We are just days away from the return of Portuguese top flight football. As always, the new season promises to showcase some of the hottest emerging talent in Europe, on field fireworks and fervent, intense support in the stands.
One element that is almost always a constant in Portuguese football is the dominance of the traditional Os Tres Grandes, or ‘The Big Three’ consisting of SL Benfica, Sporting CP and FC Porto.
Since the Primeira Liga’s inception in 1934, there have been a total of 88 seasons of top flight football in Portugal. Remarkably, in 86 of those seasons, the winner of the league was either Benfica, Sporting or Porto. The two anomalous seasons came some 55 years apart.
It was Bélem side Os Belenenses’ who first disrupted the top three hegemony with their conquest of the title in the 1945-46 season, pipping Benfica to the title by just one point. Come the end of the 1950s, the dominance of the big three on Portuguese football was well established. At this point in time, Benfica already had 10 titles in the bag, fierce rivals Sporting also had 10 and the Dragons from Porto had five. Fast forward to the 2000-2001 season and it was time for another club to write their name into the Portuguese football history books, this time it was Jaime Pacheco’s Boavista FC who managed to raise the Campeonato trophy.
Since then, the title has moved between Os Tres Grandes ever since. Going into the 2022-23 season, Benfica have 37 league titles, Porto are in second with 30 and Sporting are in third with 19, having recently ended their 19-year league title drought.
However, this isn’t an article to suggest that the Primeira Liga is simply a closed shop with a predictable outcome. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Whilst it is safe to suggest that the proverbial glass ceiling that protects the big three is considerably thicker in Portugal than in many leagues across Europe – England for example has had a whopping 24 different winners compared to Portugal’s five, the German Bundesliga has had 12 different winners and Spain’s top flight, La Liga, has had nine, the Primeira Liga has recently entered a period where all three of Portugal’s big hitters have a serious case to take home the title at the end of the season.
In the last five years, there have been three different winners of the Primeira Liga, with three titles going to Porto and one apiece for Sporting and Benfica. On the contrary, there has only been two winners of the Premier League across that same time period, with four of the last five Premier League titles scooped up by Manchester City. The Dutch Eredivisie has also had two winners in the last five years in Ajax and PSV (with one season in the middle being voided due to the pandemic). Ligue 1 has long been dominated by Paris Saint-Germain – only once in the last five years has another team been crowned French champions (Lille, 2020-21) and in Germany the Bundesliga has been won by the Bavarian juggernaut Bayern Munich for each of the last 10 campaigns.
So, whilst the top three in Portugal may seem secure, it is the fight for the title itself which has become more and more competitive.
Last season saw all three of Os Tres Grandes compete in the UEFA Champions League group stage for the first time since 2017-18, the clubs are seemingly producing more talent than ever before, and it feels as though the Primeira Liga is being focused on more and more throughout the media across Europe. Best of all, going into the 2022-23 season, all three are serious contenders for the title.
Back to their Best: Sporting CP
Sporting CP, who for the last decade had more or less been the third club in the top three, have managed to find their competitive edge and emerge once more as a real force to be reckoned with.
In 2020 they did something they hadn’t achieved for nearly two decades by lifting the Primeira Liga title. After a tumultuous period at the club saw The Lions inexplicably slip out of the top three, finishing fourth just the season before, young coach and former Benfica midfielder Rúben Amorim came into the club loaded with youthful vigour and fresh ideas, looking to put an end to the Porto and Benfica dominance and take Sporting back to the top of the Primeira Liga table.
34 games later and Sporting were crowned champions. His unwavering trust and reliance on talented youngsters saw players like Nuno Mendes, Matheus Nunes, Gonçalo Inácio, Pedro Porro and Pedro Gonçalves hit dizzying heights as Sporting bounced back from mediocrity to paint Lisbon green and white.
Last season, which was Amorim’s second in charge of the club, saw Sporting finish in second place behind FC Porto, making it the first time Sporting had finished in the top two places for consecutive seasons since 2008-09.
Although they couldn’t defend the Primeira Liga title, a second-place finish, especially one where they finished six points ahead of Lisbon rivals Benfica in third, showed signs of growth and an increased stability at what has recently been somewhat of an unstable club. They also didn’t end the season empty handed, managing to bag the Taça da Liga by beating Benfica 2-1 in the final.
