comment - 2014


liga review/preview - 05/11/14
liga review/preview - 27/10/14
european competitions review - 20/10/14
liga review/preview - 06/10/14
liga review/preview - 22/09/14

european competitions review - 18/09/14
liga review/preview - 15/09/14

transfer deadline review - 03/09/14
liga review/preview - 02/09/14

seleção changes and squad for albania - 30/08/14
european competitions review - 29/08/14
liga review/preview - 25/08/14
liga review/preview - 18/08/14
world cup 2014 pre-post mortem
world cup 2014 preview
review of season 2013-14

Liga review/preview - 05/11/14

It was quite a controversial weekend in the Primeira Liga.

It started on Friday when Benfica beat battling Rio Ave 1-0 at the Luz. There was nothing wrong with the winner – an excellent strike from outside the box by the prodigious Talisca – he now has seven goals this campaign. The problem arose eight minutes afterwards when Rio Ave thought they’d equalised through Esmael. The TV images showed that he was very marginally offside, but it needed slo-mo and the magic line on the screen to show it. However, the linesman responsible for flagging the offside was five or so metres behind the last defender and couldn’t possibly have seen it, so must have guessed … or something worse.

FC Porto are nestled one point behind Benfica. They beat Madeiran side Nacional 2-0 at the Dragão, but it took a wonder goal from Brahimi to make it safe a quarter of an hour from the end.

On Saturday, Sporting were well and truly played off the park at Vitória de Guimarães, who won 3-0 … and it could have been more. The stars of the Vitória win were central defender João Afonso, solid at the back and responsible for two assists, captain André André, an inspiration, and lightning fast winger Hernáni, knocking at the door of the Seleção. The result put Vitória third, just two points behind Benfica. Sporting president Bruno de Carvalho was incensed at the perceived lack of effort from the Sporting players and laced into them on Facebook, saying that they had not dignified the club. He threw into the mix the disastrous 0-5 defeat at Atlético by the B team, who play in the second division.

Meanwhile, things were not so pretty off the pitch, either, as two Sporting fans were hospitalised after a stabbing incident following the game in Guimarães … which put things in perspective rather.

Sunday and Monday’s results pushed Sporting down to 6th in the table. Paços de Ferreira notched up their fourth straight win (kudos to coach Paulo Fonseca), 4-1 over Vitória de Setúbal, putting them fourth. On Monday, Belenenses continued to impress with an ultimately comfortable 3-1 victory over struggling Boavista – whose coach, Petit, continues to promise that the team are “under construction”. To be completed when?

Sporting Braga drew 1-1 at Académica and go 7th, one point behind Sporting. Moreirense won 2-1 at Marítimo, who dropped points at home for the first time. Estoril stopped the recent rot with an identical result at Penafiel, second from bottom. Bottom club Gil Vicente doubled their points tally to two after a 1-1 draw with Arouca.

The 10th jornada has no stand-out matches on paper, but it will be interesting to see whether Vitória de Guimarães, Belenenses and Paços de Ferreira can keep up their momentum. Paços are at Sporting – who will be under pressure to come up with a convincing display and result. Vitória visit accessible Arouca, while Belenenses go to Moreirense. The top two clubs have difficult away trips: Benfica visit Nacional in Madeira, and Porto go south to Estoril.

Liga review/preview - 27/10/14

A thrilling evening of football on Sunday saw the top of the Primeira Liga opened up; there are now just three points separating the top four clubs.

Hitherto unbeaten Benfica travelled to traditionally difficult (for them) Braga, and sure enough, they came a cropper. Their top scorer Talisca scored his seventh goal of the season after just two minutes, stroking home a squared pass from Eliseu on the left, and Benfica had the best of the early minutes. But Braga turned the game around, first from Éder after sterling work on the right from Braga’s best outfield player, Pardo, and then on 81 minutes as sub Salvador Agra found a gap at Artur’s near post. Both sides had valid penalty calls turned down by the ref, and as tempers frayed in the tense final minutes, Braga’s coach Sérgio Conceição and midfielder Danilo were sent off. At the death, Braga’s ‘keeper Matheus pulled off a miraculous double-save to deny Lima and Gaitán. “We’re still top, so I’m not worried”, said Benfica coach Jorge Jesus.

Braga’s 2-1 win puts them 5th, ahead of Paços de Ferreira and Belenenses, all on 14 points [joined by Rio Ave on Monday], and leaves Benfica clinging to the top spot but now with a cushion of only one point.

The other Sunday evening game was a thrilling six-goal affair at Alvalade. Sporting were 3-0 up at half-time against Madeiran side Marítimo and appeared to be coasting. Bauer had turned a Carrillo cross into his own net on eight minutes, João Mário had bundled over a Nani cross on 15 and it was Nani again who sent over the corner that central defender Paulo Oliveira headed home on 42. But someone put something into their half-time tea and they came out for the second half complacent, allowing Maazou two goals in the first ten minutes of the half, the second a screamer that Rui Patrício didn’t even see. “We can’t fall asleep when we have a comfortable lead”, Sporting coach Marco Silva admitted. With a little more of a killer instinct, Marítimo may well have taken something from the game, but their resolve was crushed on 66 minutes when Fredy Montero took an Adrien through ball on his chest, swiveled and hooked home from ten metres.

Sporting are fourth on 16 points, three behind Benfica and two behind FC Porto.

On Saturday, Porto were at modest Arouca, coached by former Porto stalwart Pedro Emanuel. His team’s ultra-defensive game plan stood up for 24 minutes until Juan Quintero unleashed a cracker from the edge of the box. Jackson Martínez and Casemiro – with his first goal for the club – made it 3-0 at the break while Jackson again and sub Aboubakar made it 5-0 by the end. Jackson leads the top-scorers’ table on seven goals, along with Talisca and Maazou.

“We have to hope for a good result from Braga against Benfica on Sunday”, said Porto’s Casemiro. He got his wish; Porto are one point behind Benfica and one ahead of the surprising Vitória de Guimarães.

Friday night was the night of four ‘Vitórias’: Vitória de Setúbal received Vitória de Guimarães, coached by Rui Vitória … and the vitória went to Guimarães. The teams were separated by just the one goal, scored by central defender João Afonso – his first. Guimarães have a fine young side, with forwards Hernâni and Bernard standing out. “Many of these players have space to get even better”, said Rui Vitória.

As surprising as Guimarães are Paços de Ferreira, who struggled last season but now seem to be back in the groove with Paulo Fonseca, returning to the club after an uncomfortable spell at FC Porto. Paraíba in the first half and Bruno Moreira in the second gave them a comfortable lead against Boavista at the Bessa, narrowed five minutes from time by Nigerian striker Uchebo, making his debut for the Panteras. It was too little too late for them. “We have to make fewer mistakes,” complained Boavista coach Petit, “because we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Belenenses made the short trip along the coast to Estoril and took all three points back to Lisbon with them. Miguel Rosa gave them the lead on 20 minutes, Kléber equalised for Estoril on 57, but then three minutes later, Deyverson got what turned out to be the winner. There were white handkerchiefs at the end for Estoril coach José Couceiro: he’s taken a team that has qualified for Europe in the last two seasons to the very bottom of the table. If Penafiel had won on Monday at Rio Ave, then Estoril would have dropped into the relegation zone. “I didn’t notice the handkerhiefs”, said Couceiro.

Penafiel didn’t win at Rio Ave, but they put up a damn good fight in a game in which both sides set out to play passing football. Ukra opened the scoring for Rio Ave after Penafiel ‘keeper Haghighi had fluffed a cross and dropped it into the winger’s path in front of goal. Rio Ave’s second goal on the half-hour had much more quality, Diego Lopes latching onto a long through ball, headed on by Esmael, and deftly rounding Haghighi to find the empty net. But Penafiel were not out of it, and a minute before the break it was Rio Ave ‘keeper Cássio who made a hash of things, coming out much to far for the ball; it was returned to the middle and captain Ferreira headed home. On 66 minutes they were level, Guedes scoring from the spot after the busy Aldair had been fouled. Unfortunately, their concentration escaped them two minutes later when their offside trap left sub Hassan clear on goal and unchallenged, and he made no mistake from ten metres out to make the final score 3-2.

Penafiel stay second from bottom, while Rio Ave climb to fifth, at the head of the four-club pack on 14 points (+ Sporting Braga, Paços de Ferreira and Belenenses).

Struggling Madeiran side Nacional put a little light between themselves and the relegation places with a 1-0 win over fellow strugglers Académica, Marco Matías scoring on 67 minutes. “It’s a small step forward”, said Nacional coach Manuel Machado. According to his opposite number, Paulo Sérgio, it was “a defeat that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth”.

Rock bottom remain Gil Vicente. Second half goals from Gerso and Arsénio gave Moreirense all three points from their Saturday game. “We conceded the first goal when we were on top, and 2-0 killed the game”, said Gil coach José Mota. Gil are yet to win a match and have just two points.

The pick of the 9th jornada will surely be the youngsters of Vitória de Guimarães against the youngsters of Sporting, on Saturday 01 November.

