Matches between title contenders always tend to massively influence a competition, even more so when it comes to a league format with a small amount of teams challenging for the ultimate prize. The Portuguese league’s latest round of fixtures was of major importance: the “Lisbon Derby” was played Sunday between Sporting and Benfica, and in the same day Porto played Braga – quality-wise the closest team to the big three of the country. The weekend was extremely profitable for the Lisbon Lions since not only did they win in Benfica’s home ground but they also saw Porto only clutching a point at home v Braga.
Sporting are now top with Porto close behind, whilst Benfica are in 8th with a game in hand (following a poor start to the campain). With the results in mind it’s now possible to determine who the early favouites are.
For Sporting bringing in Jesus was key. Winning is what he does and every single player surely believes that if there will be a title winning season, it will be with him in charge. When it comes to the squad, I’d also consider it more prepared this season. Not only does it have a wider variety of options but it has experienced players who have been doing well alongside the youngsters that the club is known for. Players such as Teo Gutierrez, Aquilani and João Pereira – who were picked up this summer – have been helping on and off the field.
Furthermore, this is the absolute focus of Sporting’s season, in classic Jesus fashion, the Portuguese manager is giving major importance to the league – just like he did in Benfica – leaving other competitions in a second tier of importance (even more so after dropping in the Champions League play-off). When we look at how the team is actually playing we see that it isn’t yet performing as well as it can, the new coach still hasn’t turned Sporting into the offensive prowess that Benfica was under his control. But even with the squad sometimes underperforming, there’s such a big quality gap between them and the smaller sides that most of the time Jesus’s men will still pull off wins. And in the big matches, like we observed this week, JJ’s Sporting already has the capacity to tactically outmatch their opponents when these are of similar quality and that will make the difference.
Porto has invested an enormous amount since Lopetegui’s arrival in the 2014/15 Pre-season. They lost most of their starting 11 during the summer which lead the squad to a second adaptation period since Lopetegui’s in charge – the newcomers adapting to the club and the team adapting to a slightly different style of play. But they do have quality and quantity in their squad which will surely lead them to a really solid season both nationally and internationally – like we’re seeing from their Champions League performances which have been outstanding so far. Out of the 3 big teams, Porto might even have the best season when it comes to its overall view but this mentality focused on performing really well in several competitions might just give Sporting the edge in the league.
Finally, when it comes to SL Benfica, the answer to the question I mentioned earlier is: definitely not. We’re at the start of a transition season for the Lisbon giants; the first team’s mentality is changing with the objective of refreshing the squad, incorporating more home-grown talents and spending less on foreign ones. This on its own will take time, and accompanied by the fact that a new coach is in charge, trying to institute his methods into the squad, we can expect this to be quite an unusual season for Benfica. But a somewhat similar type of transition was done by their rivals Sporting two years ago and that didn’t stop them from fighting for the title – and it shouldn’t stop Benfica either. Sure, point and result-wise the Eagles have been disappointing and inconsistent. At the moment the Lisbon based club is 8 points away from the lead, with a difficult game in hand set in the Madeira Island against União. Nevertheless, the numbers don’t show at all what Benfica has been this season.
This weekend they ended up being tactically outmatched by Sporting, but Rui Vitória’s men had a really solid start to the game. Luck was a major factor in Teo Gutierrez’s early goal that had a devastating impact in Benfica’s players, mentally mostly. All season long the Eagles have been missing a slight dash of luck – we saw that on the defeat against Arouca for example, three points that flew away mainly due to a lack of luck that night. While this isn’t the only thing to blame, it’s definitely an important part of the game. Albeit somewhat inconsistent, Rui Vitória’s men have been showing quality in a lot of matches and I do believe that they can still contend for the title. The squad isn’t as full of options as their rivals’s so they desperately need that players such as big money signing Jimenez, start to gain confidence and to perform. Furthermore, they need their injury problems to fade away as soon as possible: a fit Salvio is always massive for the team and Nelson Semedo had a great start to the season before picking up a knee injury.
Benfica has a higher amount of issues to fix to be able to contend for the title but as soon as Rui Vitória gets the team closer to what he idealizes, we’ll surely watch another thrilling 3-team title race. Cheers to the continuation of a great season.