Thursday, August 12, 2010
Battle awaits reigning champions Benfica
Benfica certainly shook up Portuguese football last season, and you can still feel the tremors. A few big name player departures - and the arrivals of their replacements, normally from the tried-and-tested South American market - are par for the course in one of Europe's 'second-tier' leagues, but big changes are afoot in the order of things. How many Jose Mourinhos does it take to create a thrilling title race? We might be about to find out.
The first is the 'Special Two', Jorge Jesus. It's difficult to avoid hyperbole while describing his impact since taking over at Benfica, so let's not even try. The most popular club in Portugal had won the title just once since 1994 before Jesus arrived at the Estadio da Luz, but they wrested it back from perennials Porto in magnificent style.
Benfica rattled in 78 goals in 30 league games (and an astonishing 117 in all competitions), and pasted their northern rivals 3-0 in the League Cup final too, just to underline the shift in the balance of power. Porto, handicapped by the fallout from December's infamous tunnel brawl at the Luz but more taken aback by the power of this new-look Benfica, even lost their grip on second place and Champions League qualification.
Record-breaking, but not universally popular, coach Jesualdo Ferreira was sent packing, and it was enter the Dragao for the next big thing among Portuguese coaches. Andre Villas Boas has first-hand experience of The Special One doing his thing, having been his assistant at Porto, Chelsea and then Inter. An impressive opening season as head coach with Academica saw him get the top job at his hometown club at the age of just 33.
An intriguing battle already seems promised this season between Jesus and young challenger Villas Boas, who in many ways is a punt but is a very Porto type of appointment - young, ambitious and forthright, the exact qualities that see Porto admired and despised in equal measure in Portugal.
The two first went toe-to-toe in Saturday night's Super Cup meeting in Aveiro, and the match really lived up to the title of the trophy. There's no glorified friendly aspect to it when Benfica and Porto meet. It's hard to imagine there being anything about 'charity' or 'community' in the title - this one was a trophy, there to be won.
Porto were victorious, 2-0, with an early goal by Rolando (now Villas Boas' senior defender following the departure of skipper Bruno Alves to Zenit St Petersburg) later augmented by top scorer Falcao's superb finish, in an engaging match. We shouldn't be too surprised at the result, from a historical perspective at least. Porto have now won 17 of the 32 Super Cups played since the competition began in 1979. They have faced Benfica on 12 of those occasions and only lost once, back in 1984 when it was still a two-legged tie.
However, key changes have taken place at both clubs. The Dragons - as throughout pre-season - pressed as well as passed, vibrant in their coach's image. As expected, new signing (and ex-Sporting captain) Joao Moutinho was roundly booed, and Porto are a threat again. The last time they reflected their leader so closely? In the Mourinho era.
Meanwhile Benfica have had a busy summer just trying to keep their current crop in one piece. From last season's magnificent midfield Angel Di Maria has already departed and Ramires is next. The likes of David Luiz and Fabio Coentrao are being closely watched too, and after so much anticipation at the Eagles making the Champions League, it remains to be seen how many of the 2009-10 vintage will be left by the time it starts.
Braga too have had personnel worries after a stunning campaign last time around. They would have won the title any other season but last, unluckily facing an uncommonly fine rival in Benfica. Following the departures of excellent goalkeeper Eduardo and playmaker Hugo Viana, many expect them to slip back into the also-rans. But they have held onto their real key man, bright young coach Domingos Paciencia, and showed their spirit and determination remains intact with their Champions League demolition of Celtic.
Meanwhile, Sporting were widely written off as contenders for this term with the last campaign barely cold. Last season's disaster, which saw the club finish a whopping 28 points behind Lisbon rivals Benfica, claimed the job of Paulo Bento and took in humiliating domestic cup defeats to both Benfica and Porto respectively.
Having just about hung onto fourth place, and a Europa League preliminary place, 2010-11 had been written off as transitional, with new sporting director Costinha (a Champions League winner with Porto) given the power to oversee a total restructure. The appointment of Guimaraes coach Paulo Sergio, a cheaper alternative to the feted Paciencia, didn't bode well either.
Yet Sergio could be the other great managerial protagonist of the season. Despite the loss of Moutinho and fellow star turn Miguel Veloso, the new man has coaxed encouraging pre-season form out of his charges, including a comprehensive win over big-spending Manchester City in New York.
He has already proved he is not to be trifled with too, firing a curt response to top scorer Liedson's unhappiness at being left out of one game. "I decide when he plays, not him," said Sergio. He is nobody's puppet.
Porto had it their own way for too long. Benfica bit back hard last season, but they will have to battle to hold onto their hard-earned crown. Portuguese football can look forward to a season of genuine competitiveness and strong leaders. It will be all the better for it.