Return of the kings: Europe’s revivalist clubs

GLASGOW Rangers, Sporting Lisbon, AC Milan and Atlético Madrid are all top of their respective leagues in 2021, challenging the clubs that have swept aside their rivals for the best part of a decade.

These are all big football institutions with rich histories, but they have found themselves in the shadows of clubs that have enjoyed consistent success year-in, year-out. In Scotland, Portugal, Spain and Italy, one or two clubs have dominated, but in 2020-21, we may see a change. 

Scotland: Celtic’s run coming to an end

In Scotland, Rangers are on the verge of ending the reign of Celtic, who have won the title for nine consecutive years and the Scottish treble for the past four. The margin between Celtic and their rivals has averaged 17 points during this timeframe, but from 30 points in 2017, the gap has been coming down. 

Rangers, under Steven Gerrard, have been a revelation in 2020-21 and are unbeaten in their 24 league games and have generated a goal difference of 53. Celtic are 21 points behind them and have lost twice to their old rivals already. Rangers’ astonishing win rate has also underlined the danger of too many drawn games.

Rangers are still in the Europa League and will face Antwerp in February. Celtic, meanwhile, went out of the Champions League early on and then finished bottom of their Europa League group.

    P W D L F A Pts
1 Rangers 24 21 3 0 60 7 66
2 Celtic 21 13 6 2 46 16 45
3 Hibernian 24 11 7 6 33 24 40

Portugal: Tight at the top

Sporting are top at the moment, unbeaten in 14 games and four points clear of Porto and Benfica. A big test will come on January 31 when Sporting host their Lisbon neighbours Benfica. This will be one the most heated local derbies of recent years and will provide some pointers to the strength of Sporting’s title bid. They haven’t won the Primeira Liga since 2002 but they could be facing a stoppage in Portugal after Benfica revealed they have 17 cases of covid-19. 

There’s a certain vibrancy about Sporting this season. For a start, they are fielding one of the youngest line-ups in the league (squad average age 25.9) and there’s a big emphasis on youth within their set-up. Transfer activity has proved to be successful, with the arrival of Pedro Gonçalves (also known as Pote) filling the gap left by the departure of Bruno Fernandes to Manchester United last season. Twenty-two year-old Gonçalves was signed from Famalicão for € 6.5 million and has scored 12 goals this season. He is already being tipped to become Portugal’s next big star.

There’s a long way to go, and Sporting have a reputation for blowing-up in the new year, but so far, it’s going well for Lisbon’s other club.

    P W D L F A Pts
1 Sporting 14 11 3 0 31 9 36
2 Porto 14 10 2 2 36 17 32
3 Benfica 14 10 2 2 29 14 32

Italy: Milan revival driven by Zlatan

As Juventus, by their own standards, continue to stutter, AC Milan have been in good form for months and lead Serie A. It is 11 years since Milan last won the scudetto, but they have an exciting team that has only just lost its unbeaten start to the season, going down 3-1 at home to the reigning champions.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic may be 39 years old, but he’s been in sparkling form (when he’s fit) and is the talisman for a side that is the youngest in Serie A by at least a year (24.6 years). They have added more experience in the form of Mario Mandzukic, but surely only to help bring their younger players along.

Italian football has been waiting for Milan to come good again after some very mediocre years that have been characterised by poor results on and off the pitch. The club may be making financial losses, but if their current team continues to improve, Milan could be back among Europe’s elite before too long.

    P W D L F A Pts
1 AC Milan 18 13 4 1 38 18 43
2 Inter Milan 18 12 4 2 45 23 40
3 Napoli 17 11 1 5 40 16 34

Spain: Atléti taking advantage

With Real Madrid and Barcelona below their best, Atlético Madrid are back in the running for the La Liga title they last won in 2014. Diego Simeone has refashioned a new Atléti side and is so buoyed by his team’s performance, that he looks set to sign a new contract that will keep him at the Wanda Metropolitano until 2024. Atléti have been beaten once in La Liga, a home defeat at the hands of Real, and they are in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League.

They have dispensed with the cautious, defensive approach that has defined the Simeone era by playing a game relying on a very high press that forces mistakes. No longer do they defend so deep, a tactic that didn’t make them the most attractive side to watch. 

Atléti are now seeing why they paid so much money for Portuguese wunderkind João Félix, who has scored five league goals already and has been consistent since the start of the campaign. This is partly due to Simeone’s tactical switch which has allowed Félix to be more expressive just behind the forward line. Furthermore, Félix has also benefitted from the arrival of veteran firebrand Luis Suárez.

