Porto playing catch-up to Lisbon duo in Portugal
4 August ~ As always, the Portuguese title will realistically be disputed by just three clubs, but it’s going to be especially difficult to call this time around. Benfica have won two titles on the trot, something that hadn’t happened since the mid-1980s with Sven-Göran Eriksson (the last time they got three in a row was 1974-77).
They have squad continuity on their side; the only key players to leave so far have been Uruguayan full-back Maxi Pereira, with a perfidious move to arch rivals Porto, and Brazilian striker Lima (Al-Ahli of Dubai). They’ll miss Lima, who partnered compatriot Jonas, the league’s second-top scorer, for a total of 39 goals, and Maxi for his crazy dynamism.
But the biggest saudades felt at the Luz will be for coach Jorge Jesus, who leaves after six years, with three titles and a Taça de Portugal under his belt. If the shock of his going wasn’t enough for Benfiquistas, his choice of destination made it far worse: Lisbon neighbours Sporting.
Apart from (or perhaps because of) Jorge Jesus’s arrival, Sporting Clube de Portugal – a Twitter movement #NotSportingLisbon is gaining ground – are going through something of a revolution. Despite severe financial problems, they’ve brought in some biggish names to bolster a squad peppered with academy talent, with a view to winning their first title since 2002.
Colombian striker Teófilo Gutiérrez, elected the best player in South America in 2014 by the El País newspaper of Uruguay, arrives from River Plate, while Bryan Ruiz swaps one under-achieving club (Fulham) for another. But by all accounts the up-market shopping won’t stop there: pugnacious president Bruno de Carvalho is also reportedly after another Fulham player, the Greek striker Kostas Mitroglou, and Schalke’s Kevin-Prince Boateng.
To the north, Porto’s main aim this time will be to get some silverware on the shelves after two disappointing seasons, but they’ll be without the splendid Colombian striker Jackson Martínez, the league’s top scorer in the last three seasons (26, 20, 21), who moves to Atlético Madrid. He’ll be the hardest act to follow in the league, but Portistas received some compensation with the surprising arrival of goalkeeper Iker Casillas from Real Madrid for a position that’s been the team’s Achilles heel since Vítor Baía’s farewell in 2007.
The club have also broken the Portuguese transfer record, bringing in French midfielder Giannelli Imbula from Marseille for €20 million. A shedload of promising young Portuguese midfielders (Rúben Neves and newcomers Danilo, André André and Sérgio Oliveira) will make competition for midfield places healthily tough, if Spanish coach Julen Lopetegui resists the temptation to loan them out.
The last trophy Porto won was the Supertaça Cândido de Oliveira at the beginning of 2013-14. This season’s opener, on August 9 in the Algarve, will pit Benfica (league winners), under new coach Rui Vitória, against cup holders Sporting. It’s going to be an intriguing contest and an early indication of their respective strengths; if pre-season games are anything to go by, Sporting (with five wins and two draws) will have the edge over their Lisbon rivals (two draws and three defeats). Phil Town