Porto and Benfica ready to lock horns again in the Primeira Divisão, with a repeat of last season’s thriller on the cards.
Without a shadow of doubt last season’s most exhilarating major European title race came from Portugal, where the country’s two most successful clubs remained unbeaten until their penultimate matches.
In what was a defining image of Benfica’s atrocious climax to the season, manager Jorge Jesus dropped to his knees as he witnessed Kelvin’s late goal practically secure the title for the Portistas.
As the two great rivals of Portuguese football prepare to do battle again, it is perhaps surprising that Porto are the team with a different feel to them. With a new manager at the helm and the loss of star players Moutinho and Rodriguez, Porto’s title defence is set to be an arduous job.
The man tasked with the role of delivering a third consecutive league title is 40 year-old Paulo Fonseca, who exceeded all expectations when guiding Paços de Ferreira to the Champions League last season.
Meanwhile in Lisbon, Benfica have largely retained their staff from last season. Jorge Jesus has been given a reprieve following a tragic May where Portugal’s most successful club managed to squander the chance of silverware on three different fronts. Perhaps living up to his name, Jesus appears to have performed a miracle by managing to earn a 2-year contract extension, even after overseeing Benfica to their first trophyless season since 2007/08.
Both teams have an enviable scouting record, generally plucking talent from Southern America and letting them shine on the European stage – Falcao, Ramires, di Maria, David Luiz and more recently João Moutinho and James Rodriguez have all benefited from this policy.
During this close season, Porto have instead moved to Central America and brought two Mexican internationals – Hector Herrera and Diego Reyes – to Estádio do Dragão. Porto fans will be pinning their hopes on Herrera being able to fill the void left by Moutinho; undoubtedly a daunting assignment for a 23 year-old.
As for Rodriguez’s replacement, young Brazilian winger Bernard is believed to favour a move to Portugal over England, with his father stating: “Porto would be a better move for his career. It would be a dream of mine to see him playing for them”.
Serbia has surprisingly been Benfica’s chosen summer shopping destination. Promising attacking midfielders Lazar Markovic and Filip Djuricic have both joined and will add competition to the likes of Lima, John, Salvio and Matic.
The most expensive of these – €10,000,000 Markovic – explained “I know I can grow with this team. I want success at Benfica, to play in the Champions League and to win trophies”. On paper, Benfica would be favourites for the title, but how the team will react to last season’s combustion will have a huge bearing on where the Primeira Divisão trophy is lifted.
Elsewhere, it is difficult to find any case for the other 14 teams to mount a convincing title challenge. As mentioned, Porto have poached Paços de Ferreira’s most successful manager. Whilst Sporting Lisbon finished a mammoth 36 points off the pace last season, proving they are a shadow of their former selves.
This gap could only widen further if the rumours linking Captain Rui Patricio to oil-rich Monaco come to fruition. Lastly, Braga may have the best chance of breaking the two and certainly must be favourites for the final Champions League spot. This is chiefly down to the return of key striker Éder, who succumbed to injury from February last season, cruelly halting his hot streak.
One interesting side plot for the forthcoming season is how surprise appointment Abel Xavier (yes, the eccentric, bleached blonde former Liverpool and Everton defender) will cope as manager at cash-strapped Algarve club Olhanense. Paços de Ferreira’s Champions League journey could be worth following too, if the minnows make it to the group stage there will be some famous nights in store for the tiny 8,500 population town it represents.
It would certainly take a brave man for someone to confidently predict a winner of the 2013/14 Primeira Divisão. Undeniably it will be one of two teams, though deciding which one is difficult and it is easy to see how the bookies can’t separate them.
Will Porto prevail with a weakened squad and new manager? And how will Benfica react to last season’s horror show, in which most of the players and staff will still be suffering nightmares and cold sweats over? These answers will start to unravel on the 18th August, and neutrals can only hope we have a similar conclusion to last season’s madness.