    P W D L F A Pts
1 Atlético 16 13 2 1 31 6 41
2 Real Madrid 18 11 4 3 30 15 37
3 Barcelona 18 10 4 4 37 17 34

Business as usual… in some places

The Premier League has been an open competition this season and there’s been a number of leaders already:, including Everton, Tottenham, Liverpool, Leicester City, Manchester United and Manchester City. However, after two years where Liverpool and Manchester City have dominated, there is every indication that the 2020-21 season will go the distance. 

In Germany, the Netherlands, France, Russia, Austria and Switzerland, the usual suspects are leading the way: Bayern Munich, Ajax, Paris Saint-Germain, Zenit St. Petersburg, Red Bull Salzburg and Young Boys Berne.

This all adds up to a far more interesting campaign than in previous seasons. We may actually see some different league champions across the major leagues. Some will blame the pandemic or fixture congestion, but there’s also something very cyclical about football. However great a team is, a glorious run comes to an end at some point. For clubs like Juve, Barca, Celtic and Porto, it may not be what they want to hear, but it might just be time to allow someone else on the winners’ podium.

Photo: PA

Can Benfica ever join the elite?

BENFICA are to Portugal what Real Madrid and Juventus are to Spain and Italy. In other words, wherever you go in the country, fans of the club can be found, from Algarve villages to the biggest towns and cities.

And across Europe, wherever there are Portuguese people, the chances are they will be Benfica fans, hence the club has developed into a more global institution than some of its rivals. For example, when Benfica won the Primeira Liga title in 2018, London was awash with fans of As Águias celebrating their latest triumph.

Outside the top dozen clubs, Benfica rank among the best of a second tier, a great name from the early years of pan-European club competition, one that excited fans right across the continent and gave the world some magnificent players, such as the brilliant Eusébio.

Benfica still manage to hold their own in Europe and are regular UEFA Champions league participants (15 times since 1992-93) and have reached two Europa League finals in the past eight years. Domestically, Benfica, Porto and, to a lesser extent, Sporting, dominate Portuguese football. In fact, of the 85 league titles, 37 have been won by Benfica, 28 by Porto and 18 have gone to Sporting. Only twice, in 1946 (Belenenses) and 2001 (Boavista) has the trophy been lifted by any other contender. This lack of strength in depth has undoubtedly hampered Portuguese football, but the country’s top clubs have gained a strong reputation as “talent factories” and have earned considerable sums of money from player trading. Indeed, CIES Football Observatory, in April 2020, revealed that Benfica are the number two club in the world for providing a “stepping stone” for players. Only Ajax have a better record in bringing top talent through. Sporting (5th) and Porto (8th) have also excelled at player development.

In some ways, Portuguese clubs have carved a niche for themselves in providing a market that can be tapped into by the clubs from the “big five” leagues, Spain, England, Germany, Italy and France. With Benfica and Porto, in particular, able to benefit from regular Champions League football, these clubs fill a gap between the very top clubs and the regular Europa League participants. Benfica may not be Real Madrid, but the combination of the club’s heritage, its role as a player nursery and UEFA money places them in a decent position in European football’s hierarchy.

If a European Super League ever becomes reality, there will be some people outside of Lisbon that will call for Benfica to be included. Their two European Cups, in 1961 and 1962, may have been a long time ago, but they are still a huge football institution. The dilemma for Benfica and a number of clubs who have been pushed to the  sidelines by contemporary corporate football, is how to join that elite band or find other ways to grow. Benfica are a well-known global name, thanks to the Portuguese diaspora, the legend of Eusébio and the club’s European heritage, which is substantial. Can Benfica make the leap from top of the second tier of the European game? And if so, what is it going to take? Is Portugal too small a market to allow that to happen without a big foreign investor transforming the club into a southern European Paris Saint-Germain? Whatever the future brings, Benfica will remain one of the grand names of world football.

To see the full State of Play report, click State of Play Benfica


Portuguese football: For Três Grandes, business as usual

PORTO won the first big Portuguese Primeira Liga clash of the season when they recently beat Benfica in Lisbon, a big psychological boost for the “second club” and, perhaps, a signal that the title race this season may be even tighter than 2018-19. Porto won 2-0 in the Estádio da Luz, their fifth victory at the home of their rivals in 10 visits. Porto have the upper hand in Clássico games, winning 10 of the last 20 versus just four Benfica victories.

Benfica have won five of the last six Primeira Liga titles and last season the margin was just two points. The smart money is on this season’s championship being won by either Benfica or Porto, although Sporting may also have a big say.


Simple math

The big three, Três Grandes, have little fear of losing their top three positions. Quite simply, the mathematics tell you that the chance of any club from outside this trio finishing in the first three is nigh on impossible.

The difference between the big three and the rest of the league is vast. Benfica’s average of almost 54,000 is followed by Porto’s 42,000 and Sporting’s 34,000. These figures dwarf the rest of the league – only two more clubs draw more than 10,000 (Guimarâes and Braga) and at the bottom of the list in 2018-19 was Moreirense, who struggled to get 3,000 per game.