European competitions review - w/c 20/10/14

The Portuguese clubs had a poor week in Europe, with only one team out of the five taking all three points.

That team was FC Porto in the Champions League, 2-1 winners over Athletic Bilbao at the Dragão. Porto coach Julen Lopetegui had warned of Athletic’s quality, but they were only as good as Porto let them be … and Porto let them be quite good at times. Lopetegui has come in for quite a lot of stick for the seemingly random rotation in his line-ups, which has meant a lack of routines that show in the team’s (lack of) cohesion.

They lost the ball in midfield countless times against Athletic, and were lacking in dynamism going forward, with the possible exception of the Spanish winger Tello, who had pace and objectivity. But it was Colombian Juan Quintero who helped to break the deadlock just before half-time, bursting into the area and feeding Mexican midfielder Herrera who made no mistakes from ten metres out.

Bilbao were back in it on 58 minutes, Herrera switching from hero to zero with a bad pass to Casemiro that Guillermo latched onto to equalise. The Dragão crowd were becoming restless with the impotence of their team to break down the Bilbao defence, but Lopetegui had a respose: he brought on Ricardo Quaresma for Casemiro on 70 minutes and within five ‘Harry Potter’ had conjured up the winner, cutting in from the left and shooting low from the edge of the box, a shot that Iraizoz could and should have held.

Porto, who visit Athletic on 5 November, go top of Group H on seven points, two ahead of Shakhtar, who won 7-0 at BATE Borisov.

The week’s most controversial game in Europe was in Gelsenkirchen where a valiant Sporting side went down 3-4 to Schalke 04 in dubious circumstances. They were in front on 16 minutes through a re-born Nani. On 32 minutes, Sporting’s central defender Maurício saw a second yellow for what seemed like an innocuous challenge, leaving Sporting down to ten men for an hour. Schalke equalised on 34, Obasi’s header squirming past Rui Patrício on the line.

The German side were in front six minutes into the second half through Huntelaar, although replays showed that he was offside when he received the ball. Howedes made it 3-1 on the hour, heading in an Ayhan free-kick, and it looked all over for Sporting. But Marco Silva is building up a fine young team, and within four minutes they were back in the game, Adrien scoring from the spot after Ayhan had fouled Carrillo. And it was Adrien again who appeared to have won Sporting an heroic point, finishing off a Cédric cross on 78 minutes. But their efforts were to no avail: deep into injury time, a cross from the right hit full back Jonathan Silva in the face. The assistant referee behind the goal saw a non-existent hand ball and Choupo-Moting gave Schalke all three points from the spot. They’re second in Group G on five points, two behind Chelsea. Sporting are bottom with just one.

Sporting were incensed after the game – William Carvalho may be in trouble for saying the performance of the officials was “a disgrace” – and subsequently sent a letter of protest to UEFA. They’re asking for the game to be repeated or 500,000 euros – their share of the pot if the game had finished in a draw. There were questions in Portugal about the wisdom of appointing Russian officials for a game involving Schalke, sponsored by Russian giant Gazprom.

The third Portuguese team involved in the Champions League were Benfica, and they seem to have given up the ghost. They could manage (and deserved) no more than a 0-0 draw at AS Monaco, with central defender Lisandro López being sent off 15 minutes from time for a nasty lunge on the legs of João Moutinho. They have just one point, and in a difficult Group C (with Zenit and Bayer Leverkusen), they may have trouble even making the Europa League (by finishing third in the group).

In the Europa League, Estoril Praia made a good fist of their Group E home game against Moscow Dynamo but went down 1-2. They were behind early in the second half, a Kokorin shot hitting both posts before going in. Estoril had a chance of drawing level fifteen minutes from time, but Kléber’s penalty (after a Douglas hand ball) was hit weakly and down the middle, allowing Gabulov to save with his legs. Five minutes later, they paid the price when Zhirkov headed home a Noboa cross from the right. Yohan Tavares lashed home a consolation deep into added time, but that’s all it was. After three games, Dynamo head the group after three wins, but Estoril ae still in with a shout; they’re third on three points, one behind PSV.

Rio Ave have no points from their three games and are rock bottom of Group J, their European adventure seemingly over. The culprit was Steaua Bucharest striker Rusescu with two first-half goals. He’d promised vengeance after the club he represented last season, Sporting Braga, had been knocked out of the Taça de Portugal and Taça da Liga by Rio Ave; he kept his promise. Del Valle pulled one back early in the second half, but for all their efforts, that’s as far as Rio Ave’s good fortune stretched.

Liga review/preview - w/c 06/10/14

The weekend’s Primeira Liga action had a touch of déjà vu about it.

On Saturday, Sporting toiled without result for much of the game at resilient Penafiel. “We were competitive for seventy minutes”, said Penafiel coach Rui Quinta. His Sporting counterpart Marco Silva made a couple of astute changes around the hour mark: Adrien replaced the sluggish William Carvalho – a shadow of last season’s revelation – and Montero came on for the inconsequential André Martins. It was suddenly a different Sporting team, and Slimani broke the deadlock on 69 minutes with a thundering header from a Jefferson cross. “The first goal shook us and then we were a bit lost for ten or 15 minutes,” admitted Rui Quinta. It took Sporting just 16 minutes to add three more, through Slimani again, Montero – his first goal in 299 days! – and Nani. The 4-0 scoreline belied the difficulty Sporting had experienced early on.

On Sunday it was a very similar story at Sporting’s Lisbon neighbours Benfica. A tenacious Arouca visited the Luz and took the game to an out-of-sorts Benfica side, shaken perhaps by their midweek humbling at Leverkusen. Arouca couldn’t convert the various chances they created in the first half, though, and it was to prove costly. On 67 minutes, coach Pedro Emanuel brought off midfielder Bruno Amaro, who was on a yellow, and the visitors’ midfield all but collapsed. Benfica and Liga top scorer (6) Talisca broke the deadlock on 75 minutes after a one-two with Derley. Within 13 minutes it was 4-0, with Derley, Sálvio and Jonas – making his debut – putting a shine on a less than convincing Benfica performance.

Benfica maintain their four-point lead over bitter rivals FC Porto, who had to work to get a result against difficult Sporting Braga at the Dragão. “It was fundamental to win a very dangerous game,” said Porto coach Julen Lopetegui. His side took the lead from a Tello corner on 25 minutes, Martins Indi getting the final touch, but Braga were level seven minutes later through José Luís after an off-the-boil Brahimi misplaced a pass to Martins Indi. The Algerian forward made amends on the hour with good work on the left to feed sub Quintero, who made it 2-1.

Boavista had their own déjà vu moment on Friday, returning to the heavy defeats of earlier in the season to go down 0-3 at Vitória de Gumarães. Their now familiar strategy of ten-man defending held out until almost half-time when Philipe Sampaio allowed Tomané through to cross for Jonatan Alves to beat João Dias to the ball at the near post and knock it past the otherwise excellent Mika. It was an uphill struggle for Boavista from that point on, made even more difficult for them when Sampaio was sent off for a second yellow on 52 minutes. It became a relatively easy task for Vitória to go on to score two more through André (a penalty) and Alvez again. Vitória are third, one point behind Porto, one ahead of Sporting.

In fifth are Marítimo, who missed a great chance to go equal second when they went down 2-3 at steadily improving Paços de Ferreira. Giant Nigerien striker Maazou opened and closed the scoring for the visitors (he now has five for the season), sandwiching two from Bruno Moreira and one from Edson Farias – all three in a ten-minute spell after the break – to give Paços the points and take them up to eighth.

They join three other clubs on 11 points: Rio Ave, Braga and Belenenses. A faltering Rio Ave could only draw 0-0 at third-from-bottom Nacional (a result duplicated by Académica and Moreirense, 11th and 12 respectively, both on seven points), while Belenenses also dropped two points in a 1-1 draw at home to a superior Vitória de Setúbal, João Schmidt putting Vitória in front from the spot on 24 minutes after Bruno China had handled, Deyverson equalising on 69 minutes. After a good start to the season, Belenenses might expect more positive support from their fans, but no: “It hurts my soul to see that some players are not supported as they should be,” coach Lito Vidigal complained. Bruno China was a particular target for the boo-boys.

Gil Vicente remain firmly rooted at the bottom of the table with just two points, one of which came on Sunday in a 1-1 draw at home to Europa League participants Estoril Praia. Both goals came at the end of the first half, Slimy putting Gil in front, Kléber equalising from the spot. Gil Vicente are from the northern city of Barcelos, whose symbol is a cockerel. A Bola’s headline for the game summed up Gil’s predicament: “Cockerel taking its time to get neck out of guillotine.”

League football takes a break now, returning on the weekend of 26 October - with Sporting Braga v Benfica the standout fixture on that Sunday.

Liga review/preview - w/c 22/09/14

The perennial charge of the minnows early on in the Portuguese season has predictably hiccupped after just five jornadas.

