Josh Jenkins assesses the Portuguese League in this week’s Euro Watch
Teams to watch: Sporting Lisbon and FC Porto
Players to watch: Sebastian Coates and Bas Dost
Manager to watch: Jorge Jesus
Game of the season so far: Vitoria de Guimaraes 3-3 Sporting Lisbon
The 83rd Primera Liga season sees Benfica in pole position to win a fourth consecutive league crown. This year their only realistic challengers appear to be rapidly improving city rivals Sporting Lisbon, the 14-year hold that the big three have had on the league title appears to be continuing.
The Primera Liga has always been a league with startling disparities between the top three and the rest. This can be seen by just looking at stadium capacities — Benfica’s Stadium of Light holds more than 64,000 people, whereas Tondela and Nacional have stadiums fitting for just 5,000 people.
Managerial changings is also associated with the league. Since May 2016, fourteen out of the sixteen teams have changed manager — it makes the Premier League look like a safe-haven for managers.
In recent times, Sporting Lisbon have been unable to keep up with the big two; their grip was simply too firm for Sporting who were left in the wayside. But times are changing.
It all started it the summer of 2015. In a bitter story that dominated the news in Portugal, they prised away manager Jorge Jesus from arch-city-rivals Benfica. A man who played a big role in the success of Benfica was a big coup for the green team of Lisbon, and they have not looked back since.
After finishing second last season, the momentum has continued and they find themselves once again having a realistic chance of being title contenders again this year.
They have also been very respectable in the Champions League this year. In a group with Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, they have put in good performances and will be a challenge for any team in the Europa League come the New Year.
Sporting really excite though when you look through their playing squad. Filled with many recognisable names such as Sebastian Coates, Joel Campbell, Bryan Ruiz, Bas Dost, and William Carvalho; their squad contains players with a point to prove and they definitely have the quality to succeed at this level.
Coates in particular looks a player reborn. Following an unsuccessful time in England with both Liverpool and Sunderland, his great reading of the game, along with ability to help Sporting build attacks from the back as been integral to the teams’ good form so far this year.
Dutch striker Bas Dost was an incredible coup not just for Sporting, but the Primera Liga as a whole; a man who, when in the right frame of mind, could not stop scoring in both Holland and Germany. If Jorge Jesus finds the right formula for him then he will easily score 20-plus goals this term.
The future is looking very bright for Sporting Lisbon, and with an exciting playing squad to match a talented manager, who knows what success lies ahead for them during the rest of the year?
However, one team where the good times are most certainly a distant memory is FC Porto. A team stuttering on the field and with sanctions from the UEFA Financial Fair Play committee looming, these are the worst times in many years for the north Portuguese club.
Until 2014 Porto were the country’s dominant side. Winning nine league titles in a twelve-year period as well as a Champions League triumph. Their transfer policy was also hugely successful — sign young players on the cheap, then slap a hefty transfer clause on them and sell them for a huge amount of profit. Porto were the club that could do no wrong.
But a return of the good times seems a long way off in the present day. Their league form is stuttering with a winless November and they have only scored one goal in the process. They are a team devoid of ideas and lack a creative touch.
Their form in European competition is not much better. In a seemingly straightforward group with Leicester, Brugge and Copenhagen, they are struggling in qualification, and need to avoid defeat in their final group game to finish in second place.
Off the field the picture is even gloomier for Porto. In October the club announced a record loss of €58.4 million, with over €75 million spent on salaries in 2015/16, a figure that was only €40 million three years ago.
The mismanagement of the club’s finances can be seen no clearer than the signing of Iker Casillas — the highest-paid player in the club’s history and a man who also holds no sell-on value, is a signing that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Look throughout the rest of the squad and the picture is pretty much the same — expensive flops.
The club’s financial plan for the coming year announced that a figure of €116 million must be generated via player sales in order to prevent UEFA sanctions.
The FC Porto squad that we see today will almost be entirely unrecognisable in twelve months’ time. Times are looking very dark indeed.