August was a very eventful month in Portuguese football. The Super Cup and the first three league matches were played, five Portuguese teams started their European campaigns and Porto played the European Super Cup against FC Barcelona. The Portuguese National team will face Cyprus in a few days, in the wake of Ricardo Carvalho’s shocking announcement.

The Portuguese League

The Liga Sagres might not be one among the very best in the world, but it has a tradition of great teams and players, including two former Ballon d’Or winners in Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese league is definitely a quality league, with the top Portuguese teams, namely FC Porto, being fairly competitive in Europe.

As always, the big three started as heavy favorites, with Porto  on a superior level to Benfica and Sporting CP. Despite their two consecutive impressive campaigns, both domestically and in Europe, Braga can’t be considered a favorite, after they lost several key players and their manager Domingos Paciência (to Sporting), although they do have an outside shot. Teams like Braga, Vitória de Guimarães, Marítimo and Nacional are expected to fight for a top-5 spot that will guarantee them a place in Europe next season, while the remaining clubs’ priority will be to be as safe as possible, avoiding relegation as soon as possible.

Each of the favorites has had different fortunes so far. Porto started the season by winning the Portuguese Super Cup 2-1 against Vitória de Guimarães (last year’s Cup finalists), thus completing a domestic treble and becoming the most decorated club in the history of Portuguese football, ahead of Benfica. After winning last year’s league undefeated (27 wins, three draws), the reigning champions picked up from where they had let off, winning their first two league  games, away at Vitória de Guimarães 1-0 and home against newly promoted Gil Vicente 3-1, with Hulk already having scored three goals. Their third match was postponed due to the European Super Cup and therefore Porto are only third in the league despite their perfect record, although they’re clear favorites to defend their title. Despite the loss of Radamel Falcao, Porto remain an incredibly strong outfit and they’ll be even stronger now that James Rodriguez and Juan Itrube, two of the most promising young players in the world, are back from their respective youth championships.

Hulk: Porto’s trump card!

Benfica have significantly strengthened their squad in order to compete with Porto and the improvement has been apparent. In just one year, Benfica have lost Ramires, David Luis, Di Maria and Fábio Coentrão – four players, who are now shining in Europe’s biggest leagues, but they managed to sign adequate replacements. The signings of Axel Witsel and Nolito from Standard Liege and FC Barcelona were particularly inspiring; Witsel is just a 22-year-old, but he’s a fantastic all-round midfielder, a rather improved version of Ramires. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Benfica sold him for a huge profit very soon (they signed him for a mere 8 million euros).

Nolito (left) and Witsel (right)

As for Nolito, he couldn’t make it at Barcelona (mostly due to the very intense competition for places), but he seems to have found a home at Benfica. He scored in each of his first five official matches with the club, thus equaling the record set by the legendary Eusébio back in the 1960s. Overall, Benfica look a much better side this season, capable of fighting with Porto and make a good run in the Champions League.  They didn’t start the league very well; in the first day, they tied 2-2 at Gil Vicente, despite being 2-o up. But they bounced back and beat Feirense 3-1 at home and Nacional 2-0 away to become joint leaders of the league (although Porto have a game in hand).

After two disastrous seasons in a row, Sporting changed pretty much everything in an effort to catch up with their competitors. Ex-Braga manager (who took them to an improbable 2nd place finish and a Europa League final) Domingos Paciencia was brought and 14 players were signed, while many others were sold/released. But so far, it hasn’t worked and Sporting have only got two points from as many matches; in the first two matches against Olhanense and Beira-Mar, Sporting were dominating but their poor finishing cost them as many as four points. In the third game, at home against Maritimo, Sporting were pretty poor but also a bit unlucky to lose 3-2. Jeffren got injured scoring the equalizer from a free kick and Sporting were forced to play with 10 for twenty minutes (all the substitutions had been done already).

Domingos Paciencia: Lots to work on

The club might complain about some admittedly wrong refereeing decisions that could have resulted in different outcomes, but the truth is that Domingos Paciencia still has a lot of work to do. Sporting need to start winning soon if they wish to compete with the top two, which now seems improbable. The likes of Diego Capel, Elias, Jeffren and Schaars, among others, make the squad stronger, but on paper not at the same level as Porto and Benfica. On deadline day, Helder Postiga and Yannick Djaló were offloaded, in a move that seems to defy lofic (as no replacements were signed). We’ll have to wait and see how Sporting reacts after the international break, but so far it doesn’t look good at all.

Surprisingly (or maybe not so much), Braga are joint league leaders with Benfica. The team don’t look as impressive as in the past two seasons, but so far they’ve been collecting the points. It remains to be seen just how far Leonardo Jardim, who did a very good job at Beira Mar last season, can take this Braga team. They might not have great players, but they have a very good team, with great unity.

Meanwhile, Braga’s neighbours Vitória de Guimarães are in crisis, having lost their first two league matches, and then their manager Manuel Machado. New manager Rui Vitória, formerly at Paços Ferreira, with whom he did a great job, even taking them to the League Cup final last season, will have his work cut out in the fight for a European place.