Rio Ave had headed the table going into this weekend, but possibly because of fatigue – physical and mental – following their Europa League exploits (0-3 at home to Dynamo Kiev), they lost their first game, 1-2 on an inexplicably balding home pitch to fellow minnows Arouca, who are proving a hard nut to crack; they beat Sporting Braga 1-0 last week. David Simão got a long-range winner on 52 minutes … and was sent off a minute later for a second yellow. But Pedro Emanuel’s Arouca held out and sit comfortably in mid-table … for now. “We don’t sell dreams”, said Rio Ave coach Pedro Martins after the game. No … but it was nice while it lasted.

Vitória de Guimarães, second in the table and without European duty to bother them, might have been expected to take the points from Paços de Ferreira, but this Paços is getting back to its combative best under Paulo Fonseca, who had such a torrid time at FC Porto last season; he appears to have re-found his level. Paços took a well-deserved point from the Estádio D. Afonso Henriques. They might have built on their early lead though Bruno Moreira, but Hélder Lopes was sent off for a second yellow on 55 minutes and Uruguayan striker Jonatan Alvez gave Vitória a point ten minutes later. It was heartening to see Paços going for the win throughout, despite their numerical disadvantage.

Vitória were top for a day but that spot was grabbed on Sunday by Benfica as they overcame the severe difficulties posed by Moreirense to ultimately beat them 3-1 at the Luz. Moreirense’s João Pedro slipped past left back Eliseu to head in from close range on 16 minutes. Moreirense defender Marcelo Oliveira saw a second yellow on 57 minutes, and ten minutes later Eliseu made amends for his defensive lapse with a cracking shot from 30 metres out; he’s something of a specialist in those – he got a similar one to break the deadlock against Boavista in the second jornada. With Moreirense’s resolve waning, it was only a question of time until Benfica took the lead – ten minutes, in fact, the other full-back Maxi Pereira charging into the area to beat Marafona. On 83, Lima got his first goal in 13 official games, and that a penalty which he won himself.

Benfica are on 13 points, two clear of Vitória de Guimarães and FC Porto, who missed a golden chance to go equal top when they dropped two points in the first Porto derby in seven years. Porto had thrashed BATE Borisov 6-0 midweek in the Champions League, so Boavista must have seemed like they would be a doddle; not so. On a difficult surface – the game was delayed for 45 minutes as torrential rain made it unplayable – Boavista’s game plan, which involved parking buses all over the pitch, stifled and frustrated their neighbours, who had 82% of possession! Porto’s case wasn’t helped by the red card for Maicon on 26 minutes for a reckless studs-up, from-behind lunge on Anderson Correia, a card furiously contested, wrongly, by Porto coach Julen Lopetegui. Boavista defended superbly; they won’t have made any friends outside their own fans and Benfica’s, but they had to play to their strengths, which is exactly this. Worrying for them is that in five games, they’ve scored just one goal – an own goal against Académica last weekend. They have four points but they can’t go on depending on 0-0 draws and marginal wins. But coach Petit is optimistic: “We’re growing day by day”, he said.

Sporting had the most robust result of the jornada. Their cocky stroll in Barcelos rendered four goals to Gil Vicente’s none, a performance dynamised by youngster João Mário in midfield – possibly the missing piece Marco Silva has been looking for. He assisted in the last two goals from Slimani and Carrillo, although Gil were already broken by two superb goals in two minutes early on from Adrien and Nani. Adrien’s goal from outside the area hit the net at almost 100 kms an hour and might have taken Adriano’s fingers off if he’d got anywhere near it. “Sporting urgently need a victory”, Marco Silva had said before the game. His players certainly came up with the goods on Sunday. Sporting are one of four teams that are still unbeaten: the others are Benfica, Vitória de Guimarães and FC Porto. The other side of the coin: Gil are rock bottom with just one point, and their weedy display against Sporting does not augur well for them.

Sporting are 6th, four points behind Lisbon rivals Benfica and sandwiched between Belenenses and Marítimo, both having perhaps surprisingly bright starts to the season. Belenenses coach Lito Vidigal complained at the time that he hadn’t been given all the players he asked for during the transfer window, but in fact he’s doing very nicely with what he’s got, thank you very much. In previous games, Miguel Rosa has been the provider but this time he got the only goal five minutes from time in a 1-0 home win over table-rivals Marítimo. Belenenses join Rio Ave in the European places on ten points.

Sporting and Marítimo have nine points, one more than Sporting Braga who made the difficult trip to Madeiran side Nacional. In front of 1,948 at the Choupana, there was yet another red card, Braga defender Aderllan Santos seeing a second yellow on 54 minutes. Two minutes later, Gomaa put Nacional in front and it looked like numerical advantage might win the day ... until the 82nd minute when Zé Luís won Braga a point.

At the bottom, Penafiel sneaked temporarily out of the two-club drop zone with their first win of the season, 2-0 at home to irregular Vitória de Setúbal, who have the worst defence in the league (10 goals conceded). They had two men sent off: Advincula with a straight red on 50 minutes, Manú with a second yellow on 77. Guedes and André Fontes got the Penafiel goals. There were just 1,037 at the Estádio 25 de Abril …

Monday’s Académica v Estoril Praia saw the eighth red card of the jornada – at the beginning of the second half, Iago was adjudged to have smacked Nuno Lopes in the face with an elbow, but slo-mo replays showed that the Estoril player might have made a bit of a meal of it. Académica were 2-1 up at the time. They’d gone ahead on the half hour with a penalty by Schumacher after a supposed hand-ball by Emídio Rafael (but the ball hit him in the chest). Captain Marinho made it 2-0 on 38 minutes but Kuca reduced the lead just before the break. The Cape-Verdean forward, who has the build of a Moroccan long-distance runner, scored his second, his third of the season, on 77 minutes and it was one-way traffic from then on. Balboa hit the bar for Estoril in the closing minutes, but ultimately the points had to be shared for the 2-2 draw. The point meant that Académica – who, like Gil Vicente, have yet to win – crept out of the relegation spots, swapping with Penafiel, who returned there after their all-too brief holiday away.

Jornada 6 kicks off on Friday with a mouth-watering clássico: Sporting v FC Porto. Other highlights are Benfica’s trip along the coast to Estoril Praia and Rio Ave’s reception of Sporting Braga.

European competitions - w/c 18/09/14

There were mixed results for the Portuguese teams as they opened their European campaigns this week. FC Porto were the pick of the bunch.

After a nightmare 2013/14 season, this one has got off to a cracking start for Porto under Basque coach Julen Lopetgui. The club have signed a shedload of players and whether because of luck or judgement, they seem to a man to have been excellent signings. Shining out from all of them is Algerian forward Yacine Brahimi, who cost the club just €6.5m from Spanish club Granada – a price that’s looking increasingly like the bargain of the year, anywhere. He has excellent feet, he’s quick and sharp, and he has an eye for goal and a knack for the spectacular. On Wednesday he scored an exceptional hat-trick in Porto’s 6-0 Champions League demolition of BATE Borisov at the Dragão. The first was half-gifted to him by BATE ‘keeper Sergei Chernik, who fluffed a throw out that fell to the Algerian international, but Brahimi still had plenty to do to take the ball on and thump it in from a tight angle. His second goal was a hymn to talent, speed and confidence as he picked the ball up in his own half and left a string of BATE players flailing in his wake before scoring neatly. And his third was a sublime free kick that had Ricardo Quaresma hugging him with delight; you don’t often see ‘Harry Potter’ that happy these days. Brahimi was rewarded by being subbed later so that he could drink in the standing ovation that was more than richly deserved. As A Bola succinctly summed up in its review of his performance, for which he was awarded 9/10: “Um craque!” (‘a star’). The other goals were scored by Jackson Martínez, Adrian López and Vincent Aboubakar. After the game Lopetgui said: “We’re moderately satisfied with the result.” He must in fact have been struggling to hold himself back from doing a jig on the spot; it was a fantastic opening performance and result for Porto. In the other Group H game, Athletic Bilbao and Shakhtar drew 0-0.

Benfica’s game at the Luz on Tuesday also had a beacon of brilliance; unfortunately for them, he was playing for the other side. Zenit’s Hulk knows the Lisbon club’s facilities like the back of his hand; the ex- FC Porto player had an alleged run-in with security staff in the players’ tunnel following a Benfica v FCP clássico in December 2009 (1-0), after which he was punished with a four-month ban, later quashed but only after most of it had been served. Some commentators attribute Benfica’s conquest of that season’s title to the suspension of Porto’s main threat at the time. So Tuesday night must have tasted quite sweet to Hulk as time and time again he tore holes in Benfica’s defence, although he did claim after the match: “I played for Benfica's greatest rivals, but that doesn't mean that I hate Benfica.” Hulk was aided in his work up front on Tuesday by out of favour Portuguese international Danny and the brilliant Shatov. It was the Russian international who fed Hulk to score Zenit’s first on just five minutes. Benfica were hamstrung on 18 minutes when Artur brought down Danny, through on goal. The ‘keeper was sent off and to compound things, Benfica went further behind four minutes later, Axel Witsel heading past substitute goalkeeper Paulo Lopes from a corner. Witsel was one of three Zenit players returning to the Luz, the other two Ezequiel Garay and Javi Garcia. Benfica improved greatly in the second half and put up a spirited fight back, but the final result, 0-2, was a fair one; the better team won on the night. In the other Group C game, Mónaco beat Bayer Leverkusen 1-0.

