13 August ~ The Portuguese football season kicks off tonight, with Braga hosting newly promoted Portimonese. Braga almost won the title last year, only losing out on the final day of the season. There was a possibility that Braga's players would be sold off in the summer, but the only significant sale was the Portuguese international goalkeeper Eduardo. They've since secured the services of the inspirational Uruguayan midfielder Luís Aguiar for another season and if they keep their current squad together they should prove that last season was no fluke.
Benfica, the current champions, have had a shaky pre-season due to the inexplicable €8.5m signing of Roberto, who was Atlético Madrid's third choice goalkeeper. An unknown quantity, Roberto came to Benfica on a wave of publicity that declared him a hidden gem of Spanish football. He instantly dispelled this myth by making two huge errors in a 2-1 defeat to FC Sion. He blamed the Jabulani ball, but subsequent performances proved Roberto to be alarmingly error-prone and a once formidable defence has been conceding goals for fun. Benfica will be without Angel Di Maria and probably Ramires this season. These two wide players were influential but replaceable, yet Benfica don't have an obvious replacement for either player and look alarmingly weak on the flanks.
The big transfer of the summer was João Moutinho's move from Sporting Lisbon to Porto. Moutinho was in poor form last season, but has looked impressive for Porto, and new manager Andre Villas Boas will build his team around him. Villas Boas hasn't got a full season of football management under his belt, but José Mourinho's former assistant seemed to know what he was doing at Académica last season and Porto have taken a leap of faith in contracting him. Although he looked insecure during pre-season, he had a great result in the season-opening Super Cup, convincingly beating Benfica 2-0. The attacking trio of Hulk, Falcão and Silvestre Varela were unstoppable. Varela should be the player to look out for this season. A late developer previously rejected by Sporting Lisbon, a season free from injury should see him gain attention in world football.
Sporting Lisbon will be the chaotic team of the season. A combination of a pathetically misguided President and an egocentric Director of Football, the ex-Porto midfielder Costinha, will ensure that the third grande struggle to be the fourth force in Portuguese football this season. Costinha has convinced his old Porto buddy Maniche to have his swansong at Sporting. The out-of-shape midfielder has looked OK in pre-season, but whether he can maintain this form is doubtful.
The final European spots should be contested by Guimarães and Maritimo. Guimarães in particular have invested well over the summer. Another team to watch out for is Rio Ave, whose rapidly improving manager Carlos Brito has found a nice balance of young Portuguese players alongside old journeymen to steady the ship. The team is built around their young central midfielder Vítor Gomes, and I wouldn't be surprised to see them finishing in the top six this season. Overall, one has to hope Braga can go one better than last season and win the league. Portuguese football is strangled by the dominance of the three grandes and a strong alternative is greatly needed. If the well-supported Guimarães could pip Sporting to fourth place, then all the better. Steve Burrows www.footballportugalpodcast.com