Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

Andre Silva

The editors of PortugalFutbol.net and FutebolFactory.com are proud to announce our annual list of 10 players to watch this season. After much deliberation, we whittled down the pool of talented players to ten, but couldn’t help but add some honorable mentions. These are players who we believe have a realistic shot at making it to the senior Portuguese National Team by the end of the season.

Miguel Silva, Vitória Guimarães, Goalkeeper

The 21-year-old goalkeeper was outstanding at times last season. The highlight was a probably scoreless draw against Sporting CP in February. He has good size for a goalkeeper but is also blessed with good aerial ability. Pedro Martins replaced Sérgio Conceição this summer at Vitória Guimarães, which could mean Silva is relegated to the bench. But, there is little doubt the young keeper will one day be first choice.

Nélson Semedo, Benfica, Right-Back

Last season, he earned a spot in Rui Vitória’s squad for the Super Cup against Sporting CP after an excellent pre-season. He scored his first senior goal a week later against Estoril. In October, Fernando Santos handed him a start in a Euro 2016 qualifier against Serbia. But his meteoric rise came to an end after he suffered a major knee injury with the national team. He would miss several months and played sparingly after returning when Benfica was in a title race. If he stays healthy, Semedo should be a key part of Benfica’s squad this season.

Rúben Semedo, Sporting, Centre-Back

After a successful half-season on loan at Vitória Setúbal last season, Semedo was recalled to Sporting in January, where he played a huge role in the team’s excellent defensive record. In the 14 matches Semedo featured in, Sporting only conceded eight goals. This season, it remains unclear how prominent of a role Rúben Semedo will play in Sporting’s backline. But if last season was anything to go on, this Sporting team will find success through rotation, meaning that Semedo will get a chance to show his worth.

Rúben Neves, FC Porto, Central Midfielder

Already Porto’s youngest scorer in the league, the youngest Portuguese player to play in the Champions League, and the youngest player ever to captain a team in the Champions League, Neves has a bright future ahead of him. His quality is evident, and if he is used similarly to the past two seasons, Neves will mainly play a rotation role, ready to fill in should Danilo get injured. But as Neves continues to develop, Porto coach Nuno Espírito Santo may be forced to give him a more prominent role on the team.

João Carlos Teixeira, FC Porto, Attacking Midfielder

He could prove to be an excellent steal for Porto. Teixeira left Sporting CP for Liverpool at the tender age of 20 but never settled at the club, despite a positive loan spell at Brighton and Hove Albion in 2014-15. After Jurgen Klopp replaced Brendan Rodgers, Teixeira was used in cup matches. Still, he did not factor in the German’s plans for this season. He will have to compete for playing time this year at Cidade Invicta, but Teixeira has talent in abundance and is at the age where many players take a major step forward.

André Horta, Benfica, Attacking Midfielder

After a handful of appearances for Vitória Setúbal in the 2014/2015 season, Horta was given a starting spot last season, and did not disappoint. Renato Sanches’s departure to Bayern Munich opened up a spot in Benfica’s midfield. Rui Vitória, always looking to youth, has turned to Horta as the next heir to the throne. If his pre-season performances are any reflection, Horta looks to have secured a spot in the team’s midfield. And should he continue his form throughout the season, Fernando Santos just may have another quality midfielder to add to his growing list.

Iuri Medeiros, Sporting CP, Winger

The Azorean attacker was terrific last season at Moreirense, on loan from Sporting CP. And before that, with Arouca. João Mário’s move to Serie A looking increasingly imminent, which will leave a major gap in the team’s attack. Medeiros feels comfortable in midfield and on the wings, but was primarily used on the right side at Moreirense, and looks a good candidate for Mário’s spot. His best attributes are his close-control, dribbling, vision and goal-scoring ability. The 22-year-old has already scored goals against FC Porto and Benfica.

Ricardo Horta, SC Braga, Winger

The 21-year-old spent two lacklustre seasons at Málaga, in which he was in and out of the squad. But he has remained a key part of Portugal’s youth squads. He has been loaned to Braga for this season, as a suitable replacement for Rafa Silva who is likely to leave this month. He should get a chance to play at A Pedreira this season. José Peseiro’s focus on attacking football should favour a player like Horta. And it should be a real pleasure to watch him play against his brother André, who joined Benfica in the summer.

