Title race wide open in Portugal
We are now at the business end of most European seasons. Manchester City, Bayern Munich, PSV Eindhoven, and Paris St Germain are already crowned champions of their respective leagues. Juventus and Barcelona should also secure their titles within the coming weeks. Happily, not all leagues are quite so easy to call. One that isn’t over yet is the Portuguese League, thanks to Porto’s 1-0 win over Benfica on Sunday.
Porto had been having their best season for some time. They looked like a major challenger to Benfica, who have won the last four Portuguese titles. However, Porto's unbeaten start to the season, which had lasted 25 games, came to an abrupt end when they lost to Pacos de Ferreira in mid-March. The Dragons slipped again three weeks later when Belenenses beat them. Those defeats let Benfica back into the title race. The Eagles overtook Porto before suffering a shock home defeat to their rivals at the weekend.
Porto’s win also opened the door to Sporting Clube de Portugal, who are now just three points behind Benfica and five behind Porto with four games to play. Mathematically, Braga could still win the league, too. They are only eight behind Porto but with so few games left and three teams in front, it's unlikely they will be able to overturn the deficit.
As it stands, the title is Porto’s to lose. They currently top the table, two points clear Benfica, five ahead of Sporting. They also hold the head-to-head advantage over both sides. Such is the first tie-breaker used, rather than goal difference, in the competition.
Porto’s remaining schedule isn’t the most difficult. They will be expected to win home matches against Vitoria de Setubal and Feirense. The Blue and Whites do have two potentially difficult away fixtures to negotiate. They play fifth-placed Maritimo in their third-last game. Their final game comes against Vitoria de Guimaraes in what will most likely be a must-win scenario. Porto will be favourites for each of these games but strange things can happen at the end of the season. Their biggest challenge will be overcoming the pressure that comes with winning titles, especially when they haven’t won the league since 2013.
While pressure has killed off even the most experienced teams, this Porto team are a lot more experienced than you will usually find in Portugal. The league is full of young prospects coming through from either Portugal or South America. Porto's 15 most-used players are all at least 24. In theory, this should stand Porto in good stead. They will not celebrate anything until it’s over.
Porto have enjoyed several strong performers this season. Three who have made the most headlines have been Alex Telles, Yacine Brahimi and Moussa Marega. Telles is a typically offensive Brazilian left-back, the latest to come off the Brazilian fullback factory's assembly line. Brahimi has been Porto’s key man. He starred for Granada in their La Liga days before moving to Porto in 2014. The Algerian international has been superb. Marega is a Mali international who has hit the heights this season. He has already topped 20 league goals.
Should Porto slip up, the most likely team to take advantage are Benfica. They are two points behind with players who know what it takes to win league titles. I did say they had won the last four, didn't I? Three of their last four games come against bottom-half sides Estoril (away), Tondela, and Moreirense. But they are due to take on Sporting at the Estadio Jose Alvalade in their penultimate game. Ultimately, they will have to win that one while hoping Porto slip.
Benfica also benefitted from a number of important players this season. Without a doubt, the best has been Jonas Goncalves Oliveira. After joining from Valencia in 2014, Jonas has been fantastic in Lisbon. In fact, he seems to be improving with age. He is 34 but has already scored 33 league goals this season, exceeding his previous best of 32 in the 2015/16 season. Should Benfica come back to win a fifth title successive title, there can be little doubt the Brazilian striker deserves thanks.
If Porto and Benfica both manage to fall apart, Sporting can capitalise. The Lions haven’t won the league since 2002 and it’s unlikely they will do so this season. They had a near miss in 2016 when Benfica just pipped them to the crown but they slipped back last season. Although they will probably finish third again, they have already beat last seasons points tally.
Sporting have the most to do with a five-point gap to overturn. They also have the hardest fixtures. Tenth-placed Portimonense are the only bottom-half club on their schedule. Boavista, Maritimo, and city rivals Benfica are all in the upper echelons of the Primeira Liga.
The Benfica game will be huge even if neither side wins. Only the top two in Portugal qualify for the Champions League next season. If Porto maintain their advantage, the Lisbon derby could decide the second participant.
Sporting have their star striker, too. Netherlands international Bas Dost has scored 25 goals this season. The big striker has averaged more than a goal a game in the league since signing from Wolfsburg in 2016. Bruno Fernandes and Gelson Martins also star for Sporting Club. At 23 and 22 years old, both are attracting interest abroad. Each is closing on double digits in goals and assists for the campaign. Form like that should attract attention.
At present, Porto are favourites and rightfully so after a win away to their nearest rivals. But there’s still a lot of football to be played. Anything can happen. So, sit back and enjoy a tight title race that unfortunately didn’t occur in more leagues around Europe.