THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

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The Portuguese league begins this weekend, with Benfica aiming for their fifth championship in a row. Porto, though, look the stronger of the two squads

4 August ~ The Portuguese season kicks off this weekend with the Supertaça (equivalent to the Community Shield) and the first full programme of league games, spread over five days. Predictably, only the Big Three have a realistic chance of winning the league title; Vitória de Guimarães and Sporting Braga, respectively fourth and fifth last season, are perhaps the teams most likely to do a Leicester, but the odds are extremely long.

Champions Benfica meet Vitória, the team they beat in the cup final, in the Supertaça in Aveiro on Saturday, then Braga, Vitória’s neighbours from the northern region of Minho, in the league four days later. These are two tough games for a Benfica side that has had a shaky pre-season, which included shipping five goals against Arsenal and Young Boys.

This is perhaps not so surprising given that last season’s miserly defence (the best in the league, with just 18 goals conceded in 34 games) has been ripped apart. Keeper Ederson has gone to Manchester City, the ageing Júlio César being left to plug the gap; right-back Nélson Semedo has signed for Barcelona, with no clear substitute in place; and captain Luisão’s centre-back cover Victor Lindelof is now at Manchester United.

Benfica are aiming for their fifth straight title, something only one other club has managed: Porto, beginning in 1994-95 (when Bobby Robson was coach). Porto will be keen to keep that record. Unlike their arch enemies from Lisbon, they’ve had a terrific pre-season. They’re rather hamstrung in the transfer market because of UEFA fair-play rules limiting their spending, but have compensated by recalling a couple of key players: right-sided full-back/winger Ricardo Pereira from Nice, and Cameroon striker Vincent Aboubakar from Besiktas, who has teamed up with Brazilian striker “Tiquinho” Soares in what looks to be a formidable partnership.

The whole squad, though, including moody but magical Algerian winger Yacine Brahimi, seem to have been given a new lease of life by the replacement for sacked coach Nuno Espírito Santo (now at Wolves), Sérgio Conceição, after his acrimonious departure from Nantes. Right now, the smart money would be on Porto to regain the title, but it may all depend on how many of their excellent squad they can resist selling before the transfer deadline.

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It’s customary to include the third Grande in the list of candidates for the title, but Sporting haven’t won it since 2001-02 and came third last season, 12 points behind Benfica. Internal upheavals at boardroom level haven’t helped stability, a trickle-down effect often cited as one of the reasons for recent disappointment.

After some success at Benfica (three titles in six years), coach Jorge Jesus moved to their neighbours in 2015 but has only a single Supertaça to show for two years’ work. The patience of fans and belligerent president Bruno de Carvalho will surely stretch no further than this season without some kind of major trophy. It’s hard to see them breaking the habit of failure, though, especially if they’re unable to hang on to key players such as keeper Rui Patrício, midfielders William Carvalho and Adrien Silva, and sprightly winger Gelson Martins, all oft-reported targets for foreign clubs.

Sporting do have Dutchman Bas Dost – last season’s top scorer with 34 goals. They’ve also signed forwards Seydou Doumbia of the Ivory Coast and Argentinian Marcos Acuña, and have some of Portugal’s promising Under-21 European Championship stars, notably Daniel Podence and Bruno Fernandes. But their main problem will be defence, with three goals conceded in friendly defeats against Valencia, Basel and Vitória de Guimarães.

One novelty of the new season will be the introduction of video assistant referees (VARs) in all top-flight matches. There are bound to be teething problems, and some decisions will undoubtedly still be controversial, but the constant whining about refereeing from all clubs should dissipate to a certain extent.

Some peace in this respect is essential to eradicate suspicion on all sides; much of the early close season was taken up by a mini-scandal in which Porto communications director Francisco Marques revealed a series of leaked emails suggesting attempts by Benfica to exert behind-the-scenes pressure on referees. Although this story still has legs, hopefully the new transparency will mean that for a change this season, it will be the football itself attracting most of the attention. Phil Town

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