After fourteen rounds, the Portuguese Liga has paused until January 9th. What better moment, then, for some awards? Ben Shave is judge, jury, and executioner.
Christmas, as the saying goes, comes but once a year. Yet for fans of European football, the festive period is something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, your friends and family can rejoice at the presence of a fully functioning, undistracted human being. On the other, well, there's no football. This past Monday saw the curtain come down on what's been a memorable 2010 for football in Portugal: Benfica rolling back the years, the end of the Queiroz era, and a new season that has been as polarising as ever. Seeing as we're almost at the end of the primeira volta, and seeing as Round 14 didn't throw up any obvious choices for a feature-length article, I've decided to dish out some awards. Everyone likes awards. To clarify, these gongs are for deeds done in the 2010/11 campaign so far, not the calendar year. So, without further ado...
Best team - FC Porto
No contest, this one. Having witnessed their hated rivals Benfica sweep almost all before them last season (Porto were left the consolation prize of the Taça), the winds of change blew through the Dragão over the summer. Out went the grizzled veteran Jesualdo Ferreira, in came the youthful, largely untested André Villas Boas. On the pitch, Bruno Alves and Raul Meireles, two totemic symbols of the Ferreira era, were shipped out, to be replaced by the young Brazilian Maicon and former Sporting captain, João Moutinho. Up front, Hulk, having been forced to sit out much of 2009/10 after receiving a suspension from the LPFP, has been a man possessed. Partnered by Silvestre Varela and Radamel Falcao, the trio have formed what is arguably the deadliest forward line in Europe.
Simply put, Porto have swept all before them. Eight points clear of Benfica with just two draws all season, the Dragons have played some devastating attacking football, leading to comparisons from some quarters with - whisper it - FC Barcelona. Whilst that might be overstating the case a little, there is no doubt that they are the best side in Portugal by a considerable distance, and look well-placed to take a twenty-fourth Liga title.
Best coach - Pedro Caixinha, União de Leiria
Given Porto's performances, it would be easy, logical even, to award this one to Villas Boas, and add my voice to the landslide of praise that is currently being lavished upon the thirty-three year old. However, that would be doing an immense disservice to Caixinha, who is not merely doing what is expected of him (as Villas Boas is), rather he is performing above and beyond all reasonable expectations. Appointed with little fanfare over the summer, Caixinha was largely perceived as a cost-cutting exercise, with Leiria's financial state verging towards the precarious - stories have emerged in recent weeks detailing the thousands of Euros owed to the municipal organisation that manages their stadium, and players have endured delay in wage payments.
Despite this, Leiria are 4th, a single point behind Sporting. Whilst both institutions could reasonably be described as financially unstable, the level of debt at Leiria is not comparable to the gaping maw that is Sporting's bank balance, and yet it has far more of an effect on how Caixinha can coach his team. Under such trying circumstances, 4th place is not merely a notable achievement, it is little short of miraculous. Leiria have hit form at the perfect time, and are undefeated since the end of October. Top scorer Carlão looks to be heading for the exit during the January window, and should Caixinha maintain this position until May, he should be hailed by one and all.
Goal of the season - Laionel (Académica) vs. Benfica, Round 1
Just look at it! A quite brilliant strike from the Brazilian, which condemned Benfica to an opening-day defeat. He's only scored once since, but that strike ensured his place in Liga history.
Best XI (in the interests of actually looking at the Liga as a whole, I've limited teams to three players each)
Goalkeeper: Rui Rêgo (Beira Mar)
Keeping goal for a newly-promoted side is a daunting task for any goalkeeper, let alone a twenty year-old without any top-flight experience. But Rêgo has proved himself more than up to the task, with his fine reflexes and generally calm demeanour (always a rarity in Portugal) playing a major role in his team's successful campaign. A move upwards beckons.
Right-back: João Pereira (Sporting CP)
After a shaky debut half-season at the Alvalade (he joined from Sporting Braga back in January), Pereira has established himself as one of the Lions' more consistent performers, and deservedly received a call-up from national coach Paulo Bento. Providing a valuable blend of attacking dynamism and defensive cover, the former Benfica youth player looks to have got his career back on track after a spell in the wilderness.
Centre-back: Rolando (FC Porto)
After the departure of Bruno Alves, Rolando was left as the senior centre-back at the Dragão, despite only being twenty-five himself. His performances this season have largely rendered Alves a distant memory. Unflappable, calm on the ball and technically proficient, Rolando has anchored a Porto defence that has only conceded five goals all season.