Aside from domestic matters, Sporting also impressed in Europe as they competed in the UEFA Champions League group stages for the first time since 2017-18.
A fantastic 3-1 victory over German giants Borussia Dortmund and emphatic home and away wins versus Besiktas saw Sporting finish second in Group C, thus qualifying for the knockout stages for only the second time in their history.
Sporting’s great run in Europe’s premier club competition may have come to an end at the hands of Manchester City but it was clear to see that the club had made huge strides in such a short space of time, due largely to the work of the talented Amorim.
At the time of writing, Sporting are gearing up to go into the 2022-23 campaign having managed to keep hold of Matheus Nunes (…so far), Pedro Porro, Gonçalo Inácio and Pedro Gonçalves, an incredible show of resolve for a Portuguese club.
Keeping hold of a spine of a team that is as talented as Sporting’s is in some ways a cause for celebration, especially given the notable departures from both the Estádio do Dragão and Estádio da Luz this very same window.
Sporting have also managed to add fresh talent to the squad, notably through their dealings within Portugal.
Sporting’s eagerness to shop around domestically is a move that reaffirms why the top three continue to remain untouched in Portugal. Their business not only strengthens their team, but severely weakens the rest. For example, Amorim elected to bring in Marcus Edwards from Guimarães outfit Vitória Sport Clube back in January.
Losing such an important player was a big blow for Vitória, a side who have ambitions of finishing in the European places and establishing themselves as one of ‘the best of the rest’ in Portugal.
In Edwards’ absence, Rochinha was Vitória’s shining light, then once more Sporting came calling. The Lisbon club plucked the Portuguese winger from Guimarães in the first week of July and not long after Pepa, the talented head coach of Vitória, left the club.
Reports in Portugal suggest that the head coach felt stifled, disappointed with Vitória’s performance in the transfer market and frustrated with the sale of Rochinha. Other notable additions to Sporting come in the form of Santa Clara midfielder Morita, Jeremiah St Juste from Mainz and Francisco Trincão on loan from Barcelona.
Of the three Portuguese giants, Sporting’s start to the Primeira Liga season looks the toughest on paper. An away game against SC Braga on the opening Sunday is following by a home match against last season’s Liga Portugal 2 champions Rio Ave and then a trip to face FC Porto on MD3.
In Amorim’s third season, he will be hoping to continue building on the progress made over the last couple of years and ensure that Sporting keep fighting not simply for the top three, but for the title itself.
The Reigning Champions: FC Porto
FC Porto find themselves in somewhat of a strange state as talented coach Sérgio Conceição has managed to continue winning league titles (three of the last five), despite losing key players year on year.
His remarkable ability to squeeze the most out of his squad is the catalyst behind the club from the Invicta city establishing a spell of real dominance in Portugal. Not only did Porto win their 30th league title, but they also broke the long-standing Primeira Liga points record, picking up 91 points from 34 games.
Going into this season however, the challenge for miracle man Conceição seems tougher than ever. The departure of Luís Diaz in January reportedly frustrated the Porto boss, who requested that Diaz be kept at the club at least until the end of the season to help them fight for both the title and in Europe.
The Porto squad recovered well from losing the Primeira Liga’s best player however, with the likes of Vitinha, Fábio Vieira, Mehdi Taremi and Otávio stepping up to ensure the title returned once more to the North.
Fast forward to July and two of the players who helped Porto bounce back from the absence of Diaz have now also been sold. The first to go being midfield maestro Vitinha.
The diminutive wizard was at the heart of everything good that Porto did, earning himself a spot in the Liga Portugal Team of the Season. Naturally, clubs across Europe were paying close attention to his development and just over a year after failing to crack the Wolverhampton Wanderers team, he was sold to French giants Paris Saint-Germain.
Although Porto supporters are acutely aware of the financial issues facing the club, losing a player that came up through the academy and was one of their own was a devastating blow.
But it would get worse. There was a feeling that Porto would lose either Vitinha or Fábio Vieira but losing both in the same window was unthinkable.
That was until Vieira also left the club just days later. Arsenal paid £34m to secure the services of Porto’s creative spark. The Portugal U21 international finished the season with 11 assists and six goals – a remarkable tally considering he only started 15 Primeira Liga games.