Sporting’s main problem so far this season has been scoring goals. They have an average of one a game in the league, and that average was neatly but frustratingly extended on Wednesday in Slovenia. Maribor should, on paper, have been accessible to Sporting, and indeed they had the most shots of all the teams competing in the Champions League this week. However, they had to wait until the 80th minute for their single goal, a superb strike from Nani. Even so, that looked to be enough going into added time, but then Sporting’s two centre-backs, Maurício and Sarr, conspired with some comical (if you’re not a Sportinguista) defending to gift a goal to Luka Zahovic, son of former FC Porto and Benfica midfielder Zlatko. The two defenders were given 2/10 each by a Bola for their pains. “We can’t concede these types of goals,” said Nani afterwards, barely able to contain his frustration. In the other Group G game, Chelsea drew 1-1 with Schalke.

In the Europa League on Thursday, neither of Portugal’s representatives managed a point.

Estoril came the closest if the scoreline from Eindhoven was anything to go by, but 1-0 hides the fact that PSV were dominant throughout the first half and could have had a hatful. For all their pressure, the only goal came from a penalty by Luuk de Jong on 26 minutes after Mano had fouled. Estoril failed to qualify last season with three points from the group phase, and they were a better team then than now. In the other Group E game on Thursday, Panathinaikos lost to Dynamo Moscow 1-2. “The teams that won these first games are the strongest in the group,” said Estoril coach José Couceiro. “It’s not easy to face teams of Champions League quality.”

That looks a tougher group than Rio Ave’s, but the side from Vila do Conde in the north of Portugal got off to the worst of starts in their first ever European game proper with a 0-3 home reverse at the hands of Miguel Veloso’s Dynamo Kiev. There was a fierce wind blowing the length of the Arcos pitch in the first half but Rio Ave captain Tarantini chose the wrong end to defend after he won the toss. Dynamo exploited the climatic conditions with wind-assisted pressure and two shots from outside the box by Yarmolenko and Belhanda, on 20 and 25 minutes respectively, that picked up pace and whipped past Cássio. On 70 minutes, Belhanda tried from outside the box again but this time Cássio parried … only for Kravets to get to the rebound first and tuck it in. “The result’s excessive, but that’s football”, said Rio Ave coach Pedro Martins afterwards. In the other Group J game, Steaua Bucharest stonked Danish side Aalborg 6-0, two of the goals coming from former Sporting Braga striker Rusescu.

The Portuguese teams’ results this week mean that Portugal drops to 5th in the UEFA rankings, overtaken by Italy. But 4th and 5th place give the same number of places in the European competitions: (i) two direct Champions League spots and one CL pre-qualifying place; (ii) three Europa League places, one of which direct.

Liga review/preview - w/c 15/09/14

It was a weekend of many firsts in the Portuguese Primeira Liga.

Leaders Rio Ave, and Vitória de Guimarães and FC Porto, all dropped their first points. Rio Ave were foiled by ex-player Vítor Gomes at Moreirense where it finished 1-1. In time-honoured tradition, Gomes was reluctant to celebrate his goal. Vitória and Porto met at a practically full Estádio D. Afonso Henriques (25,358) in Guimarães. Once again, 1-1 was the final score, each side given a penalty. Jackson Martínez scored Porto’s, keeping at the top of the goal-scorer table with five. André André (what were his parents thinking?) scored Guimarães spot-kick, the first goal FC Porto have conceded. Porto coach Julen Lopetegui lost his rag for the first time, laying into the referee for a couple of dubious decisions.

Benfica enjoyed their first goleada (winning by three or more goals) of the season, seeing off Vitória de Setúbal 5-0 at the Bonfim. New signing Talisca got the first hat-trick of his career. Rio Ave, Vitória de Guimarães, Benfica and FC Porto, in that order, share top spot on ten points.

Sporting Braga missed the chance to join them by losing their first game of the season, 1-0 at Arouca, for whom André Claro got an early goal. It was Arouca’s first win.

At the bottom, Boavista got their first goal of the season … although they didn’t actually get it – it was an own goal by Académica’s full back Ofori in the 1-0 win at the Bessa, Boavista’s first. By the reaction of the players and the coaching staff, including the splendid Petit, they might have won the title itself … again.

Still at the bottom, Gil Vicente got their first point of the season in a 1-1 draw at Paços de Ferreira, in new coach José Mota’s first game in charge after taking over from João de Deus, coïncidentally at the ground where he made his name as a coach. Poor old Penafiel are yet to get off the mark and remain the lanterna vermelha (red lantern); they lost 0-2 at promising Marítimo, for whom this was a third straight win. Estoril left the bottom places with their first win, 2-1 at home to struggling Nacional, Bruno Miguel with both goals.

Finally, Sporting – not for the first time – frustrated their fans with their lack of killer instinct in front of goal. They had the majority of possession, the majority of pressure, the majority of shots … but still they could only draw 1-1 (the fourth such draw of the jornada) at home to highly organised Belenenses. Sporting have scored just four goals in four games and have dropped six points. An incensed club president, Bruno de Carvalho, and equally incensed players surrounded referee Cosme Machado after the final whistle, protesting what they saw as controversial decisions, including the sending-off of full-back Jefferson for words. But as always, if they’d filled the onion bag when they had the chance, they wouldn’t have needed to complain. A modest Belenenses side are responding well to coach Lito Vidigal and are riding relatively high: seventh on seven points.

The highlight of next weekend’s jornada 5 will be, for sentimental reasons, the Porto derby: FCP v Boavista, the first since Boavista’s return to the top flight. As Panteras will have to be at their fiercest to avoid a roasting from the Dragões’ fiery breath.

Transfer Deadline review - 03/09/14

The main story on transfer deadline day in Portugal was less about who had flown out through the window than who was left indoors when it was closed.

During the summer, champions Benfica lost some key figures from their dream squad of last season: ‘keeper Jan Oblak (Atlético Madrid), centre-back Ezequiel Garay (Zenit), forwards Rodrigo (Valência) and Markovic (Liverpool), and striker Óscar Cardozo (Trabsonspor). After the clear-out, two players were left who foreign clubs were reportedly slavering over: Argentinain midfielders Nico Gaitán, long on Manchester United’s shopping list, and perhaps the team’s star player of last year, Enzo Pérez, who was being eyed by Valência. Had either or both of these been sold, benfiquistas feared a season of frustrating under-achievement. As it is, they stayed – whether happily or not, only time will tell. The club’s principal signings were goalkeeper Júlio César (QPR), left back Eliseu (Málaga), and midfielders Bryan Cristante (Milan) and Andreas Samaris (Panathinaikos). Benfica have been lucky with Greek players – Katsouranis and Karagounis both had good spells at the Luz. Cristante, just 19, arrives under a storm of protest from Milan tiffosi – which can only mean he’s regarded as a bit useful. The team looks thin up front, however; Lima will most certainly miss his fruitful partnerships with Cardozo and Rodrigo.

A couple of kilometres along the Segunda Circular ring road at Alvalade, Sporting also managed to keep hold of a vital player in midfielder William Carvalho, despite pressure from English clubs. It seems that he was keen to leave, though, and recent performances have been well under par compared to the high standards he set himself last season. Also wanting to leave were Argentinian centre-back Rojo and Algerian striker Slimani, both of whom figured strongly in the World Cup. They threw their toys out of the pram to try to force a move, but the club, in the person of tough president Bruno Carvalho, would not be browbeaten. Rojo was forced to issue an obsequious public apology for his behaviour before being allowed to sign for Manchester United, while Slimani caved in and decided to stay, exhibiting his ‘love’ for the club by fervently kissing the badge on his shirt after he scored against Benfica at the weekend. If his head is in the right place, he will be vital for Sporting, with the other striking option Montero chronically off the boil. A move to Southampton, among others, was mooted for Spanish winger Diego Capel but that fell through. The club has a wealth of wingers: Capel, Carlos Mané, the Peruvian Carrillo, Heldon (reported to be on his way to a Romanian club) and of course Nani, who has returned on loan to his old hunting ground for footballing rehabilitation after feeling he was being marginalised at Manchester United. The French youth international Hadi Sacko comes in to reinforce the midfield.

There has been a great deal of movement at FC Porto. They always need to sell one or two big names to balance the books, and this season was no exception: French centre-back Eliaquim Mangala and Brazilian midfielder Fernando were off-loaded to Manchester City for a total of 55 million euros, while Steven Defour returned to Belgium in an unpopular (for the home fans) move to Anderlecht for six million, and under-used Argentinian forward Juan Iturbe signed for Verona for 15 million. Also out, all on loan, go winger Silvestre Varela to West Brom, one of Algeria’s World Cup heroes, the striker Ghilas (Córdoba), and Brazilian forward Kelvin (Evian), a hero two seasons ago when his added time goal against Benfica at the Dragão virtually handed Porto the title. New Spanish coach Julen Lopetegui has been surrounding himself with compatriots, in the manner of Arséne Wenger: forward Cristian Tello (Barcelona) and midfielders Óliver Torres (Atlético Madrid) and José Campaña (Sampdoria), all on loan; and ‘keeper Andrés Fernández (Osasuna), defenders José Angel (Roma) and Ivan Marcano (Rubin) and forward Adrián (Atlético Madrid). To replace Mangala they’ve brought in Dutch international Matins Indi, who has already formed a strong partnership with dependable Brazilian Maicon. A good loan deal seems to be that of Brazilian midfielder Casemiro from Real Madrid, while another Algerian World Cup hero, the talented forward Yacine Brahimi (Granada), has taken just a handful of games to well and truly win the hearts of portistas. A late signing was Brazilian Otávio from Internacional, to compete with 17-year-old revelation Rúben Neves for a place in midfield. But perhaps the most important ‘reinforcement’ is Colombian striker Jackson Martínez, who seemed bound for the exit but stayed on and has scored four league goals already.

