Photo: SL Benfica/Isabel Cutileiro

Photo: SL Benfica/Isabel Cutileiro

The new Primeira Liga season will commence on August 15th. And like always, there is no shortage of intriguing storylines to follow.

The Portuguese top flight has been expanded to 18 clubs from 16. Boavista has been allowed to return to the top division after a court decision deemed a previous relegation to be illegal.

And despite the modest resources of Portuguese clubs, the Primeira Liga always seems to produce excellent players every season. The ‘Big Three’ of Sporting Lisbon, Benfica and FC Porto, appear evenly matched, making the title race too close to call.

Here is a list of the top storylines to watch this season in Portugal.

Julen Lopetegui At FC Porto

Julen Lopetegui is best known for his success with Spain’s youth squads, and for a period managing Real Madrid’s reserve squad. Except for a short tenure in charge of Rayo Vallecano in 2003, the Spaniard has no prior coaching experience at senior level. But club president Pinto da Costa has had a long history of putting his trust in young, promising managers and has seen it pay off. Paulo Fonseca being the obvious exception last season.

Lopetegui has wasted no time building a squad in his own image. He has brought in Cristian Tello, Adrián López, Óliver Torres, and Casemiro. Porto has not gone more than one season without winning a league title since 2001-02. And with Benfica winning last season, and Sporting Lisbon getting stronger, FC Porto’s place as Portugal’s dominant force is being brought into question. The pressure is on.

Big Changes At Benfica

Portuguese clubs are used to losing their best players the summer after they win the league title. Success tends to elevate the value of players. And Portuguese clubs need to consistently sell players in order to be able to sign new players and stay competitive. But this played out to the extreme this summer, when defending champions Benfica sold an unusual amount of key players, including Ezequiel Garay, Jan Oblak and long-time target-man Oscar Cardozo.

The important question that many people are asking about Benfica going into the new season, is whether they could come together as a team quick enough to repeat as champions. The club’s scouting system is so strong that it always manages to find quality replacements. And for the first time in several years, Benfica have some intriguing academy graduates like João Teixeira.

Bebé At The Luz

The story of Tiago Manuel Dias Correia (known as Bebé) made headlines when he made a surprise move to Manchester United in 2010. But a lot has happened since then including growing out of favour at Old Trafford. He endured lackluster loan spells at Beşiktaş and Rio Ave as well, before enjoying a terrific second-half with Paços de Ferreira last season. Bebé demonstrated that he has the potential to be a quality centre-forward.

And it appears like he will get every opportunity to succeed at Benfica. The club lost two of their top three strikers from last season. Last year’s leading goalscorer Lima remains, but at age 30 it is unlikely that he will play at a high level that much longer. Plus, Jorge Jesus is said to have personally pushed for the club to sign the youngster. If Bebé does well, it would also be a major boost to the Seleção who are in desperate need of a striker.

Sporting Lisbon In Europe

After several tumultuous years, Sporting Lisbon appears to have stepped back from the brink of financial ruin. The club qualified for the Champions League for the first time since 2008-09 with a second-place finish last season. But what remains to be seen is whether this Sporting side is more ambitious than those of the past. The club has only advanced passed the group stage of the Champions League once in their history.

Sporting made some good signings this summer in an effort to add depth. However, the club was forced to sell Eric Dier to Tottenham. And the rumours of William Carvalho moving to a bigger club are expected to continue. Regardless, Sporting are not expected to lose many key players before the end of the transfer window on August 31st. The club looks to be in a good position to compete in Europe this season.

Boavista Returns

The Porto-based club was allowed to return to the Primeira Liga after a court decision overturned a previous sanction that forced the team into relegation in 2008, as a result of their involvement in the Apito Dourado scandal. Last season, Boavista was playing several notches below the Primeira Liga. As a result, the club was very active in the transfer window, almost completely reshaping their entire squad in the hopes of being competitive.

Former Portuguese international Petit will remain as manager. And he will have to rely on young players to perform if they are to avoid relegation. It certainly will not be easy. The club is still without a shirt sponsor. But the Boavista of the past had an excellent tradition of developing young players, many of whom would go on to play internationally for Portugal. They will have to rediscover that magic.

Revival Project At Braga

Sporting Braga is coming off a very poor season by their standards. Os Guerreiros were eliminated from the Europa League in the final qualification play-off by Romanian club Pandurii Târgu Jiu. Injuries and inconsistency would take a toll on the club. Jesualdo Ferreira was let go in February. Braga finished in ninth position and out of a Europa League position for this season.

Club president António Salvador hired former Portuguese international Sérgio Conceição as manager. Conceição has had some previous success with more modest clubs Olhanense and Académica. Braga also made some intriguing signings in Pedro Tiba, Marcelo Goiano and Tiago Gomes. Plus, with a healthy Éder and Rafa Silva, Braga should be a good club once again. And, it will be interesting to see how the notoriously hot-tempered Conceição will deal with higher expectations.

Young Talent On The Horizon

The great strength of the Portuguese League is its ability to discover the stars of tomorrow. Every summer, Portuguese clubs are forced to sell several players in order to stay financially secure. But every year, other quality players take their place. FC Porto have signed World Cup stars Yacine Brahimi and Bruno Martins Indi. Brazilians Talisca and Victor Andrade look like they could be quality players for Benfica as well.

And there is no shortage of promising home-grown talent. The Portuguese youth system is as strong as it has been in several years. Sporting Lisbon always has an abundance of promising players in its academy. Carlos Mané, Tobias Figueiredo and João Mário could be break out players this season. Benfica midfielder João Teixeira has looked good in the pre-season and could get some playing time with the senior squad. So has FC Porto defensive midfielder Rubén Neves.

Champions League Redemption

An emphasis on young talent, combined with strong management has prevented Portuguese clubs from falling behind Europe’s super-rich in the Champions League. Impressive, especially when you consider that other historically great clubs like Ajax and Celtic have been unable to do so. However, last season both FC Porto and Benfica were eliminated in the group stage. Although, Benfica’s run to the Europa League final allowed Portugal to surpass Italy for fourth in the UEFA coefficient rankings.

But the pressure is on for these clubs to do better this season. Benfica and Sporting Lisbon have already confirmed their place in the competition. While, FC Porto will have to qualify through a play-off against Ligue 1 club Lille. Success in club football’s most lucrative tournament is essential for the health of Portuguese clubs. Aside from the obvious financial gains, it also helps these clubs entice promising young footballers to play for them.

Related Posts:

BENFICA: 2014-15 Season Preview

SPORTING LISBON: 2014-15 Season Preview

FC PORTO: 2014-15 Season Preview

SPORTING BRAGA: 2014-15 Season Preview

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