Centre-back: Zé António (União de Leiria)
After a nomadic career that has taken in spells at Varzim, Borussia Monchengladbach and Académica, the veteran appears to have found his niche at Leiria. Used sparingly last season, the thirty-three year old has embodied the functional, organised style of play implemented by Pedro Caixinha.
Left-back: Fábio Coentrão (Benfica)
Despite showing signs of fatigue in recent weeks (we shouldn't forget that he's only twenty-two), the left-back has been Benfica's finest performer in what has been a fairly disappointing campaign for the Eagles. Coentrão has everything the modern full-back needs: pace, stamina, an eye for goal, and the ability to run at opponents. A big-money move seems inevitable.
Midfielder: João Moutinho (FC Porto)
The man who made headlines around Portugal for his shock departure from Sporting this summer has proven that, at least in terms of professional development, it was the right decision. Moutinho has refined his game in Porto's 4-3-3 system, reducing the goal count but becoming a far more intelligent player, capable of contributing consistently over the course of ninety minutes.
Midfielder: Vinícius (Olhanense)
A summer signing from Desportivo Aves, former Porto B player Vinícius has been the engine room in an Olhanense side that has faded of late, but began the season in excellent form. Strong, intelligent and adept at bossing the centre of the pitch, the Brazilian looks to have earned himself a move to a bigger club, with Braga thought to be the frontrunners.
Midfielder: João Ribeiro (Vitória de Guimarães)
Similar in build and style to a younger Moutinho, the twenty-three year-old Ribeiro is the creative heart of a Guimarães side that will almost certainly be challenging for the European places this season. Given a chance by Manuel Machado, the Portuguese has seized the opportunity and regularly catches my eye with his incisive runs, pinpoint crossing and intelligent link-up play.
Forward: Hulk (FC Porto)
Shouldn't it be obvious? Whilst he always possessed the requisite potential to become a special player, Hulk has seemingly found a near-perfect blend of power, speed and goalscoring ability. His performance against Benfica was unforgettable: displaying a brutal effectiveness that has left defences trailing in his wake all season long. One of the best players to grace the Liga for quite some time, he'll surely be gone soon.
Forward: João Tomás (Rio Ave)
Top scorer behind Hulk, the old warhorse Tomás is currently undergoing an indian summer in Vila do Conde. A classic ponta-de-lança (number 9), the thirty-five year old has an uncanny knack of popping up in and around the penalty area, and has rarely missed this season. Rio Ave started sluggishly, but should Tomás continue in this vein, a late run at the European spots is not out of the question.
Forward: Jaime Valdés (Sporting CP)
After a poor start to the campaign, Paulo Sérgio was scrabbling around for a formational change to kickstart his tenure at the Alvalade. The emergence of Valdés (relegated from Serie A with Atalanta last term) as a roaming playmaker has been his great achievement to date. The little Chilean is devilishly tricky to mark, fluttering as he does between the two wings, whilst often dropping into deeper, more central positions. Perhaps a little lightweight for Italy, the Liga appears to suit him perfectly.
The Come Back Soon Award (sponsored by Bébé) - Jorge Costa
Following his side's second consecutive defeat (with ten goals shipped), the FC Porto idol looked to be under pressure at Académica, and news broke on Monday evening that he would indeed be departing from Coimbra. However, Costa has this afternoon released a statement declaring that he has not simply resigned from the Académica post, but football coaching as a whole. Costa cited 'strictly personal' problems as the reason for this. No further details have emerged, but the Liga will be a poorer place without someone of Costa's character. Voltar em breve, 'bicho.'
So, there you have it, the IBWM Portuguese Liga winter break awards. That concludes IBWM's coverage of the Liga for the year, I shall return on January 11th. Thanks for reading.
Round 14 results:
Sporting Braga 5-0 Académica, Benfica 5-2 Rio Ave, Beira Mar 3-2 Vitória de Guimarães, Marítimo 1-1 Portimonense, Naval 0-3 UD Leiria (Rogério Gonçalves relieved of his duties at Naval, who are going down down down), Olhanense 0-0 Nacional, Paços de Ferreira 0-3 FC Porto, Vitória de Setúbal 0-3 Sporting CP.
Round 15 Fixtures:
Rio Ave-Olhanense, Nacional-Beira Mar, Vitória de Guimarães-Naval, União de Leiria-Benfica, Académica-Paços de Ferreira, FC Porto-Marítimo, Portimonense-Vitória de Setúbal, Sporting CP-Sporting Braga.
To read more from Ben, check out his Portuguese football blog, Cahiers du Sport, and follow him on Twitter @cahiers_dusport.