Gonçalo Guedes, Benfica, Winger

Benfica coach Rui Vitória was busy signing players this summer and Guedes’s place could be under threat. New arrivals such as Franco Cervi, Andrija Živković, and André Carrillo, coupled with Salvio’s return to fitness, mean Guedes will have to convince Rui Vitória he belongs in the starting XI. But with recent news of Jonas’s injury and subsequent surgery, perhaps Guedes could find a spot in Benfica’s team outside of his usual position. Already capped twice at senior level, a solid season could see Guedes factor into Fernando Santos’s plans.

André Silva, FC Porto, Striker

Portugal’s woes in the striking department have been evident since the retirement of Seleção legend Pauleta in 2006, but the road ahead looks bright with André Silva. In last season’s Taça de Portugal final, Silva’s scored twice, the second of which an excellent last-minute overhead kick. With former first-choice striker Vincent Aboubakar faltering and many of Porto’s striking reinforcements from last season primed to leave, all signs point toward this season being Silva’s for the taking.

Honorable Mentions

Daniel Podence, Sporting, Winger
Ivo Rodrigues, Paços Ferreira, Winger
Paulo Henrique, Paços Ferreira, Left-Back
Andrezinho, Paços Ferreira, Attacking Midfielder
Gil Dias, Rio Ave, Winger
Xande Silva, Vitória Guimarães, Forward
Fabinho, Feirense, Attacking Midfielder
Ricardo Ferreira, Braga, Center Back

This article was a collaboration between Rui Miguel Martins of FutebolFactory.com and Sam Biggers of PortugalFutbol.net.

Dani Osvaldo FC Porto

Sporting and FC Porto received most of the headlines this weekend after resounding victories in match-day seven of the Primeira Liga season. Both clubs share top spot in the table with 17 points each.

After a famous victory against former manager Jose Mourinho and Chelsea during the week, the Dragões trounced Belenenses 4-0 at home on Sunday. After a scoreless first-half, summer signing Jesús Corona put Porto ahead just after the break. Brahimi, Osvaldo and Marcano rounded out the scoring.

Manager Julen Lopetegui credited his club’s mental strength for the victory.

“We deserved to be winning at half-time, but couldn’t score, despite our superiority, as we missed too many shots. We had several situations to score, played well, facing a team with good players, and we were waiting on the perfect timing. The team had mentality, was capable of working and winning,” he said.

The win may have come at a price. Team captain and defensive-stalwart Maicon may be on the sidelines for a few weeks after leaving the match in the first-half with a thigh injury.

Sporting followed up a disappointing 1-1 draw against Beşiktaş in the Europa League, with a convincing 5-1 win against Vitória Guimarães at Alvalade. Islam Slimani scored a hat-trick, with Teo Gutiérrez and Adrien Silva scoring the other two. It may have been Sporting’s most complete performance of the season.

William Carvalho made his first appearance at Alvalade after returning from a leg injury and looked to be in top form.

“Yes, this performance was a good response. We have worked hard, despite the problems,” he said.

“The objective is to play well and win. Now we have to work hard and think about the next match.”

Last year’s champions Benfica had their match against União de Madeira postponed because of thick fog. A new date has not been announced.

Outside the ‘Big Three,’ Rio Ave is the biggest surprise so far. Pedro Martins’ club sit alone in third position. Braga could only manage a scoreless draw against Arouca but still sit comfortably in fourth position. Benfica rounds off the top five, with one game at hand.

Moreirense and Academica currently sit in the relegation zone with three points each. Academica won their first match of the season beating Marítimo 1-0. Moreirense played Tondela to a 1-1 draw and remain the only club without a league victory this season.

The Liga NOS will now go on a two-week hiatus for the international break and the Portuguese Cup. On 25 October, Benfica and Sporting will clash at the Estádio da Luz. FC Porto will also play Braga.

André Carrillo and Sporting heading for a split?

It looks like André Carrillo is on his way out of Sporting. The Peruvian had not dressed for the club for several matches because of on-going contract negotiations.

Last week, the drama turned into a full-fledged saga when the club announced that they had formally suspended the player. They also released a 32-point press release detailing alleged acts of impropriety by Carrillo and his representatives.

The club accused Carrillo and his people of deliberately sabotaging negotiations. Sporting also accused the player and his representatives of trying to force his way out of the club, among other allegations.

