fifth Champions League title to celebrate, but for Benfica, Porto and Sporting to look the continent’s elite in the eye would be something in the modern age of football.

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