Elsewhere, surprise league leaders at the third jornada, Rio Ave, had to lose forward Filipe Augusto to former coach Nuno Espírito Santo at Valência but managed to hang on to excellent centre-back Marcelo, which will prove vital as the small northern club defend their top spot and set off on their first ever European adventure. Other sides have sniffed out good deals on cast-offs from the big clubs: Sporting Braga have borrowed the Guinea-Bissau forward Sami from FC Porto after he couldn’t make his mark at the Dragão, following a previous move from Marítimo. Kléber has moved from FC Porto to Estoril in identical circumstances. And Paços de Ferreira have signed the underrated Uruguayan winger Urreta from Benfica.

Liga review/preview - w/c 02/09/14

What a start for Rio Ave and Vitória de Guimarães! The former team are top after three games, with three wins, 11 goals for (!) and only one against. The latter are second, same wins, nine goals for, one against.

Rio Ave, riding a wave of local enthusiasm after their heroic qualification for the Europa League, might have been excused for getting a bit cocky and slipping up in their third Liga outing. But no; a well-balanced ‘team’ – in the true sense of the word – ultimately crushed a spirited but terribly naïve and worryingly toothless Boavista 4-0 on Monday. Boavista had improved over their two previous games, albeit two defeats. Now they have a prial, against three of the top five sides. In all of those games they’ve had a player sent off – this time it was centre-back Lucas Rocha – and in none have they managed to get on the score sheet. A couple of faintly bright spots for them: winger Leozinho made his debut and looked useful in bursts; and although they’re at the foot of the table (no goals for, eight against), there are two other teams yet to get off the mark points-wise: Gil Vicente and Penafiel.

Like Rio Ave, Gil Vicente were one of the surprise teams at the start of last season, but they tailed off badly. The board kept faith with coach João de Deus for the new season, but lost it almost immediately after three defeats – the latest 1-2 at home to Marítimo, the Madeira side’s second win. And so we had the first of the infamous chicotadas psicológicas (‘psychological whiplashes’), the coach sacked to try to knock the team out of their lethargy. It won’t be the last ‘whiplash’, that’s for sure. Already boavisteiro voices are being raised on the social media to urge the dismissal of coach Petit, former coach Jaime Pacheco the most mentioned to replace him. But it would be unfair to judge Petit prematurely, saddled as he is with a hurriedly-assembled squad of less-than-top-class players. Perhaps the coming lull will do them good.

Vitória de Guimarães are the other team that’s rather unexpectedly riding high. Their football is brisk and confident, their efficiency deadly. The latest victims were Belenenses in Belém, three goals doing the job for the third straight game. Belenenses had come from two wins but had no answer for the irrepressible Vitória, although English ‘keeper Matt Jones was perhaps a little at fault for two of the goals. The bad news continued for them into the early hours: according to sports daily A Bola, later confirmed by the club, forward Abel Camará was stabbed in the back at a Lisbon night-club after someone attempted to steal his sister-in-law’s phone and he reacted. The Luso-Guinean at first denied the incident: “I was at home – only if something happened at my house and I didn’t know about it.” He’ll be out for several weeks.

There’s a two-week break now for international games, which both Rio Ave and Vitória will no doubt be ruing as an interruption to their momentum. Rio Ave will return at tricky but accessible Moreirense while Vitória will have a sterner task: the visit of FC Porto.

FC Porto are gliding on a wave of optimism of their own – they too have nine points and are the only club with three clean sheets. The new coach, Julen Lopetegui, a crisp style of play, the clear-out of some dead wood (Varela, Josué, Licá) and the signing of some very useful newcomers (Casemiro, Martins Indi, Óliver, the very wonderful Brahimi) have all buoyed portistas after a horrible 2013-14. Sunday’s home game started with what must be something of a record: Moreirense kicked off, Bolívia (now calling himself Edivaldo) took two paces forward with the ball and was body-checked by Casemiro, with three seconds on the clock. The Brazilian forward was stretchered off. But Moreirense did prove tricky opponents and held Porto until the 70th minute when Óliver broke the deadlock. Jackson Martínez got the other two to make it 3-0 and to take his personal tally to four; he’s the Liga’s top scorer. There was a piece of bad news and some bad vibes for Porto: Óliver later dislocated a shoulder in an innocuous-looking challenge on the ‘keeper Marafona; and although Lopetegui appeared to forgive Ricardo Quaresma for recent indiscipline by fielding him from the start, he gave the captain’s armband to Jackson Martínez – a light slap down for ‘Harry Potter’ which will only keep the controversy surrounding him rumbling on.

The weekend’s showcase game was of course the Lisbon Derby, much anticipated because of the levelling of the quality of Benfica and Sporting’s squads since last season. It was, as always, a tense affair in front of 61,895 at the Luz. Benfica took an early lead through Gaitán but their impetus was undone by a moment of folly from their ‘keeper Artur. He’s a re-offender with his feet, and this time it proved fatal as he tried to chip a pass to left-back Eliseu, the ball bounced off Sporting winger Carrillo, looped back towards the goal and Slimani was quickest to it to head it into the empty net. (After his recent spat with the club in the context of an in-or-out transfer saga, Slimani’s kissing of the badge can only have been ironic.) Artur is either 8 or 80 (as they say in Portugal); he gifted Sporting their goal but kept Benfica in the game in the dying minutes with a stupendous save from Slimani. The Benfica-centric A Bola for one was not prepared to forgive him and gave him a humiliating 2 out of 10. It gave Sporting’s ‘keeper Rui Patrício 7 out of 10 and made him Man of the Match. Benfica coach Jorge Jesus has made a point of keeping faith with Artur, especially after his penalty shoot-out heroics against Rio Ave in the Supertaça. Surely he will now be tempted to give new signing Júlio César his debut at Vitória de Setúbal in two weeks’ time.

Sporting are 8th, four points off the pace already, and meet Belenenses in the 4th jornada. Benfica are 5th behind Sporting Braga, who have started brightly under Sérgio Conceição. To start them off on Saturday Pedro Santos scored what will be seen as one of the best goals of the season come May. Emídio Rafael equalised with a cracking free-kick for Estoril but Éder gave Braga all three points with an eye-catching swivel-shot. A stand-out for Braga is Pedro Tiba, signed from Vitória de Setúbal, who got his first call-up to the national squad this week; well deserved, too. Estoril Praia, on the other hand, are very disappointing so far under new coach José Couceiro; they certainly seem to have lost the Marco Silva-inspired mojo that saw them riding high in the league in the last couple of seasons (5th and 4th).

Elsewhere, Nacional swallowed the disappointment of their Europa League exit against Dynamo Minsk in midweek to get their first win: 2-0 at home to Arouca. Also off the mark are Paços de Ferreira, 1-0 winners at Penafiel. Former Sporting coaches Paulo Sérgio (now at Académica) and Domingos Paciência (Vitória de Setúbal) shared the points in a 1-1 draw in Coimbra.

Seleção news - 30/08/14

On Tuesday, 26 August, the president of the Portuguese Football Federation (FPF), Fernando Gomes, gave a press conference to sign off on Portugal’s World Cup campaign, two months after the Seleção plunged out of the competition at the group stage. “What the Board of the FPF and the coaching team believe is that neither the training camp and two games played in the USA, nor the place we were based [Campinas, São Paulo] had any influence on the negative outcome.” 

But he was categorical that overall: “We weren’t competent. We weren’t able to achieve the minimum objective demanded of Portugal. We worked for more, for a lot more than what we achieved.” After announcing various changes in the Seleção’s behind the scenes structure, notably on the medical side – the campaign was plagued by muscular injuries – Gomes said: “When you lose, not everything’s bad. We made the conscious and considered option to renew the coach Paulo Bento’s contract until the European Championship, so that he could be in charge of a necessary process of transition.”

Gomes addressed the subject of bringing young players through – an aspect of selection for the senior side to which Paulo Bento has given short shrift. “We’re top of the UEFA rankings in respect of youth teams. We believe that we’re doing a good, quality job there, and we decided that it was necessary that the national coach should be closer to those teams. That’s why we’ve decided to create a National Technical Coordinating Office, to be led by three people: Paulo Bento, Rui Jorge [the U-21 coach] and Ilídio Vale [who took the U-20 side to the 2011 World Cup Final].”

