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.

Europe’s fairy-tale in 2022? Union Saint-Gilloise

IN 2020-21, three of the five big European leagues saw a changing of the guard, although it is unlikely to represent a seismic shift in the balance of power. In Italy, Juventus’ long reign was brought to an end by Inter Milan, Lille knocked Paris Saint-Germain off their perch in France and in Spain, Atlético Madrid were champions for the first time since 2014. 

As Manchester City opened up a six-point advantage in the Premier League, poundits were starting to predict a prolonged period of sky blue prominence, with City overtaking Manchester United’s 20 title wins. This is, of course, a possibility, but the chances are, a new contender or two will emerge in the coming years to change the competitive landscape.

Nevertheless, Manchester City are looking formidable again this season and after chasing Chelsea earlier in the campaign, they have raced ahead and it would be a fool who would bet against Pep Guardiola’s team lifting yet another title. At best, it could be a three-horse race in the Premier, involving City, Liverpool and Chelsea, although three may become two in the near future. City are not the only team in Europe who probably won’t have to return their championship trophy in the summer.

No change there, then

Red Bull Salzburg are, predictably, 14 points clear in Austria and look far too strong for the rest of their Bundesliga rivals. They also have a Champions League last 16 tie with Bayern Munich to look forward to. Rangers are six points in front of Celtic in Scotland and have transitioned well after losing their coach, Steven Gerrard, to Aston Villa. But after going undefeated in 2020-21, they were beaten at Tannadice, home of Dundee United, 1-0. It’s there only league defeat so far.

In Italy, Inter have surprised everyone by going top after the departure of coach Antonio Conte, Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakim. Inter signed the veteran Eden Džeko to replace Lukaku, and it seems to have worked, but Inter actually look a more fluid side and are playing very good football. Inter will play Liverpool in the last 16 of the Champions League, which could be much more difficult than fending off the Serie A challenge of AC Milan (4 points behing) and Napoli (seven).

Bayern Munich are on course for yet another Bundesliga title and have nine points more than second-placed Borussia Dortmund. Robert Lewandowski, so cruelly denied the Balon d’Or, has netted 30 goals in all competitions. Other champions from 2020-21 who look destined to retain their championship include Slavia Prague (Czech Republic), Slovan Bratislava (Slovakia), Olympiacos (Greece), Ferencváros (Hungary) and Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia). 

Surprise packages

The most eye-catching league leader in Europe has to be Union Saint-Gilloise in Belgium. The Brussels-based team, who only a few years ago were in the third tier of Belgian football, are seven points clear of holders Brugge. It’s often forgotten that USG have been champions 11 times, but the last occasion was in 1935. The club has been owned by Tony Bloom, the chairman of Brighton & Hove Albion, since 2018.

Legia Warsaw, Polish champions in 2020-21, have been having a torrid time this season and are languishing in the bottom half of the top flight, which is more of a shock than Lech Poznań being top of the league. In Switzerland, FC Zurich are top of the table, ahead of Basel and Young Boys Bern. Zurich, who were last champions in 2009, have not been contenders for some time and finished eighth in 2020-21. There could be an unfamiliar face at the top of the Turksih league come the end of the campaign. Trabzonsopor are 10 points ahead of second-placed Konyaspor and could win their first championship since 1984.

Tight competition

Portugal is experiencing a keenly fought title race and the big three, Benfica, Porto and Sporting, are in a commanding position. Porto and last season’s champions, Sporting are both on 41 points and are unbeaten, while Benfica have four less. All three clubs are still involved in European competition, with Sporting facing Manchester City and Benfica playing Ajax in the Champions League last 16. Porto have been paired with Lazio in the Europa League play-off. As ever, the Serbian title will be decided between Partizan and Red Star Belgrade. The former have five points more than the champions and are unbeaten in their first 21 games. Similarly, it is a Shakhtar Donetsk – Dynamo Kyiv battle in Ukraine, with the former just ahead of champions Kyiv. Both teams have excellent away records.

Back on top

Real Madrid have an eight point cushion at the head of La Liga and have lost just once. Sevilla, Real Betis and Rayo Vallecano (!) are chasing Real, while champions Atlético Madrid are in fifth position but have been blowing hot and cold. Barcelona are way off the pace, largely due to their financial problems and the physical and psychological loss of Lionel Messi. His new club, Paris Saint-Germain, have a 13-point margin over second-placed Nice  and look certain to recapture the title they lost to Lille in 2020-21. Messi, who has taken time to adjust to Ligue 1 football, has scored just one league goal for PSG. 

Ajax have got serious competition this season in the Eredivisie and are in second place, one point behind PSV Eindhoven, who were last champions in 2018. Interestingly, PSV were beaten 4-0 at home by Feyenoord and 5-0 when they travelled to Ajax. With the Amsterdamers distracted by the Champions League, though, PSV have an opportunity to consolidate their leadership in the next few months.

European football has become quite predictable over the past decade, although the big clubs have always been successful over the long-term. While it is fair and responable that the best should emerge as winners, the joy of the unexpected is what makes football so interesting. We need more stories like Leicester City (2016) and Lille (2021) – could we find one or two from this season? If you’re a football romantic, cheer on little USG in Brussels!