Carrillo was signed by the club in 2011 from Alianza Lima. He was one of the very few good signings by Luís Godinho Lopes. Current club president Bruno de Carvalho spoke about Carrillo on the TVI program Prolongamento on Monday.

“Carrillo told me that he no longer wanted to play for Sporting because he was no longer committed to us,” he said.

“We tried to re-sign Carrillo for a year and a half. In football, there are problems that just cannot be resolved.”

Carrillo’s contract expires this summer which means the club will have to sell him during the January transfer window.

Cristiano Ronaldo hits a milestone and surpasses Raul

It seems like every week Cristiano Ronaldo is breaking a new record. This past week, the Portugal captain scored his 500th career goal and also surpassed Real Madrid legend Raul to become the club’s all-time leading scorer.

Ronaldo was put in alone by Isco in the first-half of Real Madrid’s Champions League match against Malmö FF. And he made no mistake. Late in the second half, he flicked Lucas Vázquez’s pass into the goal, as Real won 2-0.

It has been a long, remarkable journey for the boy from Madeira. He scored his first senior goal for Sporting on 7 October, 2002 against Moreirense. Back then, he was just another in a line of supremely-talented wingers coming out of the club’s Alcochete academy.

So much has happened since then. His transfer to Manchester United, Euro 2004, Germany 2006, Moscow 2008, Real Madrid, Euro 2012, Lisbon 2014 and that special night in Stockholm. Not to mention the three Ballon d’Or.

It is hard to believe that he will ever slow down. Although, his game has changed since he turned 30 last year. Ronaldo seems to have lost the ability to score from free-kicks. And he no longer scores from distance as he once did.

But, his decline appears to be a long way off. Although, he appears to be evolving into a one-touch goalscorer, his production is not dropping. And given his well-known commitment to fitness and his desire, Ronaldo should be able to play at a very high level for several more seasons.

Seleção to face Denmark on Thursday in Braga

Portugal will play Denmark in Braga on Thursday. The Seleção sit first in Group I with 15 points. A draw will be enough to qualify for Euro 2016 next summer. They will travel to Serbia after the match.

“It is true that we are close to qualifying, but we still have a lot to do. It will be two difficult matches [against Denmark and Serbia],” Portugal manager Fernando Santos said.

“Denmark is a club of great quality, both collectively and individually. For Denmark, this is a final because it is their last match of the group. We need to approach this match as a final as well.”

Benfica right-back Nelson Semedo received his first senior call-up. João Moutinho, Tiago and Fábio Coentrão were selected after sitting out previous matches because of injuries. Luis Neto and Rafa Silva also return to the squad.

William Carvalho, Raphael Guerreiro, Andre Gomes, Pepe, Paulo Oliveira and Vieirinha were left out because of injuries or fitness issues. Goalkeeper Anthony Lopes was originally selected but was forced to withdraw after coming down with gastroenteritis. Dinamo Zagreb’s Eduardo was named in his place.

Portugal’s U21 squad will continue their Euro 2017 qualifying campaign this week against Hungary, before facing Greece on Tuesday. Rui Jorge’s squad beat Albania 6-1 in their first qualifying match last month. However, they will have to make do without André Silva who is out with an ankle injury.

Mexican Winger Jesus Corona Joins FC Porto

Mexican Winger Jesus Corona Joins FC Porto

Portuguese clubs were busy up to the final hours of this summer’s transfer window. The August 31st deadline marked the end of one of the most eventful transfer periods in recent memory.

FC Porto was the most active in the final days, signing Mexican pair Jesús Corona and Miguel Layún. The club signed Corona from Twente for €10,5 million and will possess 70% of his ownership rights. While, full-back Layún arrives on loan from Watford. He should bolster the club’s flanks after the departure of both Danilo and Alex Sandro.

Porto also loaned out Ricardo Pereira, Adrián López, Hernâni and Juan Quintero. Former Portuguese international Rolando moved to French giants Marseille on a permanent deal, finally ending a long standoff with the club.

Benfica made two low profile signings on Monday. Marvin Loría arrived on-loan from Deportivo Saprissa in Costa Rica. The deal includes an option to buy. They also signed defender Emir Azemovic from Partizan Belgrade. Both players are expected to remain with the B squad this season. The club also loaned Daniel Candeias to Ligue 2 club Metz.