So it’s an apparently trusted Paulo Bento that takes Portugal into the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. This week he named his squad for the opener on 07 September against Albania in Aveiro.

Goalkeepers: Anthony Lopes (Lyon), Eduardo (Dynamo Zagreb), Rui Patrício (Sporting).

Defenders: André Almeida (Benfica), Fábio Coentrão (Real Madrid), João Pereira (Valência), Pepe (Real Madrid), Neto (Zenit), Ricardo Costa (Al-Sailiya/Qatar), Ruben Vezo (Valência), Antunes (Málaga).

Midfielders: Adrien (Sporting), André Gomes (Valência), João Moutinho (Mónaco), Miguel Veloso (Dynamo Kiev), Pedro Tiba (Sporting Braga), Raul Meireles (Fenerbahçe), William Carvalho (Sporting).

Forwards: Vieirinha (Wolfsburg), Bruma (Galatasaray), Éder (Sporting Braga), Ivan Cavaleiro (Deportivo Coruña), Nani (Sporting), Ricardo Horta (Málaga)

Glaringly absent from the squad is the person who has been carrying it for several seasons: Cristiano Ronaldo. Paulo Bento justified his exclusion: “The indications that our medical department have are that Cristiano Ronaldo is not fit to compete and so we opted not to call him up.” Also absent are Word Cup choices Hélder Postiga and Hugo Almeida. “Their situation is different because they’re not competing and they’re not involved in any training programme,” said Bento. Their absence means that the squad is left with only one out-and-out striker: Braga’s Éder.

New faces compared to the World Cup squad are Bruma, Adrien, Ruben Vezo, Ricardo Horta, André Gomes and Ivan Cavaleiro. Adrien only just missed the cut for the World Cup after a very good 2013-14 season with Sporting. Cavaleiro was deemed surplus to Benfica’s requirements for the coming season and was loaned to Deportivo. Bruma and André Gomes have been called up before.

Portugal have won three of their four previous meetings with Albania, but they drew 0-0 in Braga for World Cup 2010 qualification. “We’re expecting a complicated game against Albania,” said Bento, “just as happened in qualification for this World Cup, where they created a lot of difficulties for Switzerland. We also had a lot of problems with them before 2010, so we’re expecting complications. But we want to start off by winning. That’s our aim.” The other teams in Group I are Denmark, Serbia and Armenia.

Portugal in Europe - 30/08/14

Portugal will be well represented in Europe this season, being dealt almost a full-house.

Only Madeiran side Nacional failed to qualify for the Europa League (EL) proper. Nacional have had a poor start to the season, losing both league games without scoring. They also failed to score in Minsk in the first leg of the EL play-off against the local Dynamo, which proved fatal in the return. Marco Matias scored from the spot to throw Nacional a lifeline, but two goals from Dynamo before the break effectively sentenced Nacional to view the rest of the competition from the sofa. It finished 2-3, 2-5 on aggregate.

Rio Ave had a similar task on their hands, returning to Vila do Conde with a 1-2 defeat from the first leg against Elfsborg, but the away goal proved vital in the overall scheme of things. Rio Ave plugged away against a Swedish side intent on holding on. Their ploy worked … until added time when a route-1 clearance from ‘keeper Cássio found its way through to sub Esmael who fluffed his shot (“It was the most accurate mis-hit of my career”), the ball slipping past the advancing Ellegaard and rolling slowly but surely into the empty net. Cue pandemonium on the pitch and in the stands. This will be, after all, the club’s first ever taste of European competitions, and Esmael is sure to go down in the club’s history as a symbol of the feat. Rio Ave join automatic qualifiers Estoril in the EL group stage.

Estoril got the short straw in the draw for the EL groups: PSV (Holland), Panathinaikos (Greece) and Moscow Dynamo (Russia). Rio Ave will play Dynamo Kiev (Ukraine), Steaua Bucharest (Romania) and Aalborg (Denmark).

The bigger prize, the Champions League (CL), already had two automatic representatives from Portugal: Benfica and Sporting. FC Porto couldn’t be left with their nose squashed against the window, watching their two bitter rivals enjoy themselves at the party, but to get an invitation they had to finish off Lille. The 1-0 lead from the first leg was valuable, but such was Porto’s superiority at the Dragão in the return that they could have brought a defeat back and still done the deed. As it was, two goals saw off the French side, Man of the Match Brahimi having a hand in both – scoring the first from a free-kick and feeding Jackson Martínez for the second. After a disciplinary problem with Lopetegui, Ricardo Quaresma was back in the squad for the game, but he went to the bench and wasn’t used. Portuguese journalists sniffed controversy and threw baited questions towards the coach, but he wasn’t biting: “There are no films,” he said. Porto president Pinto da Costa was more blunt: “I don’t respond to stupid questions.”

Thursday’s draw for the CL group stage saw Porto get dealt perhaps the ‘easiest’ hand of the three Portuguese sides, at least on paper: they face BATE Borisov (the opener, at home on 17 September), Athletic Bilbao and Shakhtar Donetsk.

The other two Portuguese CL clubs have trickier times ahead. Sporting meet Maribor (the opener, away on 17 September), Schalke 04 and <gulp> Chelsea. Reacting to the draw, Chelsea boss José Mourinho was very complimentary about Portuguese football: “I respect Portuguese teams a lot and not because I’m Portuguese but because I know them well. If the [Portuguese] championship isn’t very strong, the Big Three are indeed Big, with potential, history, status and experienced players who aren’t afraid of big moments. Sporting are difficult opponents.”

Benfica have to get past Zenit (the opener, at home on 16 September), Mónaco and Bayer Leverkusen. Mónaco’s Portuguese coach, formerly of Sporting, Leonardo Jardim, played down the difficulty of the group: “It’s a group without very strong teams, but with four good clubs that have a good deal of quality.” Benfica’s representative at the draw, ex-striker Nuno Gomes, could perhaps have been a little more bullish: “Looking at the group, we can’t tell who’s going to go through.”

Liga review/preview - w/c 25/08/14

The Big Three all had similar problems this weekend against lesser opposition, with identical outcomes.

On Friday, FC Porto travelled to ‘The Capital of Furniture’, Paços de Ferreira, where they met up again with coach Paulo Fonseca. Fonseca had done great things with Paços on his last stint there, which had earned him a step up to FC Porto for last season – a step too far, as it turned out. He was disastrous and has returned to the smaller club, his real level. Paços put in a typically feisty performance and it took a single goal from Hector Herrera to separate the sides.

On Saturday, Sporting welcomed back Nani, on loan from Manchester United. He’s not the player he once was and made little impression in the home game against a well-organised Arouca, in front of 37,000 expectant Sportinguistas. His ego’s intact though; Sporting earned a penalty midway through the second half and Nani grabbed the ball. “He was feeling confident”, said the normal penalty-taker Adrien afterwards. The worst was on the cards and it happened: Nani’s paradinha didn’t fool the excellent Goicoichea in the Arouca goal, who pushed the spot-kick against the post. Luckily for Nani, sub Carlos Mané was on hand to nab the winner in added time. “Mané saves Nani” ran sports daily O Jogo’s front page banner the next day.

Benfica had the honour of christening Boavista’s artificial pitch in the top division on Sunday. Maybe it was because they weren’t used to it, or maybe it was because Boavista produced a brand of aggressive football that they couldn’t handle – whatever the reason, the champions made heavy going of it and needed a cracking strike from left back Eliseu just before the break to snatch the points. Boavista are equal bottom with no points and have not looked like scoring in either of their opening games. Worrying for Boavisteiros, who will nevertheless be proud of the heart and organisation of their team in defence and midfield.

Boavista travel to Rio Ave next weekend, a trip they will hardly relish. Rio Ave, still in with a shout for qualifying for the Europa League, are the surprise leaders after two games. They ripped Estoril apart on Sunday, Egyptian striker Hassan scoring a hat-trick in their 5-1 away win. Giddy times in Vila do Conde.

Second and third on goal difference are two other surprises. Vitória de Guimarães have the most fervent following in Portugal after the Big Three, and they’ll be boiling over with enthusiasm at the form of their young side. Nineteen-year-old Ghanaian Bernard scored two in Vitória’s 3-0 win over Penafiel; he now has three to his name. The disappointing thing about the game was the state of the pitch at the Estádio D. Afonso Henriques. If there have been grumbles about Boavista’s artificial surface, what to say of a pitch that looks like a piece of waste ground? 

Third are Belenenses, who beat hapless Nacional 3-1, Miguel Rosa the star with a direct hand in all three goals. Nacional, who lost 0-2 in Minsk during the week and have one foot out of the Europa League, have no points and join Paços de Ferreira, Gil Vicente, Boavista and Penafiel at the foot of the table. Some coaches will already be looking over their shoulders for the ‘chicotada psicológica’ (‘psychological whiplash’) – sacking, to me and you.

Elsewhere, Vitória de Setúbal and Marítimo got their first wins, 2-0 over Gil Vicente and 2-1 over Académica, respectively.

Either Moreirense or Sporting Braga could join the leading pack on Monday when they meet in Moreira de Cónegos.

