This piece is part of a preview series where we speak to journalists covering Europe’s top leagues. In this edition, we talk to Portuguese football expert Jan Hagen as he shares his thoughts on the upcoming Primeira Liga season.
Title winners and Champions League qualifiers:
Right in this very moment, I think Porto and Benfica will battle it out for the Primeira Liga title. While Benfica barely have lost a single first team player this window, two of Porto’s most important defensive pieces have left the club. Ricardo Pereira, who undoubtedly was the best right-back of the championship last season, has joined Leicester, while Iván Marcano, who has formed the best Primeira Liga centre-back pairing with Felipe the last couple of seasons, joined Roma on a free transfer. The replacements will need time to settle so Porto are definitely weakened compared to last season.
One side that’s not weakened is Benfica, who have strengthened the competition in nearly every position throughout the summer. After failing to win their fifth-consecutive league title last season, something Benfica have never done before, Rui Vitória and his men will seek revenge this year.
We have all heard about the troublesome summer Sporting have had and although Bruno Fernandes, Bas Dost and Rodrigo Battaglia returned to the club after first terminating their contracts, Os Leões have lost several key players this transfer window including Gelson Martins (Atlético Madrid) and their two captains Rui Patrício (Wolverhampton) and William Carvalho (Real Betis). Manager Jorge Jesus did also leave the club and he’ll spend the next year in Saudi Arabia at Al-Hilal.
One team that cannot be underestimated is Braga. They have looked strong ever since Abel Fereira was promoted from the B team to replace José Peseiro, now at Sporting, and Jorge Simão who both had disappointing stays at the club. Under Ferreira’s guidance last season, Braga broke their own record for number of Primeira Liga points and goals scored. Os Arsenalistas have an ambition goal of winning the league before their 100th anniversary 2021 and with both Sporting and Porto looking weaker than last year’s edition of themselves and if Braga continue to improve, there might be a tiny chance that they can run away with it all.
Predicted top five (as of August 8th):
- Sporting CP
- Vitória Guimarães
Best player and Golden Boot winner:
Benfica’s super striker Jonas won last year’s Golden Boot after scoring 34 goals in 30 Primeira Liga games, but I’m not sure he will be capable of keeping up that tally this year. The Brazilian will turn 35 before the season ends and he has somewhat struggled a bit physically this pre-season. He has also been linked with a move to join his former boss Jorge Jesus at Al Hilal.
The favourite for the Golden Boot this year will have to be Bas Dost, who had an incredible scoring record since joining Sporting in the summer of 2016. The Flying Dutchman has scored an impressive 61 goals in 61 Primeira Liga games during his two years at Estádio José Alvalade.
Bruno Fernandes was voted Primeira Liga’s Player of the Year 2017/18 and could very well win it again if he can keep up his performances from last season. The Sporting midfielder, who recorded 11 goals and 8 assists in 33 games during his debut season in Portugal, will get fierce competition from Benfica midfielder Pizzi, who has looked outstanding during the summer. The latter, who had an excellent 2016/17 season, comes of a disappointing campaign and has, like most of his teammates, much to revenge this season.
My favourite for the award his however, Yacine Brahimi who has only looked better and better under the guidance of Porto manager Sérgio Conceição. The Algerian was monumental in Porto breaking their five-year title drought as they conquered the Liga title in May and he could very well lead Os Dragões to more trophies this year.
Best players under the age of 23 to watch out for and those who could have a breakout campaign:
- Rúben Dias (21-year-old, Benfica): Part of Portugal’s World Cup squad after an impressive 2017/18 breakout season at Benfica. Old fashioned centre-back, who has been heavily linked with a €30 million move to Lyon.
- Ricardo Horta (23-year-old, Braga): Braga’s free-scoring winger has been superb the last couple of seasons and should warrant a move to a bigger league before next summer.
- Raphinha (22-years-old, Sporting): After a decent debut season at Vitória Guimarães during the 2016/17 campaign, Raphinha really made a name for himself last year. The Brazilian winger was so good Sporting decided to sign him on a pre-agreement in January 2018 so no other club would steal him from under their nose.
- Shoya Nakajima (23-years-old, Portimonense): The biggest revelation of the 2017/18 season. Should have been part of Japan’s World Cup squad, but somehow he was overlooked. Nakajima, in his debut season, was the only Primeira Liga player to record double digit numbers of goals (10) and assists (11) last season and the winger should be on the list of transfer targets of club far bigger than the Algarve club.
Honourable mentions: Alfa Semedo (20-year-old, Benfica – superb at Moreirense last season) and Bruno Xadas (20-year-old, Braga – a Jorge Mendes client heavily linked with Monaco. Started last season well and the playmaker is a delight to watch).
- Trincão (18-year-old, Braga): Recent U19 Euro winner with Portugal, ending the tournament as its top scorer, alongside Portugal teammate and Benfica forward João Filipe, with five goals and three assists in five games. Sat on the bench during a few Europa League games last season, but the hugely talented winger has yet to make his Braga debut, which could easily come this season.
- Diogo Leite (19-year-old, Porto): With Marcano gone and newly signed Chancel Mbemba injured, the young centre-back will start the season as Felipe’s partner in the heart of Porto’s defence. A smart, quick defender that could get his major breakthrough this season if he does well during Mbemba’s absence. Was decent in Saturday’s Supertaça win against Aves.
