Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Regrouping Porto still lead title race
After the punishment exacted upon Benfica by Porto in the closing weeks of last season, the unexpected departure of the northerners' increasingly iconic coach Andre Villas-Boas must have seemed like the answer to Encarnado prayers.
The relief didn't last long. As Villas-Boas' departure sent shockwaves through Porto fans - the son of the city had vehemently insisted he would stay at the Dragao for a crack at the Champions League - president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa moved with lightning speed to get a lid on the situation. Villas-Boas' resignation was announced to the Portuguese stock exchange late morning on Tuesday, June 21; by 6pm, a press conference was taking place at the Dragao, unveiling his erstwhile assistant Vitor Pereira as the new Porto coach.
It was, said Pinto da Costa, a "natural succession", something he had plainly failed to manage following the departure of Jose Mourinho in 2004, whose exit had been clearly signposted, but his replacement was botched. Luigi Delneri was fired and supplanted by Victor Fernandez before even taking command of an official match.
In 2011, Pereira faced the media flanked by the club's backroom staff (with the exception of Jose Mario Rocha, the fitness coach who went to Stamford Bridge with Villas-Boas). The message was clear; the extraordinary spirit that propelled the club to glory would not be broken. "We've lost our coach but we will remain strong. WE ARE PORTO!" left-back Alvaro Pereira had written on his Facebook page. In mid-July, it was announced that Radamel Falcao, the prolific Colombian widely tipped to follow Villas-Boas to London, had signed a contract extension to 2015. The squad appears - so far - to be holding together.
Pereira's first match proper - Sunday's Super Cup win over losing cup finalists Guimaraes - was a turgid affair, if briefly lit up by Hulk's audacious trivela cross (where the delivering foot snakes around the back of the standing leg) to lay on the first of centre-back Rolando's two goals. It was unflattering to Pereira's side by comparison to the 6-2 final win that completed the league/cup/Europa League treble in May.
Yet Porto, still easing Falcao back in after his Copa America exertions, feel a trophy is a trophy, and coach Pereira has started his spell at the helm with the very same bauble that helped Villas-Boas launch his own spectacular season. "It's an enormous satisfaction, to win a title at the club of your heart," Pereira said in his best Villas-Boas-ese.
From the side that started last season as champions, Benfica were already lacking David Luiz even before arguably their best player, Fabio Coentrao, upped sticks for Real Madrid. Yet the sale of the Portugal left-back could yet provide the impetus for Jorge Jesus' side to bite back at the bitter rivals they finished last season 21 points behind.
The feeling persists that Jesus tactically retreated into his shell when things went wrong last season, letting slip what made his Benfica great in the place. As well as necessary defensive reinforcements in the shape of Ezequiel Garay, Artur and Joan Capdevila, the midfield has been embellished with winger Enzo Perez, as well as the marquee capture of Belgium's Axel Witsel for £7.4 million, a real coup.
The former Standard Liege man and Nolito, signed from Barcelona B, have been the stars of a nascent season, with the swift arrival of Champions League qualifiers forcing Benfica to get over last term's failures. Nolito took just 17 minutes of competitive action to make his mark as he opened the scoring in the 71st minute of a tense qualifier against Trabzonspor at the Estadio da Luz. Witsel was outstanding on his first start in the return leg. Team shirts with Witsel and Nolito's names and numbers are outselling all others in the Luz club shop at the moment, underlining the pair's instant impact. Benfica will be ready by the time the season's first classico arrives in game six, on the weekend of September 24.
There is even hope that Sporting might make it a three-horse race, with change continuing apace. Former Porto striker Domingos Paciencia might have been Villas-Boas' successor in different circumstances, but he has an intriguing challenge ahead of him at the Alvalade. Fourteen new signings have so far been sanctioned by the recently-elected president Luis Godinho Lopes, with money saved by shipping out expensive flops such as Maniche and Florent Sinama-Pongolle. Among the incoming are Netherlands duo Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Stijn Schaars, and La Liga refugees Diego Capel (Sevilla) and Jeffren (Barcelona), all with the flair to set the pulse racing after a series of mind-numbingly dull displays last season.
Pre-season form has been shoddy, and the home presentation match against Valencia saw Sporting humbled 3-0 by the Spaniards, but Sporting fans went through enough last season when the club was in freefall to give Domingos grace to create the entertaining side that the green half of Lisbon wants.
Braga president Antonio Salvador continues to insist that the big three has become a big four, but the squad facelift that began last winter while Domingos was still at the club continues unabated. A dozen have arrived at the Estadio Municipal, including veteran striker Nuno Gomes, another dozen have left, while ten players more have agreed loan moves away from the club. It's quite a tangle for new coach Leonardo Jardim to sort out.
Former Beira-Mar boss Jardim's defence has been decimated, with the stars of the run to the Europa League final last season Artur, centre-backs Alberto Rodriguez (now Sporting), Paulao (St Etienne), and Portugal right-back Silvio (Atletico Madrid) all gone, a huge blow to the side's noted solidity.
At least Gomes, surprisingly recalled to Paulo Bento's Portugal squad for this week's friendly with Luxembourg, has the prospect of partnering Lima in store. The scorer of a hat-trick in last year's famous Champions League play-off win at Sevilla, The Braziian proudly trumpeted his goal target for the season to the media a fortnight ago - he hopes to net 30. With the ambition of Lima and his president, Braga should at least avoid quietly fading back into mediocrity.