With only three matches played, it’s tough to reach any conclusions, but it seems that apart from the top 3/4, the league will be very tight, just like last season.

Overall Standings

  1. SL Benfica – 7 points
  2. SC Braga – 7 points
  3. FC Porto – 6 points
  4. Académica – 6 points
  5. Beira Mar– 5 points
  6. Olhanense– 5 points
  7. Gil Vicente-  4 points
  8. Vitória de Setúbal – 4 points
  9. Paços de Ferreira – 4 points
  10. Marítimo – 4 points
  11. Sporting CP – 2 points
  12. Feirense – 2 points
  13. Nacional – 1 point
  14. Rio Ave – 1 point
  15. União de Leiria – 0 point
  16. Vitória de Guimarães – 0 point

Note: Teams in bold, have a game in hand.

Portuguese Teams in Europe

Six Portuguese teams participated in European competitions during the month of August; Porto played the European Super Cup against FC Barcelona, following their Europa League success last season in all-Portuguese final against Braga; Benfica played the Champions League qualifying rounds, while Sporting, Braga, Nacional and Vitória de Guimarães played the qualifying and playoff rounds of the Europa League.

Benfica looked impressive in their qualifying matches against Trazbonspor and Twente, beating both teams at home by two goals and getting away draws. Benfica managed to advance to the Champions League group stages with relative ease, and they’ll now face Manchester United, Basel and Otelu Galati, in a group, where they shouldn’t have many troubles securing qualification for the knockout stages; however, winning the group will be very difficult with Manchester United around. Benfica start their group stage campaign at home against Manchester United.

In Europa League, Nacional were eliminated by Birmingham (0-3 on aggregate) and Guimarães by Atlético Madrid (0-6 on aggregate), while Sporting and Braga narrowly beat Nordsjaelland from Denmark and Young Boys from Switzerland respectively to advance to the group stages. Sporting will now face Lazio, Zurich and Valsui, while Braga will face Brugge, Birmingham and Maribor. On paper, both clubs should advance to the knockout stages without much trouble.

Finally, FC Porto put a great fight against FC Barcelona in the European Super Cup but eventually lost 2-0 to the world’s best team, in a performance that only dignified Portuguese football (despite the result). In spite of the loss, Porto proved to be one of the best teams in Europe at the moment.  As a pot 1 team, Porto got a relatively easy Champions League group, with Shakhtar Donetsk (their opponents in the first match at the Dragão Stadium), Zenit and Apoel Nicosia. In theory, Porto should be favorites to win that group and advance to the next round just like Benfica. The Europa League winners have legitimate ambitions to go very far in this competition, despite losing Radamel Falcao and André Villas Boas.

UEFA Super Cup: FC Barcelona 2-0 FC Porto

After an extraordinary campaign in 2010-2011, where three Portuguese teams reached the Europa League semifinals, with the final being played by two Portuguese teams and where Portugal made more UEFA ranking points than any other country, Portuguese teams will try to keep their high performance, in order to have three teams in the Champions League in 2013-2014. Judging by the draws, all four teams should be able to reach the knockout stages.

Portuguese National Team

After a nightmare start to the qualification campaign (4-4 draw against Chipre at home and 1-0 defeat in Norway) due to several internal problems revolving around ex-manager Carlos Queiroz, Portugal’s bid for a place in the Euro 2012 has been revived by new manager Paulo Bento, under whom Portugal have won three matches in a row and are now level on points (and matches played) with Denmark and Norway. Portugal will play Cyprus later today in Nicosia, in a match where the three points are crucial. Due to the horrible start, Portugal have no margin for error now, they need to win the remaining matches in order to win the group or even get the second place to go to the playoff.

Ricardo Carvalho: A huge loss to cope with

However, the atmosphere isn’t ideal before the Cyprus match. Ricardo Carvalho has very recently put an end to his international career, claiming that he feels “disrespected”, although he doesn’t specify what exactly happened. Not only is he a big loss on the field, but such news don’t bode well for the morale of the squad. We’ll have to wait and see how Portugal perform, with their qualification to the Euro on the line.

Overall Standings

  1. Portugal – 10 points
  2. Norway – 10 points
  3. Denmark – 10 points
  4. Cyprus – 2 points
  5. Iceland – 1 point

Note: All teams have played 5 matches.

Remaining matches

  • Cyprus away (Today)
  • Iceland home (7 October)
  • Denmark away (11 October)

Player of the Month in Portugal: Nolito

The award for the best player in a Portuguese club team during the month of August can only go to Benfica’s Nolito, who averaged one goal per match in all competitions. The La Masia graduate might not have succeeded at Barcelona, but if this first month at Benfica is any indication, he has a bright career ahead of him. The 24-year-old winger has great pace and trickery along with an excellent eye for a goal. With five goals in as many official games (two in the league, three in the Champions League), Nolito is the player of the month in Portugal!

Don’t miss next month’s edition of the Portuguese diary, to find out how the league is shaping up, how the Portuguese teams are doing in the Champions League/Europa League group stages and the state of the Portuguese national team after their next crucial match!