The IBWM Liga ZON Sagres Preview

The league season in Portugal got underway last night with a 3-1 win for Sporting Braga over Portimonense.  What else has the Liga ZON Sagres got in store over the coming months?  Ben Shave looks ahead to the rest of 2010-11.

Although the worldwide attention paid to Portuguese football pales in comparison to that enjoyed by its richer, more glamorous Iberian neighbour, the newly named Liga ZON Sagres has plenty going for it. Not only is it sponsored by one of our finest premium lagers (any Sagres freebies gratefully accepted), but last season it produced one of Europe's more exciting title races, a final-round shootout between traditional powerhouses Benfica and 09-10's revelation, Sporting Braga. In the event, the Eagles held out, and won a deserved 32nd league title, but it was a closer race than fans of the league had any right to expect. Whilst Jorge Jesus struck gold in his debut season at the Estádio da Luz, the real managerial triumph came from Domingos Paciência, who led modestly-sized Braga to their best ever league finish, on a shoestring budget. Whilst their fortunes were undoubtedly aided by the poor performances of FC Porto, and Sporting CP in particular, Braga went toe to toe with the league's best side, and almost pulled off a shock of seismic proportions.

This new season promises to be even closer, if last Saturday's Super Cup is anything to go by. Having replaced long-time coach Jesualdo Ferreira with José Mourinho's former assistant André Villas Boas, FC Porto have already shocked the Portuguese footballing scene with their acquisition of João Moutinho. Yes, the same Moutinho who learnt his trade at Sporting's famous youth academy, and who had captained the Lions since the age of nineteen. Reportedly deeply unhappy at the way the club was progressing under the administration of recently appointed director of football Costinha, he apparently instigated the move himself, prompting Sporting president José Eduardo Bettencourt to describe him as a “rotten apple.”

Rotten or not, Moutinho's competitive debut in the blue and white of Porto was an unqualified success. Playing alongside Fernando and Belluschi in a 4-3-3 system, he played a key role in Porto's 2-0 victory. The Dragons have lost their talismanic captain Bruno Alves to Zenit St Petersburg, and are yet to secure a replacement (Argentine Nicolás Otamendi has been linked with a move), but Villas Boas appears to have one of the finest forward lines in the league on his hands- at their best, Hulk, Varela and Falcao would test any defence in Europe. However, until a top-class centre-back is acquired, concerns regarding the consistency of the back line will remain, particularly if the rumoured departure of Jorge Fucile, so impressive at the World Cup for Uruguay, comes to pass. There are also question marks over Villas Boas himself. At just 33, this is his first high-profile coaching post, and what a place to start. One gets the sense that if Porto don't hit the ground running, it'll be his head on the chopping block.

But what of Benfica? Having played their best football in a decade last season, the Eagles go into the new campaign with expectations high, despite the departures of Ángel Di Maria and Ramires. Against Porto, the champions looked sluggish, and even though Fábio Coentrão was pushed further up the field, they lacked the killer instinct out wide that Di Maria provided so often in 09-10. The loss of Ramires is not so hurtful, with fan favourite Carlos Martins more than capable of replicating the work rate and defensive contributions that the Brazilian produced in his debut European season. With president Luís Filipe Viera a regular visitor to Brazil, a host of names have been dropped in the Portuguese press: Elias of Corinthians, Wesley of Santos, and Fernandinho of São Paulo among them. All would be interesting purchases, but in my opinion, Benfica should be focused on holding onto what they already have- particularly the young centre-back David Luiz, who has been heavily linked with a move to England. The 23 year-old possesses a calm and elegance on the ball which belies his inexperience, and his departure, combined with those of Di Maria and Ramires, would represent a real blow to Benfica's title hopes this season; with the Olympique de Marseille winger Hatem Ben Arfa apparently staying in France. The acquisition of Roberto, previously a reserve goalkeeper at Atlético Madrid, at the not so keen price of €8.5 million, is also something of a head-scratcher.

Another club who have had to cope with departures (the Liga ZON Sagres is, if you hadn't surmised as much by now, a selling league) are Sporting Braga. Despite standing on the edge of a maiden Champions League campaign, balancing the books has been a priority at the Minho club. The most significant departure has undoubtedly been that of goalkeeper Eduardo, one of the only Portuguese players to emerge from the World Cup campaign with any credit. If you ask me, Genoa have found themselves a bargain at just €4.5m, and Felipe (signed on a free after rescinding his contract with Corinthians), may well struggle to fill Eduardo's shoes, at least at first. Left-back Evaldo has also moved on (to Sporting), although his replacement Elderson had a strong performance on his debut against Celtic in the Champions League, scoring in the 3-0 victory. Braga have also been handed a boost in the last week, with the confirmation that influential Uruguayan midfielder Luis Aguiar will remain on loan from Dinamo Moscow, where he struggled to settle after leaving Braga last summer, for another season. Keita and Lima are also useful additions, having signed from Vitoria de Setubal and Belenenses respectively. Despite keeping the majority of his squad together, Domingos Paciência may struggle to reproduce the successes of last season, especially with the apparent re-emerge of FC Porto.