Jornada 3 highlights will be the clássico Benfica v Sporting on Sunday 31/08. Missing from the bench will be coach Jorge Jesus, sent off at half-time of the win over Boavista for (screamed) words to the ref. The other highlight will be - who’d have thought it? - top-of-the-table clash Belenenses v Vitória de Guimarães on Saturday 30/08.

Liga review/preview - w/c 18/08/14

And …. they’re off!

The Portuguese season is now well and truly under way with some intriguing football on the pitch and a certain amount of footballing intrigue off it.

Benfica swept all before them last season, nabbing all the trophies they were in the race for except the Europa League, which they lost again in the Final (on penalties to Sevilla). Even anti-benfiquistas had to admit that this was something of a dream team; they played the best football in the country and needed little or no help from the refs to get the results. But the close season saw them forced to dismantle the squad due to tight finances, not helped, allegedly, by the failure of important Portuguese bank BES (Banco Espírito Santo – the one advertised by Cristiano Ronaldo) and the links between the two.

Goalkeeper Oblak, full-back Siqueira, centre back Garay, midfielder Markovic, forward Rodrigo and striker Cardozo have all packed their bags, and influential midfielders/wingers Enzo Pérez and Gaitán are still in the shop window and may be gone by the time the transfer window closes. In come goalkeeper Júlio César, left-back Eliseu, forward Bebé (now ‘Tiago’) and some returnees, including wingers Ola John and Pizzi and forward Franco Jara. The net effect of the moves is clearly a negative one.

Having said that, the players that remain have produced a couple of reasonable results in the first two ‘official’ games: a win on penalties in the ‘Supertaça’ against Rio Ave (0-0) and a 2-0 win over Paços de Ferreira.

This weekend sees them take on newly promoted Boavista on the artificial pitch of the Bessa XXI. The Panteras have been out of the top flight since 2008 when they were forcibly relegated for allegedly trying to fix games through referees. That decision was overturned and they’ve been parachuted back into the top division, but they’ve had to cobble together a squad with some players from their recent third-tier campaigns and other cheap-as-chips signings of as-yet unknown quality. They will no doubt struggle this season – they lost their opener 0-3 at Sporting Braga – and to survive will need the heart and organisation that former player and now coach Petit can give them. On Sunday they’ll be hoping that their plastic pitch can confound the (on paper) far superior Benfica.

With their uncertain financial position, you would have thought that Benfica might want to try to blood some academy players. Think again; the home-grown Ivan Cavaleiro, Bernardo Silva and João Cancelo have all been loaned out, while promising midfielder André Gomes has been sold to Valência.

Local rivals Sporting have no such qualms about exposing young players to the hurly-burly of senior football. This is, after all, the club that produced arguably Portugal’s greatest player of all time – Cristiano Ronaldo – as well as Figo, João Moutinho, Nani (now returned to the fold on loan from Manchester United) … and a whole host of others, including current first-teamers Rui Patrício, Cédric, André Martins, Adrien, Carlos Mané and jewel in the crown William Carvalho.

William, who is on the radar of Arsenal, among others, has been accused of trying to force a transfer by deliberately playing under par – and getting sent off – in their first game at Académica, which ended in a 1-1 draw. Midfielder Adrien took up the baton of typical sportinguista discourse after the game, (unjustifiably) blaming the referee for the lost points. Young coach Marco Silva, whose great work at Estoril earned him the step up to a Grande, refreshingly avoided any such criticism and focussed on his team’s inability to hit the back of the onion bag, given the numerous chances they created.

They might have done better had the Algerian striker Slimani lined up, but he’s at odds with the club over his bid to get transferred out; and he promised so much after his displays at the World Cup. Another player in the same position was Marcos Rojo, but he got his wish (after a cringe-worthy public apology over his behaviour) and is now training with Manchester United.

Last season Sporting enjoyed a resurgence under Leonardo Jardim (and feisty new president Bruno Carvalho), who’s having a torrid time at AS Mónaco. The sensible and very likeable Marco Silva would seem to be the perfect replacement and they have the quality – enhanced by the arrival of Nani – to challenge their eternal rivals Benfica and FC Porto for the title.

FC Porto, like Benfica and unlike Sporting, are generally loath to introduce academy players into the starting line-up of the first team, preferring to loan them out to gain playing minutes … and invariably forgetting about them. The first weekend was a spectacular exception to this rule, with the official debut of one Rúben Neves against Marítimo (2-0). At 17 years and five months he became the youngest player to start for FC Porto in the league, and scored Porto’s first goal for good measure, becoming in turn the youngest player ever to score for Porto in an official game. In midweek he broke another record, held by Cristiano Ronaldo, as the youngest Portuguese to play in that competition, when he started in Porto’s champions League play-off at Lille (0-1). And he isn’t just a gimmick, either; he plays with an assuredness that men ten years his senior would be envious of.

Congratulations must go to Porto’s new Spanish coach Julen Lopetegui, who has been like a breath of fresh air at the club and in Portuguese football. His discourse is unfussy, his team’s football organised and confident.

He’s brought in a shed-load of compatriots: Andrés Fernández, Óliver Torres, Cristian Tello, Adrián López and José Ángel. Midfielder Óliver and winger Tello appear to be his preferred choices, the latter coming on as sub to great effect at Lille. In defence, Porto have lost Mangala to Manchester City but still appear to have a strong back line in Danilo, Martins Indi (signed after a good World Cup with Holland), Maicon and Alex Sandro. The two full-backs have this week been called up by new Brazil coach Dunga. Up front they’ve signed Algerian international Brahimi, who has shown dazzling skill so far but could do with playing a little more for the team.

One dark cloud over the club is the situation of captain Ricardo Quaresma. He was unexpectedly on the bench against Lille and was brought on with two minutes left to burn time. He had, as they say in Portugal, “a face of few friends” and apparently left the field promptly without shaking Lopetegui’s hand. “Don’t make a film out of it!” he told reporters, but he’s been dropped from the squad for this weekend’s trip to Paços. Coïncidence?

Paços de Ferreira have welcomed back as coach Paulo Fonseca, who made such a pig’s ear of Porto’s last campaign. Paços narrowly avoided the drop at the end of the season and Fonseca sets his sights on less than lofty objectives this time around: “Our reality is to fight to stay up. The third place finish happened in an extraordinary year (2012/13) and will be difficult to repeat in the next 50, if at all.”

The other principal candidates for the drop from the now 18-strong division will no doubt be the usual suspects: Gil Vicente, Arouca, Belenenses and the newly promoted Moreirense, Penafiel and Boavista.

Out of Europe, Sporting Braga will be able to concentrate on the domestic competitions and improve on what was for them a disastrous 9th place. New coach Sérgio Conceição guided Académica to a comfortable mid-table position last time; Paulo Sérgio returns to Portugal to take the helm there. Braga’s great rivals in the Minho region, Vitória de Guimarães, retain coach Rui Vitória for the fourth season running and started well, winning 3-1 at Gil Vicente.

Recent history points to Braga and Guimarães being no more than also-rans in the Liga race. Joining them will be Estoril, 5th and 4th in the last two seasons, although they’re sure to miss figures like coach Marco Silva and influential midfielder Evandro, now at FC Porto; they’ll be coached by José Couceiro, who’s done the rounds. Estoril are in the group stage of the Europa League and may be joined by Rio Ave and Nacional, still in with a shout despite away play-off defeats in midweek to Elfsborg (2-1) and Dynamo Minsk (2-0), respectively. Estoril and Rio Ave meet in the 2nd Jornada, in which the most intriguing fixtures look to be Boavista’s reception of Benfica and FC Porto’s visit to Paços’ traditionally difficult, refurbished Estádio Capital do Móvel (‘Capital of Furniture’), Estádio da Mata Real, as was.


June 2014 - Portugal fail in Brazil, but there is [was] still hope

No one in Portugal really expected a victory over the mighty Germans in the first Group G match; qualification would always be a question of winning the other games against the USA and Ghana, considered doable at the outset. But the manner of that defeat and the 0-4 scoreline caused Portuguese jaws to drop and expectations to plummet.

The Seleção were clearly lacking the technical, tactical, physical, psychological and emotional wherewithal to trouble a German side that had all of those things in spades. The USA v Ghana game showed that both of them seemed superior to Portugal on most of those counts as well.

Against Germany the team looked inexplicably sluggish, and a mysterious outbreak of muscle injuries began to take its toll, hitting Fábio Coentrão (who returned home), Rui Patrício and Hugo Almeida. Subsequently, Bruno Alves, André Almeida and Hélder Postiga all succumbed.

There have been various theories as to why these top professional players should be dropping like flies. Some have blamed a lack of adequate acclimatisation ahead of the intense heat and humidity of Salvador and Manaus; training camps have been in Óbidos, near Lisbon, the east coast of the US and Campinas in São Paulo, all temperate climates. Others have suggested that at least some of these players were already carrying injuries or prone to them.

The injury that has most affected the team’s productivity, though, has been the tendonitis that Cristiano Ronaldo has been nursing. “I’d like to be 110 per cent fit but I’m 100 per cent” he said before Germany. This was blatantly not the case, and such is Portugal’s reliance on him that his difficulties have removed a whole dimension from their play.