The finances are even more startling, with Benfica and Porto enjoying a playing budget of € 90 million apiece and Sporting € 70 million. The combined total for the Primeira Liga for 2019-20 is € 346 million, with € 250 million attributable to just three clubs. It is doubtful there’s another league in Europe where the differential is quite so great. Regardless, Portugal remains one of the most influential countries in European football – it has one of the top players in Cristiano Ronaldo, it has the top agent in Jorge Mendes, the national team are European and Nations League champions, and of course, there’s José Mourinho.

In addition, the leading clubs are among the best at player trading and developing talent. In Football Benchmark’s study on player trading, Benfica and Porto derived 29% and 34% of their revenues from player trading and Sporting 13%. The model adopted by Portugal’s top clubs is to “buy low, sell high” and the country seems very comfortable in providing a finishing school for top talent. Nuno Correia of NCFoot, a player agency, said Portuguese clubs have to sell and the big European clubs go to Portugal to access technically and tactically proficient players. Effectively, the players signed from Portugal are the sporting equivalent of “plug and play”.

The most often route for importing players is between Brazil and Portugal, according to CIES Football Observatory, with 261 players taking this path. In 2018-19, the first team squads in the Primeira Liga included 137 Brazilians.

Good business

Porto are considered one of the best exponents of the “moneyball” approach to team building. The list of players that have been through Porto over the years is impressive: James Rodrigues, Hulk, Falcao, Martinez, Pepe and Alex Sandro to name but a few. The latest export from Porto to command a high fee is Éder Militão, a young Brazilian who spent a season with the club before being sold for € 50 million to Real Madrid. Porto paid € 7 million for the player, which included some € 3 million in agent fees. This level of profitability typifies Porto’s approach. Since 2010, they have earned in excess of € 400 million in transfer fees on an outlay of little more than € 60 million on a list of players that includes James Rodrigues, Hulk, Falcao, Martinez, Moutinho, Otamendi and Alex Sandro, to name but a few.

Porto generated almost € 90 million in transfer fees in the summer of 2019, spending around € 60 million on new recruits. Some see the number of sales as detrimental to the strength of the squad, notably Militão and the under-rated Óliver Torres, who joined Sevilla for € 12 million. The incoming players are, in the main experienced hires, such as Mateus Uribe and Agustín Marchesin from Mexico’s América, who are 28 and 31 respectively, and Iván Marcano from Roma (32). Japanese forward Shoya Nakajima cost € 12 million from Qatari club Al-Duhail.

There’s no dispute about who has attracted the most attention in the transfer market – Benfica. They sold João Félix, their latest prize asset, to Atlético Madrid for € 120 million. He’s still a teenager and one of a number of promising products that have graduated from the Benfica academy, including Rúben Dias (22), Gedson Fernandes (20), Jota (20), Florentino Luís (20) and Ferro (22).

Benfica spent just over € 40 million of the € 180 million they received in the close season, the biggest fee being the € 20 million paid to Real Madrid for Raúl de Tomás, a 24 year-old forward. Carlos Vinícius was signed from Napoli for € 17 million, but the club has placed a € 100 million release clause on the striker.

Benfica’s city rivals, Sporting, are currently top of the table but haven’t won the title since 2001-02. They won both the Portuguese Cup and League Cup in 2018-19 but were trounced by Benfica 5-0 when they met in the Super Cup at the beginning of August.

Sporting’s academy has been very successful in providing a platform for talent, notably Cristiano Ronaldo and Luís Figo in the past. When Portugal won the European Championship in 2016, eight of their players had started in the Sporting academy.


Benfica, as Portuguese champions, went straight into the group stage of the UEFA Champions League. Benfica’s European record, while not as impressive as the club’s golden age of the early-1960s, is very respectable: two Europa finals, one semi-final; four quarter-finals across the Champions League and Europa in the past decade. This has given Benfica a steady stream of income from UEFA.

Porto have also been regular Champions League participants but this season, they went out of the competition very cheaply, winning away at Krasnodar 1-0 and then losing 3-2 at home. Porto, along with Sporting, will be in the group stage of the Europa.

So, it’s likely to be a three-way battle for the title this season, at best. Last season the margin between top and second was two points and the gap between two and three was 11. Between Sporting in third and Benfica on top, there was a 13-point gap. Interestingly, the margin between third and fourth was just seven points, half as much as the 15 that separated these positions in 2015-16.

Porto’s win in Lisbon showed that Benfica will have to fight hard to retain their title. The games between O Três Grandewill be decisive. The next fixtures don’t come around until January when Sporting host Porto and Benfica. By that time, the title credentials of all three clubs will be much clearer. One thing is certain, it is extremely unlikely that there will be another contender.



Photos: PA