But it was the deals they made on Tuesday that drew much attention. The transfer deadline was one day later in England than most of Europe and Benfica took advantage, sending two underachieving players on-loan to the Championship. Dutch Winger Ola John joined Reading FC and Nelson Oliveira moved to Nottingham Forest. For Oliveira, it is his sixth loan since 2009.

Sporting sold Chilean striker Diego Rubio to Spanish second division club Real Valladolid. Defender Ramy Rabia was also sold to Egyptian club Al-Ahly for €750,000. Wilson Eduardo, who has spent the last few seasons on loan, was allowed to join Braga. No terms have been released.

Braga and Belenenses bolster their line-ups

Outside of the ‘Big Three’, Braga made several good signings. Os Guerreiros do Minho signed highly rated Brazilian midfielder Filipe Augusto on-loan from Rio Ave. They also signed Spanish midfielder Aarón Ñíguez on a free transfer after he opted out of his contract with Elche.

And they made possibly the most surprising move of any Portuguese club in the final week, sending Pedro Tiba on loan to Real Valladolid. Tiba blamed Braga manager Paulo Fonseca for his loss of playing time.

“Why did I stop being a starter? Ask the manager! I came here [Valladolid] because I knew that I would not be as happy as I was last season. I was called up to three league matches and did not leave the bench. Am I ready to play? Of course I am,” he said.

The club also loaned Colombian forward Erik Moreno to Real Valladolid, along with Tiba. Tiago Gomes moved to Metz on a season-long loan as well. Brazilian defender Aderlan Santos was sold to Valencia. Braga announced that they made a handsome profit of €16,3 million from the transfer window, proving once again that the club is a model of fiscal management.

Lisbon-area club Belenenses qualified for the group stages of the Europa League last week. They significantly boosted their chances of advancing into the knockout stages by making two very cost-effective deals. They signed Cape-Verdan winger Kuca on loan from Karabükspor. He was excellent last season for Estoril. They also signed Luís Leal on a season-long loan from APOEL.

AS Monaco add Marcos Lopes and Fábio Coentrão

Leonardo Jardim continues to put his stamp on AS Monaco, signing Marcos Lopes and Fábio Coentrão. Coentrão arrives on loan from Real Madrid. The Portuguese international will be looking to revive his career after two injury-plagued seasons at the Bernabeu.

Marcos ‘Rony’ Lopes signed a five-year deal with Monaco. His departure from Manchester City caught many by surprise, even his own manager it seems. Just hours before the deal was announced Manuel Pellegrini told media that the 19-year-old would be loaned out this season.

Lopes famously scored just minutes after coming on in his senior debut with the club in a January 2013 League Cup match against Watford. It seemed that he was destined to be the first academy graduate to establish himself in the senior squad since the club was bought by the Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008. But it was not meant to be.

The deal seems to reflect a new reality in football. Rich clubs like Manchester City are under immense pressure to win championships every season and therefore, they do not have the time or patience to develop young footballers. Teams like City, Manchester United, Chelsea, and others are preferring instead to buy the finished product.

Still, it looks like it could be an excellent move for Marcos Lopes. He spent last season on loan at Lille and knows the French league well.

“Monaco is an excellent club for a player to develop. It is going to be a good challenge for me,” he said.

Monaco will be a club to watch for fans of the Portuguese game. Coentrão and Lopes join Bernardo Silva, Ivan Cavaleiro, Ricardo Carvalho, João Moutinho and Hélder Costa, to bring the total to seven Portuguese players.

In Spain, the club to watch is Valencia, which boasts three talented young Portuguese players in Ruben Vezo, Andre Gomes and João Cancelo. Not to mention Portuguese manager Nuno Espírito Santo. There are also strong Portuguese contingents at Real Madrid and Sevilla.

In two lesser known cases, English Championship side Sheffield Wednesday has a strong Portuguese presence as well. As does Ligue 2 club Metz, which recently added Daniel Candeias and Tiago Gomes.

Elsewhere, Portugal U21 defender Tiago Ilori was loaned by Liverpool to Premier League club Aston Villa. It will be his third loan spell since leaving Sporting in 2013. Undoubtedly talented but he has been terribly unlucky with injuries.

Seleção in action

Portugal will face Euro 2016 hosts France in a friendly on Friday in Lisbon before traveling to Albania for a qualifier next Monday. Fernando Santos will be without Moutinho, William Carvalho, Coentrão and Andre Gomes because of injuries.

