When the Liga NOS resumes next month after its short Christmas break, Portugal’s Big Three will be in for a strenuous sprint to the finish. Porto, Sporting and Benfica are within just three points of each other, raising the prospect of the league having as tight a race as we have seen since the dramatic 2006/2007 season. That year, all three clubs finished within two points of each other, and it is not difficult to see another captivating conclusion this season.
Just about at the halfway point, PortuGOAL assesses each of the three contenders thus far, and look at how each of them may win the league this May.
The story so far: Porto has the most consistent-looking squad from top to bottom. While both of their rivals have one prolific goal-scorer, Porto can boast two players who are scoring at will. Both Vincent Aboubakar and Moussa Marega have tallied 12 goals each and appear to be keeping their stride into the New Year.
Offensively, the productive duo is supported by dynamic playmakers behind them. Yacine Brahimi has been a driving engine for Porto, displaying immense creativity and vision. He has five assists and much of the Porto attack runs through him. An additional bonus has been the magnificent form of Alex Telles, who has made himself a large part of Porto’s attacking threat as well. Telles leads the league in number of key passes per game at 3.0, and has four assists of his own.
As well as being a potent attacking force, Porto features the league’s best defence, the back four of Telles, Marcano, Felipe and Ricardo having only conceded six times in 15 Liga games before Christmas. With Ricardo leading the league in tackles per game at 3.6 and Felipe near the top of the league with most interceptions per game, it has been difficult for teams to break them down.
Will win the league because: They have the most rounded starting eleven in Portugal with a stingy defence and ruthless attack.
Won’t win the league because: The lack of depth may haunt them come spring. They are always one or two key injuries away from looking like a different team.
Key players to keep this January: With a squad as thin as Porto’s, it will be important to keep their entire starting eleven. However, losing Telles or Brahimi would be hugely detrimental to the Porto’s attacking potency. Additionally, Danilo is a huge part of the identity of this squad and losing him will create a severe hole for Porto to fill.
Ideal January reinforcements: A winger. Another dynamic winger would allow Sérgio Conceição to use Marega in different ways then he is currently able to. Presently, there is a significant drop-off to their attack when Aboubakar comes off the pitch. If Conceição can slide Marega into that role more often, with a new vibrant winger able to play down the right side, it would keep Porto’s attack firing for a full 90 minutes every game.
The story so far: Last season’s star man Bas Dost still leads the way in the Sporting goal tally. However, it is Bruno Fernandes and who has stolen the spotlight at the Alvalade this season. In addition to his seven goals and three assists, he has given opposing defences nightmares during his rise to prominence in this Sporting squad. Alternating between the No. 8 and No. 10 roles, Fernandes makes his presence felt all over the pitch, taking significant pressure off Sporting’s wingers, and allowing Gelson Martins to focus on causing havoc down the flanks.
While they have only conceded nine goals so far this season, Sporting give up significantly more shots per game, at 11.1, than the other two contenders. They have a very experienced back line, but at times look to be outpaced by some of the quicker forwards in the league. Coentrão has been a great addition, but his injury history casts a doubt about whether he can maintain his considerable influence until the finishing line.
Will win the league because: Their attack, as Fernandes, Gelson and Podence continue to develop, will begin to dominate the league the second half of the season.
Won’t win the league because: Their defence could let them down, as aging defenders potentially get fatigued or injured. Furthermore, making a deep run in the Europa League, playing the dreaded Thursday night games, will not help.
Key players to keep this January: William has proven his critics wrong again this season. There were concerns his mind would be elsewhere after the failed move to England during the summer, but he has been in top form. Keeping him through the rest of the season would play a significant part in the title race.
There might be a temptation to cash in on Bas Dost, given the huge potential profit to be made on a player that cost what now seems a bargain at €10m. However, as well as his copious supply of goals, Bas Dost has enhanced his link-up play superbly at Sporting, allowing players around him to flourish, and losing the Dutchman before the end of the season would surely be a mistake. Speculation broke earlier this year that Everton would offer Sporting his release clause in January, but Sporting should make sure they hold on to him at least until next summer.
Ideal January reinforcements: A full-back who can play down either flank would be a significant find for Sporting, who may need a replacement for Coentrão at any time. Beyond that, they do not need much help to the starting eleven, although with the Lions still alive on four fronts, an alternative like-for-like replacement for Dost is advisable.
The story so far: It is difficult to establish a definitive judgment of Benfica’s campaign up though the holiday period. At times, they look to be the Champions that they were over the last four seasons, and the Eagles remain only three points off top spot. At other times, they have looked lost beyond repair.
The low point of the season for Benfica was certainly crashing out of the Champions League in such a disconcerting manner. It was easy to question Benfica’s commitment to the cause while suffering a few alarming defeats in what appeared to be a favourable group for the Lisbon club. A 5-0 dismantling at the hands of Basel sent shockwaves through the Portuguese champions, and called many to question if Rui Vitoria was still the man to lead the club.
Still, they are only one win off the pace in the Liga NOS (win their next game at home against Sporting and they leapfrog their city rivals), with Jonas leading the scoring race in Portugal having amassed an astonishing 18 goals in 15 league matches this season. His main collaborator, Pizzi, on the other hand, has generally looked a shadow of the offensive threat he posed last year. The tactical switch to 4-3-3 and the emergence of Croatian playmaker Filip Krovinovic as the main creative force in midfield has brought a slight upturn in form.
With Benfica selling three key components of the league’s best defence last season (Ederson, Semedo and Lindelöf), it has been easy to spot the voids they left behind. The aging centre-back pairing of Jardel and Luisão has been exposed several times this season.
Will win the league because: It is their only remaining goal for the rest of the season. While Porto and Sporting have multiple campaigns still to focus on, Benfica will benefit from extra rest and preparation for Liga NOS matches.
Won’t win the league because: Their dodgy away form and defence will let them down.
Key players to keep this January: After a summer that saw Benfica sell some of their finest commodities, losing any more core players would irrevocably damage the club’s hope of the penta.
Ideal January reinforcements: Solidifying the defence should be the priority at the Estádio da Luz this winter. A fresh centre-back would be a welcome addition, as well as a right-back with more attacking threat.
By Justino Flores (Twitter: @LordEder7)