Last season was a chastening experience for both Porto and Nuno Espirito Santo. Having bombed badly in Europe, FCP finished way behind Benfica (15 points) and Sporting (13 points) in the league, and then missed out on the consolation prize of the Portuguese Cup when they were beaten in the Final by Braga.
It was not a whole lot better for Nuno. The former Porto goalkeeper had impressed in each of his first three seasons as a head coach, leading modest Rio Ave to two cup finals before moving to Spain and steering Valencia into the Champions League in his first season.
He was, however, he unable to replicate that success last term, and a poor start – which included a group-stage exit from the Champions League – triggered widespread animosity towards him from fans at the Mestalla and resulted in his resignation in November.
But the experience has not shaken Nuno’s confidence in his abilities to succeed as a coach. “This isn’t the moment to make promises, but rather to give guarantees. I follow my convictions and I have an absurd conviction that we will be winners,” was Nuno’s curious turn of phrase upon being unveiled at the Estadio do Dragao alongside club president Pinto Da Costa and vice-president Antero Henrique as Porto’s new boss this summer.
It is no coincidence that Costa and Henrqiue appeared side by side in a show of unity amid rumours of a rift between the two major figures on the club’s board. This appointment is as important for the historical Porto leader and his directors as it is to the 42-year-old coach. If Porto fail to win the championship, it will be the first time in Da Costa’s 34-year reign that the northerners have gone four seasons without a title, and that will lend credence to the increasingly prevalent belief that the club’s domination of Portuguese football is well and truly over.
With Benfica and Sporting in rude health, the stakes could not be higher for Porto, but a confident Nuno appears anything but overawed, stating: “Pressure is always present when you’re a coach, but being Porto coach is a tremendous motivation for me and for those who will be working with me. We’ll be working 24 hours a day to make sure we are a winning team.”
Da Costa has masterminded an astoundingly successful era at the club, during which time Porto have won 20 championship titles and twice been crowned champions of Europe. But three trophy-less seasons and a succession of failed coaching appointments in Paulo Fonseca, Julen Lopetegui and Jose Peseiro have eroded confidence in the 78-year-old’s ability to keep making the right decisions.
Few thought they would ever see the day when his position was brought into question, but another season without the top prize is likely to see the sporadic calls for the club to renew its hierarchy turn into a clamour.
By Tom Kundert