According to reports, Santos has been practicing with a midfield trio of Danilo, Adrien and João Mário. The Portuguese manager is expected to drop the ‘false 9’ in favour of Éder as the striker, alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani. French-born Adrien spoke about the match against France.

“France is a great squad but so is Portugal. I believe it will be a very close match. We need to control possession and take advantage of France’s weaknesses,” Adrien.

Portugal are in first-place in group I with three matches left. The Seleção lost to Albania 1-0 in their first Euro 2016 qualifying match last September. It would prove to be Paulo Bento’s last match in charge of Portugal. No doubt revenge will be on the mind of some of the players.

Rui Jorge’s new-look U21 squad will also face Albania in its first Euro 2017 qualifier on 8 September. It is the squad’s first match since the loss to Sweden on penalties in the final at the last European Championships earlier this summer. Gonçalo Paciência was forced to withdraw because of an ankle injury. Belenenses winger Fábio Sturgeon has taken his place on the squad.

Benfica Champions 2014-15

Benfica’s goalless draw with Vitória Guimarães on Sunday was enough to clinch the Liga NOS title for a second consecutive season with one match to spare. It was their 34th Portuguese League title, the most of any club. No club in the top 6 European leagues has more.

It also marked the first time since 1984 that As Águias won the title in back-to-back years. It seems like manager Jorge Jesus has finally accomplished what he was brought in to do and that is break FC Porto’s dominance in Portugal. At least for now.

Here are the 5 reasons Benfica won the Portuguese title this season.

Jorge Jesus’ Adjustments

Benfica lost several key players from last season’s championship-winning side. It is certainly not easy for any manager to integrate so many new players into the squad. Andreas Samaris, Talisca and Jonas proved to be adequate replacements.

When Enzo Perez left during the January transfer window, Jorge Jesus managed to find a replacement within the squad by converting Pizzi into a central midfielder. Although Lima and Jardel struggled at times during the season, Jesus stuck with them and was richly rewarded in the end.

Jonas

The Brazilian has to go down as one of the best signings of the season. It sounded like an odd signing at first. Jonas, a 30-year-old striker, out of contract at Valencia, who would never command a large payout for the Portuguese club.

Still, he proved to be exactly what the club needed. Jonas scored a goal in his first match with the club in October and has hardly stopped since then. With a match to spare, Jonas was second in the league with 18 markers in 26 matches.

Júlio César

He was once touted as one of the best goalkeepers in the world but Júlio César has had a rough go since leaving Inter Milan in 2012. He passed through Queens Park Rangers before ending up on-loan at Toronto FC in MLS. And there was the matter of the seven goals against Germany in the service of Brazil last summer.

Benfica, still reeling from the abrupt departure of Jan Oblak, decided to take a chance on the Brazilian. It proved to be another masterstroke. The now 34-year-old has made the most of his Portuguese adventure. He has earned an impressive 15 clean sheets.

Early European Exit

European competitions have always been a mixed blessing for Portuguese clubs. And like we saw this season, an early exit from competition could have a positive impact on a club’s domestic form. Benfica, once again failed to advance passed the group stage of the Champions League.

From the time the club played their last match in the Champions League in December, Benfica lost only two matches in the league the rest of the way. FC Porto and Sporting’s domestic form seemed to suffer as the season progressed, while Benfica only got stronger.

Head-to-Head Record Against Sporting and Porto

Benfica managed one victory and three draws against the other two members of Portugal’s ‘Big Three’ clubs. The club’s 2-0 victory at the Dragão in December was the difference in the end. It was the first time Benfica beat FC Porto away in the league in Jorge Jesus’ tenure as manager.

Jesus’ critics would argue that Benfica did not show up out to win the April 26th O Clássico against Porto, it really matters little in the end. Benfica put themselves in the position to dictate terms with their stellar league form. They proved themselves worthy champions.

110

Portugal will not go into Brazil as one of the favorites among most pundits and fans. However, with the world’s best player and a reasonably balanced squad, it is not outside the realm of possibility that the country can win their first tournament at senior level next month.

The mood surrounding the Portuguese squad is one of cautious optimism. The relative success of Euro 2012 did much to dispel the notion that Portugal is in decline as a footballing nation. But still, the Seleção will go into the World Cup with less talent than in 2002 and 2006, but likely more than four years ago.

Several important players like Nani, João Moutinho and Fábio Coentrão had relatively poor seasons. And there are also concerns about the fitness of several players, including Cristiano Ronaldo. Portugal can only be considered a dark horse, but one that is capable of making an impact, possibly more than that.

