THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Usual suspects in contention

icon portclubs18 August ~ The Portuguese Liga begins this weekend and it is looking a little more open than in recent seasons, although FC Porto should once again be favourites. Austerity in the domestic economy and a more cagey international transfer scene have restricted the Big Three of FC Porto, Benfica and Sporting to a handful of purchases and as yet no big sales, but they will need to sell one or more stars before August 31 to balance their budgets for the coming season. Porto have striker Hulk, midfielders João Moutinho and Fernando, and centre-back Rolando in their shop window, plus a disgruntled and devalued Álvaro Pereira.

Hulk has been the key figure in Porto's last two titles but his inevitable transfer will give the exceptional Colombian James Rodriguez more of a chance to shine. His new strike partner will be compatriot Jackson "Cha Cha Cha" Martinez, who looks to be a decent replacement for Radamel Falcao, sorely missed last season after his move to Atlético Madrid.

Benfica will need to sell winger Nico Gaitán and midfielder Axel Witsel, with the exit of unpopular top-scorer Óscar Cardozo also being mooted. With the promising Nélson Oliveira surprisingly loaned to Deportivo La Coruña, the team may be left a little light up front.

Other worrying gaps are at left-back, where no reliable substitute has been found for Fábio Coentrão since he left for Real Madrid last summer, and at centre-back, with captain Luisão subject to suspension after felling the ref in the recent "friendly" at Fortuna Düsseldorf. Their inexplicably vast hoard of wide players has been topped up further with Eduardo Sálvio from Atlético Madrid and Ola John from Twente.

Ricardo Sá Pinto's Sporting have made some astute signings, notably central defenders Khalid Boulahrouz from Stuttgart and Marcos Rojo from Spartak Moscow, and wide player Zakaria Labyad from PSV. Like Benfica they could have trouble covering striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel, but the squad is generally more balanced than last season, and now more integrated.

Once again Sporting may be their own worst enemy with behind-the-scenes disruptions. There has already been tension over the excellent midfielder Adrien Silva, returning after a season at Académica.

He was criticised internally for voicing his desire to win the Portuguese Cup for Académica against Sporting, which he did. Eduardo Barroso, a famous surgeon, columnist and TV pundit as well as a director of Sporting, has ruffled feathers with some careless public criticism of the running of the club.

Sporting have won just two of the last 20 titles, to Benfica's three and FC Porto's 14. The other one went to Boavista, who were threatening at the beginning of the millennium to become the fourth Grande. They are now floundering in the third tier but Sporting Braga have established themselves as the fourth power in recent seasons.

A sure sign that they have arrived was a local car dealership this month giving each player a brand new Mercedes and donating a luxury coach to the club. They were strong contenders for last season's title right up until the run-in and should again be jostling for the top spots.

They have mainly been able to keep their squad intact and have brought in the useful Éderzito Lopes from Académica, insurance in case stalwart Brazilian striker Lima moves on. Braga's main impediment to success may be new coach José Peseiro, who's had the opposite of the Midas touch in most of the clubs he has been associated with.

Braga will have a chance to show what they're made of right from the off, with a visit to Benfica today – an early six-pointer to whet the appetite for what should be an enthralling season. Phil Town

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