- Gedson Fernandes (19-year-old, Benfica): Has been given a lot of confidence by Benfica manager Rui Vitória this summer and will start the season as one of three midfielders in the Lisbon side’s 4-3-3 formation. Gedson is a fearless player, good at driving the ball forward. The youngster will have been linked with all of Europe’s biggest clubs before we reach October.
Honourable mentions: João Felix (18-year-old, Benfica), Wendel (20-year-old, Sporting), Jorge Fernandes (21-year-old, Porto – on loan at Tondela).
Apart from Sporting’s re-signings of Bas Dost and Bruno Fernandes, I would have to say Vitória Guimarães’ signing of Porto midfielder is particularly strong André André. After a good first season at Estádio do Dragão the 28-year-old Portuguese midfielder didn’t quite make it as a regular starter under Nuno Espírito Santo nor Sérgio Conceição. Instead of leaving the country, André André decided to return home to Guimarães this summer, where he did so brilliantly before moving to Porto in 2015. Vitória Guimarães have also secured themselves former Liverpool playmaker João Carlos Teixeira and Benfica’s Dutch wonderkid Ola John during this transfer window and are looking particularly strong.
Benfica’s signing of Odisseas Vlachodimos is also one that should be highlighted as it covers such a significant need in their side. Neither Bruno Varela or the 18-year-old Mile Svilar convinced when given the chance last season so the signing of the 24-year-old goalkeeper and former German international on a free transfer from Panathinaikos could turn out to be the most important signing in the battle for Primeira Liga glory this season. The Stuttgart academy graduate has looked secure during this summer’s friendlies and kept a clean sheet on his Benfica debut against Fenerbahçe in their Champions League clash last Tuesday.
With three weeks left of the transfer window, I have to say Aves, Portimonense and Nacional have the weakest squads. Aves, who are reigning Taça de Portugal champions, struggled last season as well, but unlike Moreirense, V.Setúbal and Feirense, they haven’t made any significant signings yet. They looked decent enough in their 3-1 loss to Porto in the Supertaça last weekend, but in the long run, and without a distinct goal scorer, I think they’ll have a hard time escaping relegation this season.
Portimonense, who still have managed to hold into Shoya Nakajima, have lost several key players from last season, including top scorer Fabrício Messias and right-back Rafa Soares, things don’t look that good for the Algarve side. As they also decided to loan out the only real number nine left at the club, 37-year-old Jorge Pires, and with their opening game against Boavista on Monday, it very much seems like Portimonense will start the season without a first team striker. They also lost manager Vítor Oliveira, who, after guiding them to promotion in 2017, helped the Algarve side to a secure place in the Primeira Liga last campaign.
Former Porto forward António Folha has been chosen to replace Oliveira. The 47-year-old, who has no previous experience from top flight management, joins from Porto B, where he at times played with a striker-less system (with mediocre results). As they have a close relationship with Porto I expect Portimonense to receive two or three players on loan from Os Dragões before the end of the transfer window, which might be enough to save them from relegation. Right now, however, it looks like it’s going to be a long season for Portimonense.
The newly promoted Nacional and Santa Clara will also struggle on the bottom half of the table. Although Nacional have lost last season’s Segunda Liga top scorer Ricardo Gomes to Serbian side Partizan, they have kept most of their squad going into this season, as opposed to Santa Clara who have made a busload of signings. Some good, like Patrick Vieira from Benfica and former Rio Ave winger Ukra, and some less good, like César, who in 2016 during his loan spell at Nacional was dubbed “the worst centre-back to ever play in the Primeira Liga” by his own president Rui Alves.
Possible over and under achievers:
Braga, as discussed above, look like they could challenge for the Primeira Liga title this season, which definitely goes within the category of “overachievers”.
Although they have lost the club’s big star Peter Etebo to Stoke, Feirense could turn out to be a positive surprise. They had a decent end to last season, which saw them saw their spot by one point, and they have made some good signings this summer, especially in attack. The Santa Maria da Feira side hasn’t exactly been a free-scoring side under Nuno Manta, but now, with the signings of Portuguese international Edinho and Fábio Sturgeon from Vitória Guimarães, we might see a more attacking Feirense this campaign.
Since their promotion in 2016, Chaves have managed to stay well clear of the relegation battle, finishing 11th in their first season and 6th last year. They have lost three of their most important players and their brilliant manager Luís Castro to Vitória Guimarães this summer, though, which in a worst case scenario could see them getting dragged into the relegation mud this campaign. The signing of Daniel Ramos as their new manager should however see them stay clear of the worst of it.
It will also be difficult for Portimonense to improve their 10th place from last season and at the moment they are relegation contenders.
Possible managerial revelation:
Braga’s Abel Ferreira has already gotten his breakthrough and another good season should see him move on to bigger clubs. I also have big expectations to Luís Castro and his Vitória Guimarães this season and I believe the two, with the many good signings completed this summer, could be a perfect fit. Expect lots of good football coming from the Minho sides this season.
Of the less spoken of managers, I think Pepa, who did brilliantly with Tondela last campaign, and Feirenses’ Nuno Manta could establish themselves as two of the most exciting young managers in the country during the upcoming season.