Portugal as a nation, prides itself on exceeding expectations. And it is that motivation that should drive the Seleção in Brazil. Here now are the 5 reasons Portugal can win the World Cup, courtesy of Futebol Factory.

Almost Home-Field Advantage

Portugal will be one of the best supported countries in Brazil. Tickets for a training session on June 12th sold out in less than six minutes this week. The common language and strong historical ties between the two countries will no doubt benefit the Seleção.

Many Portuguese emigrants who settled in Brazil left the country only a few decades ago, maintaining strong connections. And of course there will always be a hint of post-Colonial resentment towards Portugal in its former colony. However, the squad could expect to receive a warm welcome.

Little Pressure

There is a greater sense of optimism in Portugal than in previous tournaments. The squad is playing better, and most supporters believe that they should get stronger in the coming years. And in contrast to its rivals, the squad has little to prove going into the tournament.

Brazil will be playing at home. Anything less than a win would be a major disaster. The Spanish public has become accustomed to no less than complete success. Germany always expects to win. While, Argentina will be playing in their own continent. And recent performances at the World Cup have not been good enough.

Recent Success

Since the 2000 European Championships, Portugal has qualified for every tournament. In that time, they have made four semi-finals (Euro 2000, Euro 2004, Germany 2006, Euro 2012), and failed to make it out of the group stage just once. This is a level of success that is matched by few countries.

The Seleção are drawn into a tough group with Germany, Ghana and the United States. But this is unlikely to phase the team. Portugal was in a similar situation at Euro 2000, South Africa 2010 and Euro 2012. In each case, Portugal advanced into the knockout stage.

Strong Team Mentality

Portugal manager Paulo Bento is often criticized for his conservative approach to tactics and squad selections. However, it does serve a purpose. The core of the group has been together since the Euro 2012 qualification campaign. The Seleção will go into the tournament with a tried and tested system.

Time and time again, the squad has faced adversity. But the character and unity that comes along with a certain level of consistency has helped the squad overcome disappointing results, and bad qualifying campaigns. At Euro 2012, Portugal overcame a loss to Germany in their first match to finish second in the group. And they came within inches of eliminating a far more talented Spanish side in the semi-finals.

Cristiano Ronaldo

He is often sighted as the first reason. There is no player that elevates his country like Cristiano Ronaldo does. But it is the supporting cast that is the key to Portugal’s success. Paulo Bento has certainly succeeded where Carlos Queiroz failed. Ronaldo is not the only threat anymore. He has become the most important element of a system that benefits him and his teammates.

Great players do not win tournaments by themselves. But, they can make the difference in crucial moments. Diego Maradona did not win the 1986 World Cup by himself. It is just part of football folklore. The Argentine great could not have defended every corner, made every pass or scored every goal. Ronaldo cannot do it either, but what he can do is give Portugal every opportunity to win.

Sport Lisboa e Benfica/Isabel Cutileiro

Sport Lisboa e Benfica/Isabel Cutileiro

Benfica’s 2-0 defeat of Olhanense at the Estádio da Luz allowed the Lisbon club to clinch the Primeira Liga title with two matches to spare. They overcame the memory of last season’s epic collapse to win their first League title in four seasons and the 33rd in their long history.

It could end of being a historic year for the Portuguese club. The Eagles are still active in the Portuguese Cup, League Cup and the Europa League. Although, Juventus will be a major challenge in the semi-finals of the Europa League.

After a difficult start to the season which saw them drop points in three of their first six matches, Benfica dominated their opponents the rest of the way and were fully deserving of their title.

Here now are the 5 reasons Benfica won the Portuguese title this season.

Jan Oblak

The goalkeeper is usually the most unheralded member of any championship squad. But in this case, many Benfiquistas will look back at the moment Jan Oblak replaced an injured Artur in a December League match against Olhanense as the turning point of the season. The Slovenian has been solid ever since. And so have Benfica.

Benfica would win 15 out of the next 16 League matches with Oblak as the regular starter. The Slovenian goalkeeper conceded only three goals along the way. Artur was not necessarily at fault for the club’s early season struggles. However, the squad did play much better in front of Oblak.