After the 2-2 draw with the USA – in which Portugal looked better than against Germany but were still horribly limited – Ronaldo admitted that he never believed they could be champions: “Maybe the other teams are better than us, and maybe they deserve more than us,” he said. There is the realisation that they will need a minor miracle to get out of the group.

That miracle almost came about in the last couple of days, with Ghana’s players threatening a no-show in protest at withheld bonuses. The dispute appears to have been settled, but there may be some residual bad feeling internally that could affect Ghana’s performance.

At least that is what Portugal will be hoping, as they will be hoping for a sizeable German victory over the USA (and not a colluded draw). The possibility of Portugal reversing the five-goal deficit vis-à-vis the USA across the two matches is desperately remote, especially if the team cannot substantially raise their game. But as the Portuguese proverb goes: “A esperança é a última a morrer.” (“Hope is the last thing to die.”)

(A version of this article appeared on the website of When Saturday Comes)


World Cup 2014 Preview

What are the expectations for the team?

They have the experience that comes from being ever-present (since 2000) in the two major competitions (World Cup and Euro) and their FIFA ranking – fourth at the time of writing – would suggest great things are on the cards. But once again they struggled to qualify, having to get past Sweden in the play-offs. And there is a clear, rather worrying dependency on Cristiano Ronaldo. If he were ruled out for any reason – he was showing signs of wear and tear at the end of Real Madrid’s season – it would be a terrible blow to Portugal’s chances. Readers of sports daily Record have chosen the nickname ‘Os Conquistadores’ for the squad. That’s wishful thinking, but anything less than qualification from a tricky group (Germany, USA, Ghana) would be seen as a disaster.
Is the coach popular?

Paulo Bento stepped into the shoes of the generally unpopular Carlos Queiroz in 2010 and has been well received. His disciplinarian style is viewed positively: José Bosingwa and Ricardo Carvalho were cast out into the wilderness for playing up, while the wayward wizard Ricardo Quaresma, succumbing to a fit of rabid anger at the end of FC Porto’s controversial league defeat at Nacional in March, will probably miss the cut because of the tightness of Bento’s ship (although PB has diplomatically denied the scene will have any bearing on his choice) [Quaresma was included in the pre-selection of 30 but did indeed miss the final cut]. On the other hand, the Selecionador’s conservatism has fewer fans. For instance, Sporting’s splendid young midfielder William Carvalho, widely regarded as this season’s top revelation at domestic club level, looks set to win a place in the squad but is unlikely to make the starting line-up.

Are there any players who have appeared in TV commercials or other advertising?

Paulo Bento stands on a cliff-top in a rousing ad for official sponsors Sagres beer: “Believe, until the last second! We are Portugal!” goes the voiceover. Apart from that, though, Cristiano Ronaldo has virtually cornered the market: Nike, Time Force watches, BES bank, Herbalife nutrition (“Hello Herbalife. I’m Cristiano Ronaldo. I’m exciting to be part of your team!”), Emirates Airline (with Pelé), Samsung Galaxy (with Leonel Messi), Bimbo bread (taking over from Messi), to name but a few. Around half of his £27m+ annual earnings reportedly come from endorsements.

Which players are good interviewees and who are worst?

Cristiano Ronaldo has matured on and off the pitch and as captain can now normally be counted on to dish up sensible, if rather uninspiring, interviews. Raul Meireles’ striking Mohawk + full-beard look and tats can distract from what he’s actually saying. There is something perversely fascinating about interviews with Paulo Bento, who suffers from a slight speech disorder (very possibly Palilalia) whereby he frequently repeats words and phrases, words and phrases. 
Are there any players with unusual hobbies or business interests?

Raul Meireles is well into fashion and in time-honoured footballing tradition has a boutique in Ermesinde, in the north of Portugal. In 2013 he was listed among the top ten best-dressed footballers in the world by Vanity Fair magazine … along with Cristiano Ronaldo, naturally.
Will there be any rehearsed goal celebrations?

Cristiano Ronaldo will be doing his feet-planted “Estou aqui” (“I’m here”) routine. His “baby sparrow attempting flight” dance, seen in a Real Madrid training session in March, would bring his cachet down several notches if given global coverage; it’s unlikely to appear.
What will the media coverage be like? (Such as are there any former players involved in TV commentating/punditry)?

State TV channel RTP owns the rights to all the games. It’s sold the rights to some of them to cable channel Sport TV, for which former Benfica full-back Pedro Henriques provides good-humoured and knowledgeable insight into what it’s like to be out there on the pitch. RTP offered 14 games to the two private terrestrial channels, SIC (ex-Benfica defender and coach Toni, ex-Sporting forward and coach Manuel Fernandes and ex-FC Porto forward and coach, and former National team coach, António Oliveira) and TVI (ex-Sporting, Benfica and West Ham midfielder/forward Dani). As the offer did not include Portugal’s games, both channels have refused to bid on principle, but some deal should be settled before the tournament kicks off. José Mourinho will be providing co-commentary and analysis on-line for Yahoo.

Will there be many fans travelling to the finals and will they have any chants/songs?

Because of the expense and the threadbare state of Portuguese pockets, we can expect only middle class and up fans to travel, but there will be enough of them, together with emigrants and local sympathisers, to provide good support. The simple, traditional chant of “por-too-GAL, por-too-GAL” will, as always, be the most heard.

(A version of this preview appeared in the British magazine When Saturday Comes)


Season 2013-14 review

Easter Sunday saw Benfica claim their 33rd league title (FC Porto have 27, Sporting 18) with a 2-0 win over struggling Olhanense in front of 64,000 at the Luz in Lisbon. Club president Luís Filipe Vieira dedicated the title to the supporters – according to a UEFA report published last week, 47% of Portuguese fans are Benfiquistas, while there are reputedly six million around the world – and to the two Benfica legends that passed away recently: Eusébio and Mário Coluna. Coach Jorge Jesus in turn thanked Vieira for showing faith in him. Indeed, JJ’s reputation was in tatters at the end of last season when two seemingly inevitable prizes (league and Taça de Portugal) and a very doable one (Europa League) were all squandered. Luckily, Vieira did not bend to public pressure; the current season as a whole – the quality of Benfica’s play has been generally excellent – and Sunday’s clincher have effectively resurrected Jesus (to borrow one of the many Biblical references being rolled out in the local media). But he can carve his name even deeper into the club’s history in the coming weeks. Former midfielder Rui Costa, now a Benfica director, said: “We’ve worked really hard to get here but we want more,” the “more” being the Taça de Portugal (the Final will be against Rio Ave), the Europa League (Juventus in the semis), and the Taça da Liga (FC Porto in the semis to see who faces Rio Ave, again, in the Final).

Down the road from Benfica is another, highly unexpected, success story. Sporting finished 7th last season, the worst position in their history. But a new president in the populist Bruno de Carvalho, and a new coach in Madeiran Leonardo Jardim, formerly of Sporting Braga and Olimpiacos, have turned the ship right around. The refreshing thing about Sporting, however forced it might be due to financial constraints, is their faith in academy-nurtured players, with half a dozen or so in the starting line-up for any given game. These include the wonderful midfielder William Carvalho, being chased by several major European clubs, if the Portuguese sports media can be believed. On the other hand, the annoying thing about them for the neutral is their incessant, now virtually institutionalised, whingeing. In March, Bruno de Carvalho presented a case for the team having been “defrauded of seven points” by bad refereeing decisions – a highly partisan view, obviously. But this combativeness has helped to give the club and team some much needed steel and a deserved runners-up spot.

The south is doing well. Based a short distance west along the coast from Lisbon, Estoril Praia have performed above and beyond the call of duty to secure fourth place on a shoestring budget under the exciting young coaching prospect Marco Silva. Rumours have put Silva at Benfica or FC Porto next season, but he would do well to heed the salutary lesson of Paulo Fonseca, who jumped from last season’s sensation, Paços de Ferreira, to FC Porto and was soon exposed as being out of his depth. The fortunes of Paços, coached since February by Jorge Costa, have nosedived since their best season ever, when they finished third; they are fighting now to avoid the drop. Another underperforming northern team are Sporting Braga, who appear to have wasted several seasons’ momentum and can only finish sixth at best, outside the European places.

But the great losers this time around have been FC Porto. With Paulo Fonseca in charge they won the pre-season Supertaça, beating Vitória de Guimarães 3-0, but early optimism soon faded. They went out of the Champions League with little glory and were trailing Benfica and Sporting in the league when the hapless Fonseca was replaced in March by ‘B’ team coach Luís Castro, though he has fared little better. The team capitulated weedily to Sevilla in the Europa League quarter-finals, were knocked out of the Taça de Portugal in the semis by sworn enemies Benfica, and limped to third in the league, which will mean a preliminary round to get into the Champions League proper. Talk is of an end to the era of Porto hegemony in which they have won 14 of the last 20 titles. They will certainly need to make an extensive overhaul of a very uneven squad in the close season if they are to put a brake on the Benfica juggernaut – before it gets well and truly rolling.

(A version of this article appeared on the website of When Saturday Comes)



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