Primeira Liga Season Preview 2018/2019
Who will win the Primeira Liga?
As always, the Big Three in Portuguese football will be the ones battling it out as they look to claim the ultimate domestic glory; Benfica, Porto and Sporting will most certainly all fancy their chances, and it is (virtually) impossible to look beyond them.
But to choose which of the three will actually win the 2018-19 title is not as simple, and it should prove to be a scintillating season.
Porto go into the season as slight favourites to reclaim the title they won for the first time in five seasons last year, but I, at the time of writing, fancy Benfica to do the business this year; having had a highly disappointing campaign last season, they have really pulled themselves together and learnt from the lessons of last year.
Indeed, having sold Nelson Semedo to Barcelona, Ederson to Manchester City and Victor Lindelof to Manchester United last summer, Benfica practically dismantled their previously solid defence just before the beginning of the season - and failed to replace their departing stars suitably. It resulted in a trophy-less season for the Lisbon club, and a disastrous Champions League showing.
Benfica have, however, rectified their problems for this season, finally bringing in a very solid goalkeeper in Vlachodimos to serve as number one ahead of the error-prone Bruno Varela, while they have also offloaded Lisandro Lopez, who was something of a liability for the side last term, and replaced him with his compatriot German Conti, who looks a very decent prospect. With him, Jardel and Ruben Dias in the side, Benfica's defence, vitally, looks impressive going into the new campaign.
While backing Benfica to win the Primeira Liga, if the Lisbon club were to sell young centreback Ruben Dias, that opinion could certainly change, such is the importance he serves defensively for the side.
Another issue to bear in mind for Benfica that could ultimately be their undoing is the lack of strength at right-back, with Andre Almeida the only senior right full-back in the side for the foreseeable future due to the long-term injury to Tyronne Ebuehi, while the sale of Jonas to Saudi Arabi, who scored an incredible 99 league goals for the club in just four seasons, could prove costly.
That said, Benfica have brought in two excellent striking options this season in high-profile former Shakhtar Donetsk forward Facundo Ferreyra and 25-year old Chilean Nicolas Castillo. Firepower, despite the loss of Jonas, should not be a problem for the Eagles.
FC Porto will certainly push them all the way though; despite losing Ricardo Pereira and Diogo Dalot to Premier League outfits Leicester and Manchester United respectively, as well as one of their standout centrebacks in Marcano to Roma, Porto still have a very strong side, and have sufficient cover to fill in for their lost players. Indeed, even if Marega makes his reported big-money move to West Ham in the coming days, with proven Primeira Liga goalscorers Tiquinho Soares and Vincent Aboubakar in their ranks, goals will still be in large supply.
Sporting, on the other hand, have been falling behind the other two members of the Big Three in recent years; in fact, in what may be a surprise to some, Sporting haven't managed to win the Portuguese league for well over a decade now, their last title coming 16 years ago in 2002. And I don't anticipate their drought ending this season either.
It's not really anything to do with the violent scenes that erupted at their Alcochete training complex either; indeed, despite losing goalkeeper and club legend Rui Patricio to Sporting, pacey winger Gelson Martins to Atletico Madrid, and defensive midfielder William Carvalho to Real Betis, the recruiting of the likes of Emiliano Viviano and Nani means that they have gone a long way to suitably replacing those they have lost. Keeping Bas Dost and Bruno Fernandes at the club also means that Sporting's side remains strong.
However, with the uninspiring appointment of Jose Peseiro as new manager, and with a less than impressive defence, picturing Sporting overcoming both Porto and Benfica to lift the title is not easy at all.
Who will be the surprise package?
Perhaps not a surprise anymore, but one side definitely worth watching out for is Braga; a side on a fraction of the budget of the big three in Portugal, Braga continually punch above their weight and have firmly carved their place as the fourth most prestigious club in Portuguese football over the last decade. The Europa League regulars even finished on a record 75 points last season, a ridiculous achievement that saw them finish an incredible 24 points above their closest rivals, Rio Ave, in fifth and just six points off Benfica in the final Champions League place.
Closing the gap on the Big Three is impressive in itself, but it is getting to the point where it's a possibility that they could even win the title for the first time in their history; a highly unlikely prospect considering the difference in financial backing, but a prospect that has fans dreaming.
History would need to be overcome for Braga to pull off the unthinkable; with the title never going to a side outside of Porto or Lisbon in the Portuguese League's 80-year long history, Braga would need to change the course of time to claim the ultimate bragging rights in Portugal, but with young manager Abel Ferreira in charge and a plucky spirit in a talented squad, it is far from impossible.
Another club to keep a close eye on this season is Guimaraes who, despite going out in the first round of the League Cup only yesterday against Tondela, look good in possession and have built a strong squad. Indeed, having conducted some impressive transfer business this summer - including the signing of Porto duo Andre Andre and Joao Teixeira, former Sheffield Wednesday centreback Frederico Venancio, Portimonense fullback Rafa Soares, and Benfica winger Ola John - to add to an already-talented squad containing the likes of Welthon, Alexandre Guedes and Toze, Guimaraes look like a real force this season, and should be making a push for the top 5 in the league.
TEAMS TO WATCH: BRAGA AND GUIMARAES
Who will be player of the year?
A striker will likely be the difference maker in what is always a very tight division; If Benfica are to win the league, for example, one of Castillo or Ferreyra - whoever gets the nod more regularly from manager Rui Vitoria - will surely have to have a stunning season to make up for the loss of goal machine Jonas. While, if Porto were to lift the title come the end of the campaign, either Aboubakar or Tiquinho Soares - who has recently picked up a fairly serious injury - will surely need to continue their impressive scoring records for the Dragons. Equally, Bas Dost will need to continue to find the back of the net with incredible regularity if Sporting are to stand a chance. These will be the players to separate the clubs come May 2019, and their form and consistency - and ability to avoid injury - will likely determine the next winner of the Primeira Liga.
I fancy one of Benfica's new boys up front to be the difference makers this year, which depends purely on who Rui Vitoria prefers; I would go with Ferreyra, but Castillo has looked good in pre-season.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: FERREYRA/CASTILLO
Who to watch?
A lot of talent, as always, in the Portuguese league. It seems this could be the year that young Benfica duo Gedson Fernandes and Joao Felix finally break into the senior side - and they could certainly take the league by storm.
Gedson, the nineteen-year-old central midfielder, looks an impressive player, providing energy and technical ability in the middle of the park, while 18-year old Felix, who had been linked with West Ham this summer, has all the attributes required to go to the very top of world football. This could be a huge season for the pair, who could play a significant role in helping deliver the title to the Lisbon club.
Another one to watch is a player that was simply phenomenal in the league last season; Shoya Nakajima. The Japanese winger, who has since made his move to Portimonense permanent, provided goals and assists in huge numbers, while also dazzling fans with his skill and explosive, direct style. It is difficult to imagine he will still be with the club next season, and whether he can match his incredible heights of last season is certainly worth watching with interest. This boy can certainly play.
For a more obvious one-to-watch, Bruno Fernandes will likely have another outstanding season for Sporting; after performing so impressively last year, the Portuguese midfielder is expected to build on a remarkable season and show his capabilities in his home country yet again.
ONES TO WATCH: JOAO FELIX, GEDSON FERNANDES, SHOYA NAKAJIMA.
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