The frustration for Porto and their supporters is that there is a strong belief that next seasonwould be one in which Vieira had a clear breakthrough campaign and that what he’d done so far was merely a teaser for the greatness that was to come. That may still happen, but it would be in North London, not Northern Portugal.
But it is not all doom and gloom for Porto. If any manager has proved that they can perform miracles with what they’ve got, it’s the man who is currently at the helm and the club have also recruited well in a bid to address some problem areas.
The signing of David Carmo brings much needed quality to central defence, especially given the departure of Pepe’s defensive partner Chancel Mbemba. Carmo is a player that, before his injury, had all but agreed a deal to go to Liverpool, so for Porto to pull off this transfer is a superb bit of business especially given how he bounced back so superbly from last season to the point where it looked like he’d never been away.
Another exciting signing is the capture of highly touted Gabriel Veron, a mercurial right-winger who joined from Brasileiro Série A side Palmeiras. Veron not only won the U17 World Cup with Brazil in 2019, but also took the Golden Ball, the prize awarded to the tournament’s best player. He then went on to win back-to-back Copa Libertadores titles with his club and he will be hoping to make an immediate impact at the club and continue both his excellent development and track record of picking up silverware.
Porto, as always, will go into this season with one objective: to retain the Primeira Liga title. Although they have been weakened by those key departures, rest assured that coach Conceição will be once more squeezing every last drop out of his squad in his conquest for yet another league title.
Hoping for a Return to Greatness: Benfica
SL Benfica come into this Primeira Liga season with renewed hunger and ambition. For the last three seasons they have – through gritted teeth – had to watch the league trophy go to the Dragão, then to the José Alvalade and then back to the Dragão.
Not only have Benfica not won the league for three seasons but for the past two seasons they have finished third, making it the first time since 2007-08 and 2008-09 that they have finished outside of the top two in consecutive seasons.
However, there are signs that this season could see a return to the top of the table for The Eagles.
Former PSV Eindhoven manager Roger Schmidt has taken the reigns, looking to bring in a brand of expansive, attractive football to the Estádio da Luz and make Benfica not only a force in the Primeira Liga but make them competitive once more in Europe.
It may seem that the departure of Uruguayan forward Darwin Núñez has put Benfica in a weaker position than last season, but the deal could turn out to represent very good business for Benfica. The club pushed for the best price possible and in the end, sold the forward for a deal that could fetch Benfica up to £85m, a massive amount of money, particularly in Portuguese football.
In terms of replacing Darwin’s goals, Benfica can count on the likes of Ukraine international Roman Yaremchuk and the explosive Gonçalo Ramos. Keep an eye out for Henrique Araújo, a young goal machine who even at the tender age of 20 years old looks to be the real deal. His two goals against Paços Ferreira in a 2-0 win on the final day of the season was a statement of what’s to come from the Portuguese forward.
The club have been able to splash out this window, most notably on highly touted Argentinian youth international Enzo Fernández from River Plate. Several clubs around Europe, most notably Wolves, were also interested in the midfield dynamo, but Enzo’s insistence on remaining at River Plate until their Copa Libertadores adventure came to an end was, not surprisingly, a real put off.
If River Plate had reached the final, it was likely that he wouldn’t have left them until the beginning of November, but Benfica decided to agree a deal anyway, knowing that they would likely not get an opportunity to bring him to the club in the future if they let this chance slip. As it transpired, Benfica’s willingness to wait saw them rewarded – River Plate were eliminated in the first knockout round of the competition by Vélez Sársfield, meaning Enzo was free to join up with his new teammates in Lisbon before the season even started.
Everton, a winger who struggled to gain consistency in Portugal has been sold to Flamengo, winger Jota joined Celtic on a permanent basis following a successful loan spell in Scotland and midfielder Gedson Fernandes has joined Besiktas.
These three sales of players that Schmidt wasn’t reliant on for the upcoming season has generated around £24m in total.
Brazilian winger David Neres has joined the club from Shakhtar Donetsk and if he can recapture his Ajax form then that could well prove to be an excellent signing. João Victor, the highly touted 23-year-old Brazilian defender, has also joined from Corinthians, with manager Schmidt looking to add some youthful exuberance to what was quickly becoming an ageing defence.
Based on both history and the current state of all Portuguese club squads, there seems little chance that a side outside the three giants will finish in the top three in the Primeira Liga this season, let alone win a title. Which of these three it’ll be, however, remains up for grabs.
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