Primeira Liga preview: champions, ones to watch and who'll go down
Here, we take a brief look at the upcoming Primeira Liga campaign, predicting who will come 1st to 5th, who will ultimately get relegated, and who are the side to keep an eye on.
You don’t need to look very far at all to find someone who is backing Benfica to win the league. In fact, for the first time in years, it seems that there is one clear favourite to win the Primeira Liga title.
The Portuguese crown is almost always hotly contested, usually by two teams - Benfica and Porto - though Sporting and, on occasion, Braga hold their own in the title race and almost always playa role in deciding the eventual champions.
This time around though, Sporting and Porto look off the pace, and Benfica are flying high under the leadership of Bruno Lage. Since the young Portuguese manager took over from Rui Vitoria part way through last season, Benfica have been freescoring with their youthful side and look well on their way to having an excellent campaign.
It is impressive that this is the case, considering this summer they lost both teenage sensation Joao Felix after he completed a monstrous move to Atletico Madrid and veteran goalscoring machine Jonas, but they have reinvested wisely and, with a good combination of signings and academy products in their ranks, have built a team that is very possibly stronger this season than it was last.
Their 5-0 demolition of Pacos de Ferreira in the first round of the league season is the perfect illustration of how strong Benfica are looking this campaign, and it should be a very enjoyable one for the Benfica faithful.
A truly disastrous week for Porto fans to endure. After seeing their side lose 2-1 to newly-promoted Gil Vicente where experienced coach Vitor Oliveira outsmarted Porto’s Sergio Conceicao, Porto fans then had to endure a shock 3-2 home defeat to Krasnodar, which saw them crash out of the Champions League in the third qualifying round.
It is the first time since 2011 that Porto have not been in the Champions League group stage, and is potentially a sign that this isn’t going to be an enjoyable campaign for the club’s loyal supporters.
It seems unlikely that this anything more than a blip though. Of course they lost several key players over the summer (Hector Herrera, Yacine Brahimi, Felipe, Iker Casillas, Eder Militao…), but having strengthened well and in important areas, they should soon turn it around and can still have a strong season.
It will take a bit of time, though. With senior players departign, many new faces arriving and young players now in the first-team squad, this is something of a rebuilding process at the club, and getting back to their previous level could take weeks, even months.
But Porto, despite their defeat in the first gameweek of the new league season, are still comfortably the favourites to finish 2nd, and that’s exactly where I’d expect them to finish. They are several levels above the vast majority of the Portuguese league and, with Sporting also having troubles of their own, should still secure that all important 2nd place spot.
Braga have been punching above their weight for over a decade now, always competing with the traditional Big Three in the country despite the financial disparity between them. They’ve been a breath of fresh air in Portuguese football and are an excellent example to the rest of the Portuguese clubs that you can, with the right business model and decision-making, compete with the best in the country on a regular basis.
And although goals were hard to come by for Braga in pre-season, I’m still very optimistic about Braga this campaign under the hot-headed Sa Pinto, who could lead a very strong campaign for Braga.
With him at the helm and a very strong squad at his disposal, I predict that they will earn a top 3 spot in the league, which has to be considered a tremendous achievement for the club. It would mean that they finish above Sporting, and that in itself is impressive, while it would also come with an automatic Europa League group stage spot.
Sporting are often a difficult club to predict. They can secure a very impressive result against one of the two biggest clubs in the country, and then follow that up with a defeat to a mid-table club. Their lack of consistency is often their downfall.
Case in point is the fact that they won both domestic cup competitions last season, beating Benfica once and Porto twice in the process, but were never even close to winning the league title. And they look far off being able to compete with Benfica this time around too.
The fate of their season could rest in the hands of whether they keep hold of talisman Bruno Fernandes. If he goes and they do not reinvest the money from his sale successfully, it could be a truly disastrous campaign for Sporting, and it may not just be Braga that they finish below.
For now, he’s still at the club. For how much longer remains to be seen. I’m confident, though, that even if he does depart, Sporting have replacements lined up that will be able to at least keep Sporting somewhat competitive this season and avoid a truly disastrous season that could see them become a mid-table outcast.
Guimaraes have almost single-handedly been keeping Portugal’s UEFA Coefficient afloat this season, having won all three of their Europa League qualifying matches. And they have been going from strength to strength with each passing round.
They’re beginning to look like a really solid team under Ivo Vieira’s leadership, and I’m excited to see what they can do for the upcoming campaign. If they reach the Europa League group stage, that can be deemed a great success. If they can match last season’s 5th-place finish this time around, even more so. And I’m optimistic that they can achieve both, certainly the latter.
Their nearest opponents will likely be Carlos Carvalhal’s Rio Ave. We still don’t know just how good they are, having only seen them in pre-season, but they will likely be in and around 5th place. I tip Guimaraes to match last season’s heroics though and finish in the “best of the rest” spot in Portugal.
One to watch: Famalicão
Even before Famalicao’s opening day victory, they were always my team-to-watch for this campaign. After a strong summer transfer window with Jorge Mendes helping out, the newly-promoted outfit could easily do something like Santa Clara achieved last season and obtain a safe mid-table finish this season.
That win over Santa Clara away from home last week was evidence that they are a side to keep a very close eye on, as they are likely to have a very interesting season back in the Portuguese top flight.
With the likes of Fabio Martins, Pedro Goncalves, Diogo Goncalves, Guga and Defendi in their ranks, they look in a good place going into the new campaign.
Relegation: Moreirense, Aves.
The relegation is sure to be a highly intriguing battle, with a wealth of clubs who could suffer the dreaded drop. All three newly promoted sides are undoubtedly at risk, those sides being Pacos de Ferreira, Gil Vicente and Famalicao, but they all look in decent shape going into the new season.
Pacos may have lost the first match of the season 5-0 to Benfica, but they have a decent run of fixtures now which could help them build momentum and survive the drop.
Meanwhile, Famalicao, as previously said, have assembled an impressive squad, and Gil Vicente, with the astute and experienced Vitor Oliveira at the helm, are in very safe hands.
Tondela are also a very obvious relegation candidate. Having almost always survived relegation by the skin of their teeth ever since they were promoted to the Portuguese top flight for the first time in their history in 2015, they have been living on the edge for too long - and this could be the year they finally suffer the drop.
However, the two sides I have picked out are Moreirense and Aves. Both could be deemed somewhat surprising, but particularly the former. After a sensational season last campaign, where they were one game away from finishing 5th in the Portuguese top flight, many would expect them to be pushing up the table again this time around.
However, having lost their manager to Guimaraes and having seen several of their loan players depart at the end of last season, their squad isn’t quite as strong as it was last campaign, and it could be a tough season for Moreirense.
Aves, having only narrowly avoided the drop last campaign, could find the competition this time around just too great to avoid the dreaded drop.