Is the balance of power shifting back to the capital?
Porto’s bid to secure a record-equalling fifth successive league title suffered a setback when the defending champions lost 1-0 to Benfica at the Estadio da Luz.
In a wet and windy night in Lisbon, the Dragons misfired, and a solitary first-half goal from Argentinian forward Javier Saviola settled the contest, leaving Porto four points behind Benfica and Sporting Braga – the joint leaders at the Christmas break.
Benfica’s triumph was the latest in a long list of impressive results since Jorge Jesus took over last summer. The Reds have one of Europe’s top attacks – with 38 goals in 14 league matches – and have been scoring for fun in the Europa League, even managing to put six past Everton in a group game.
Some stellar performances at home and abroad have given Benfica hope that a five-year championship drought might come to an end this year.
The secret to Jesus’ success has been to rely on a core of 12 to 14 players who have played practically every game and morphed into a solid unit. With a tight back four led by veteran Luisao, and former Real Madrid midfielder Javi Garcia playing the role of anchor, the coach has seen the best of the creative talents of Pablo Aimar and Angel Di Maria. The striking partnership of Saviola and Oscar Cardozo has also been on fire, yielding 21 goals so far this season.
In contrast, just a couple of miles away, at the Alvalade Stadium, Sporting Lisbon supporters have been enduring their side’s worse start to a season in nearly a decade.
A dismal run of three wins in their opening 10 league games led to the resignation of coach Paulo Bento, who had been at the club since 2005. He was replaced by former Vitoria Setubal and Maritimo coach Carlos Carvalhal, who inherited a side sitting in sixth place and facing the prospect of finishing outside the top three for the first time since 1999.
In order to stop the rot, the Lions need to get Liedson scoring again. The naturalized Portugal international, who has been Sporting’s top scorer for the last five seasons, has struggled to find his form this term, scoring just four league goals so far. As a team, Sporting managed only 15 goals in their opening 14 games.
One of Carvalhal’s former sides, Braga, continue to shine under the leadership of 40-year-old coach Domingos Paciencia. Boasting Europe’s best defence, with just six goals conceded, Braga keep grinding out wins and have everyone thinking that they could be good enough to
win the title for the first time in their history – which would be quite an achievement for a side that has never finished higher than fourth.
Former Newcastle United and Valencia midfielder Hugo Viana has been enjoying an Indian summer in the north of Portugal with Braga, where he doesn’t have the pressure of having to live up to high expectations.
His performances have led to many pundits demanding his return to the national team, especially with Deco struggling for fitness.
Portugal’s struggle to qualify for the World Cup finals has raised concerns that there is not enough quality or versatility in midfield. With Tiago continually failing to deliver, Viana – who hasn’t played for Portugal in nearly two years – could be a valid option in South Africa.