The final team with realistic hopes of challenging for the title are, of course, Sporting Clube de Portugal, under their new manager Paulo Sérgio. Did I say realistic? It's been a turbulent twelve months at the Alvalade, a period which has seen the overdue departure of Paulo Bento, the questionable arrival (and understandable departure) of Carlos Carvalhal, and the downright foolish appointment of the aforementioned Costinha. His attitude towards squad-board relations appears to have been founded on the motto that if it ain't broke, break it, and it is surely not a coincidence that two club icons in Moutinho and Miguel Veloso have chosen to depart this summer. Veloso has joined his compatriot Eduardo at Genoa, with Spaniard Alberto Zapater plus €2 million moving in the other direction. Zapater could potentially be a season-making signing for the Lions. He was never given a fair crack of the whip in Liguria, and followers of La Liga may recall his time as an outstanding captain of Real Zaragoza. Let's face it; he's more likely to do something than Maniche.

The above teams will undoubtedly make up the top four come season's end, but the battle for the fifth and final European spot promises to be as close, if not closer. Marítimo pipped Vitória de Guimarães on the final day of 09-10, with the two teams equal on points, head to head, and even goals scored against the other. In the event of such a tie, goal difference comes into play, and Marítimo's -1 secured them a place in the 3rd qualifying round of the Europa League. They have already made their mark on that particular competition, with their 10-3 aggregate hammering of poor Bangor City. Manager Mitchell van der Gaag was on the verge of being sacked at the end of last season, but the late run his team put together was enough to save his job.

He'll do well to repeat that success this time around- Marítimo's small squad punched above their weight to finish 5th, and under the tutelage of Manuel Machado, Guimarães look well placed to secure European football in 11-12. Machado has a long association with the club, having taken charge of their youth team twice, as well as leading the first team squad during the 04-05 season. The financial coffers have been boosted in recent days with the somewhat unexpected departure of Bébé, a young striker who only signed earlier in the summer. His move to Manchester United was apparently instigated following a recommendation from Carlos Queiroz. Make of that what you will. The other side with legitimate hopes of making 5th are Nacional, who, like Marítimo, hail from the island of Madeira.

Below those three sides are a clutch of teams aiming for one thing: mid-table safety. União de Leiria (where a certain J. Mourinho began his managerial career), Rio Ave, Paços de Ferreira, Naval and Académica are in all likelihood just about good enough to stay up, but with all of them facing financial problems (due in large part to a chronic shortage of supporters), an unremarkable, trouble-free season on the pitch would be just the ticket.

Finally, we reach the relegation scrap. With the vast majority of Portugal's 11 million inhabitants’ supporters of Benfica, Sporting or Porto, remaining in the top flight can be the difference between staying afloat and drowning, in financial terms. Portuguese football is littered with cautionary tales of teams who were relegated, only to sink without trace, deserted by fair weather supporters. Recent examples include Estrela da Amadora and Boavista. Thus, the battle for top-flight survival is generally tight, bitterly contested, and often remains unresolved until the final round of matches. Last season, Belenenses did everyone a favour by being so abject that by October is was clear that they were on their way to the Liga de Honra, but 2010-11 might be a little different. The two promoted sides are Beira-Mar and Portimonense, and it's hard to say which has had the worst summer. Beira-Mar have struggled with player recruitment, whilst Portimonense have today been informed that they won't be able to host games in Portimão until at least October, due to delays in construction works on their stadium. They'll begin the campaign as favourites to go straight back down. I also expect Olhanense and Vitória de Setúbal (13th and 14th last season) to run them close. Olhanense were buoyed last season by the presence of FC Porto youth players Castro and Ukra, but with their departure, it's hard to see where the quality will come from. They have signed Lulinha on loan from Corinthians, and will be hoping that the youngster begins to live up to his reputation as a world-class prospect. As for Setúbal, they've lost their best players from last season - Keita and Hélder Barbosa - to Braga.

All in all, it promises to be a fascinating season. I'll be providing my thoughts here at IBWM on a weekly basis, please feel free to add your opinions and any questions you might have in the comments section. Finally, this wouldn't be a season preview without predictions...

Champions: FC Porto.

Champions League: Benfica.

Europa League: Braga, Sporting CP, Vitória Guimarães.

Relegated: Beira-Mar, Olhanense.

Ben writes regularly for IBWM, but if you would like to read more from him please visit cahiers du sport.

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