Benfica and Sporting were slow out of the stalls on the opening day of the Portuguese Liga, dropping points at newly promoted Gil Vicente (2-2) and at home to Olhanense (1-1) respectively. The winners of
the one-horse race last season, Porto, were the only one of the serious title contenders to take all three points, at Vitória de Guimarães. That's three victories out of the last three competitive games for the
champions, all against Vitória (5-2 in the Portuguese Cup final in May, 2-1 in the 2011 Supertaça on August 7 and 1-0 last weekend). So are Porto favourites for the title this time?
Website Maisfutebol's poll has 62 per cent saying yes, with 20 per cent going for Benfica, 10 per cent for Sporting and 5 per cent for Sporting Braga and Vitória de Guimarães between them. State TV
channel RTP polled the team captains of all the clubs in the top two divisions except the Três Grandes themselves (Porto, Benfica and Sporting) and the result was unanimous: Porto to win the Championship and the
Taça de Portugal, and Benfica to win the Taça da Liga. New Porto coach Vítor Pereira has accepted the status of favourites, but is setting the bar high: "We'll have to be stronger than last season."
Bearing in mind that last season was the best in the club's history, then that's one high bar.
At the back of his mind will have been the influx of quality players to Porto's two main rivals. After a dismal
season in which they staggered over the finishing line a record 21 points behind Porto, Benfica could not be seen to be sitting on their hands. They appear to have made five key signings. Goalkeeper Artur Moraes
from Braga has replaced the hapless Roberto, who Benfica somehow convinced bankrupt Zaragoza to take off their hands, via a players' fund, for €8.6 million (£7.5m).
Vying for Moraes' place will be Portuguese international Eduardo, on loan from Genoa. As part of the deal that saw Fábio Coentrão moving to Real Madrid, Argentinian international central defender Ezequiel
Garay moved the other way. In midfield, the versatile Axel Witsel has arrived from Standard Liège and forward Nolito, who wasn't good enough for the Barcelona first team, looks more than useful in a Portuguese
context. The question will be whether coach Jorge Jesus can get the new arrivals integrated quickly enough to avoid a repetition of last season's disastrous start that effectively did for Benfica's chances before
September was out.
Sporting had even more reason than Benfica to get off their behinds in the close season, finishing as they did a whopping 36 points behind Porto. The cash-strapped club issued debentures
worth €20m in July to fund a close-season spending spree. Of the newcomers, the standouts are Peruvian international central-back Rodríguez, midfielders Fabián Rinaudo from Argentina and the Dutchman Stijn
Schaars, and strikers Jeffrén, another Barcelona "reject", and the young Chilean Diego Rubio.
As with Benfica, integration is an issue. New coach Domingos Paciência has already tried to pre-empt any criticism from the notoriously fickle Sporting fans, who were whistling their team in the official
presentation against Valencia (in a friendly they lost 3-0): "With the renewal of the squad, it's natural that Sporting are going to experience some difficulties." For good measure, the Lions' routine
bleating about refereeing has already begun following the home draw against Olhanense.
Sporting and Benfica both played six new arrivals in their first game. In contrast, Porto played one, the Brazilian
striker Kléber from Marítimo, and this continuity should give Porto an extra advantage early on. Even new manager Pereira was on the bench alongside André Villas-Boas last season. The signs are that the team will
barely break their stride, even if, as seems likely, they lose the excellent Colombian striker Falcao to Atlético Madrid.
One trend that seems to be continuing is the dependence on foreign imports, especially
from South America. Sporting, in previous years heavily dependent on their academy products, managed to field five Portuguese players in their opening game, Porto had four and Benfica played just one, Rúben Amorim,
who will surely lose his place to the Uruguayan international full-back Maxi Pereira when fit. Having said that, a healthier feature of the Liga is that all 16 top-flight clubs have Portuguese coaches – at least
until the first chicotada psicológica (psychological whiplash, or sacking), which doesn't normally take long in coming in Portugal.
(This article appeared on the website of the British magazine When Saturday Comes.)