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Porto celebrate their 2011 success

There is one question on everyone’s lips as the new season kicks off: can any team compete with Porto? Last season the title race was over before it ever began, with the champions comfortably winning their 25th title by a massive 21 points over Benfica.

With Andre Villas-Boas having left Porto, there is hope for the Eagles of Lisbon to make a title challenge – but perhaps the biggest threat may lie just a couple of miles away at the Alvalade Stadium. A lot has changed at Sporting Lisbon and they harbour high hopes of returning to their glory days.

There is a new president, a new coach and new money – which has already helped bring in a dozen new players for this season. They didn’t even need them; it was just that last season was such a disaster for the Sporting. They finished 36 points behind Porto, winning only 13 of their 30 matches in what was one of their worst league campaigns in the last two decades – which led to the mid-season sacking of Paulo Sergio and emergency presidential elections, won by Luis Godinho Lopes.

Domingos Paciencia, the young coach who led Braga in their first Champions League campaign and then to the Europe League Final, is the new man charged with landing Sporting’s first league title since 2002. The former Porto striker showed himself to be a shrewd coach with a limited budget at Braga, but he is also a disciplinarian who prizes substance over style so don’t expect any fireworks at Alvalade this season. However, the fans will take results over performances right now after enduring so many frustrating nights for so many years.

Domingos’s former club will try to maintain its high standards in his absence, with Braga hiring unheralded Leonardo Jardim, who had spent only a couple of seasons in the top tier with Beira-Mar. Jardim may not have a lot of experience in the first division but he will be able to count on two veterans to lead the charge. Nuno Gomes, who has scored over 200 goals in his career, was signed on a free transfer from Benfica, and former international goalkeeper Quim is also around to help. A mixture of experience and youth should mean Braga will have enough weapons to compete for a European spot once again, even if their new boss takes a while to settle.

The financial crisis haunting the country means that few other teams will have a chance to match the elite clubs. One of the few who could cause a surprise are Vitoria Guimaraes. With a solid fan base and an experienced coach in Manuel Machado, Vitoria could cause a few upsets this term. They finished fifth last time out and could have done even better if some key players had not suffered serious injuries.

On the island of Madeira, Nacional will continue to cause the top teams all kinds of trouble – last season they beat Benfica and Sporting at home on their way to finishing sixth – but Maritimo, having lost Djalma and Kleber, could struggle.

Pacos Ferreira won’t be able to count on Venezuela international Mario Rondon to knock in the goals any more as he has joined Nacional, but they shouldn’t be underestimated and could be in the mix for a Europa League place this season.

Rio Ave raised a few eyebrows by finishing eighth last season, thanks in part to former Portugal striker Joao Tomas, who scored 16 goals – the most by any home-grown player.

Uniao Leiria and Beira-Mar both have the same problem: huge stadiums built for Euro 2004 but with no fans to fill them. The cash-strapped clubs flirted with relegation last year before finally securing their top-flight status but another season of suffering is on the horizon.

Three-time Portuguese Cup winners Vitoria Setubal are also struggling financially. Jose Mourinho’s hometown team only just found enough money to register for the upcoming campaign and they could fold unless new investors are forthcoming.

Olhanense will once again be the Algarve’s only representative in Portugal’s top flight. Mozambique-born manager Dauto Faquira is considered a bright prospect and he will aim to improve on last season’s 11th place finish.

One of the country’s oldest and most respected clubs, Academica barely avoided relegation last season, but should do better after securing some important loan signings from Porto and Sporting Lisbon.

The two new clubs this season are Gil Vicente and Feirense, with the latter in the top flight for the first time since 1990.

By Pedro Pinto

Key Dates
Season starts:
August 14, 2011
Season ends:  May 13, 2011