Squad Adjustments

Jorge Jesus has demonstrated an ability to alter his squad when needed this season. Guilherme Siqueira, Silvio, Ljubomir Fejsa, Lazar Marković and Miralem Sulejmani gave Jesus more options in key positions. In the event of injury or poor form, Jesus was always able to find a more than reliable replacement.

For example, Bruno Cortez proved unconvincing at left-back early in the season. With Silvio unavailable due to injury, Jesus had an excellent option in Guilherme Siqueira. Also, when last season’s Player of the Year Nemanja Matić moved on to the Premier League, his countryman Fejsa was more than able to fill the void.

Ezequiel Garay/Luisão

Benfica’s centre-back pairing was the spine that kept the club together this season. At 33-years-old, Luisão is probably having the best season he has ever had in Portugal. The Brazilian looked determined at the start of the season. He has scored some key goals in Europe as well.

Ezequiel Garay is also having an excellent season. The Argentine has scored six goals in the Portuguese League, a very impressive total for a centre-back. He is widely expected to move on to a bigger club this summer. Garay and Luisão have helped Benfica to the best defensive record in the league.

Squad Depth

As mentioned, Benfica’s summer signings gave manager Jorge Jesus better options. With the exception of Matić, the club did not lose any key players this season. Perhaps motivated by a three-year drought and the memory of last season’s collapse, the club spent heavily in the summer to boost their chances of winning the League.

Their great rivals, FC Porto lost several good players last summer. While, Sporting Lisbon has revived themselves through their famous academy. However, the long-awaited League title will have to wait another year. Benfica’s squad was so deep that Jorge Jesus could afford to rest many of his key players in the Europa League and Cup matches, and often still managed to get a good result.

Maturity and Experience

This year’s Benfica squad was not only deep but also determined and mature. Several players like Oscar Cardozo, Luisão, and Maxi Pereira were on the 2009-10 squad which was the last to win the title. Their maturity and expertise proved valuable this season. Perhaps the memory of last season’s collapse also served as extra motivation.

And with players like Ezequiel Garay, Nicolás Gaitán, and Rodrigo expected to move on this summer, finally winning a League title with the club is no doubt a relief. In the end, Benfica had the right combination of youth, talent and experience to come out on top. Manager Jorge Jesus may have silenced some doubters as well, at least until next season.

Photo: Wikipedia Commons/ainudil

Photo: Wikipedia Commons/ainudil

The great Portuguese footballer Eusébio passed away at his home in Lisbon on Sunday leading to an immediate outpouring of grief.

Born Eusébio da Silva Ferreira in what was then the Portuguese colony of Mozambique, the world would come to know him as Portugal’s greatest athletic superstar. At Benfica he would become a legend, winning two European Cups and 11 league titles with the club.

He scored an amazing 733 goals in 745 matches in all competitions during his distinguished career. That includes 41 goals in 64 matches for Portugal. His physical strength, speed and exceptional skill earned him the nickname the Black Panther.

But Eusébio is best remembered for his performance at the 1966 World Cup in England when he scored a tournament high nine goals. His performance in the quarter-finals against a surprisingly strong North Korea side is probably one of the greatest single game performances in the tournament’s history.

Portugal fell behind 3-0 early before Eusébio took over. He would score four consecutive goals, including two on penalties to complete one of the greatest comebacks in World Cup history. Portugal would go on to defeat the Soviet Union in the third place match, earning the country its highest finish at the World Cup.

Portugal at the time was still ruled by the Estado Novo regime under António Salazar, whose ultra-conservative orthodoxy preached extreme nationalism, strong Christianity and a defense of the country’s colonial empire.

The regime exploited the image of Eusébio and Benfica. Portugal was still a very poor country back in the 1960s and Eusébio was used as a symbol of the strength of the regime. He would renounce the way he was treated in later years.

For those of us born in the 1980s and beyond we cannot possibly understand the cultural impact Eusébio had in the prime of his career. But just mentioning his name around my family is always a sure way to bring out a smile.

For those who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s during a very dark period in Portugal’s history, Eusébio became a symbol of hope and promise.

In Portuguese culture it is customary to always mourn a person when they pass away. But, for Eusébio I prefer instead to celebrate his life and remember him as the world remembers him, as an ambassador of the global game, Africa, Portuguese football, and Portugal itself.

Sincerely,

Rui Miguel Martins

VIDEO: Portugal Defeats North Korea 5-3 at the 1966 World Cup (RTP Archives)

Photo: Wikipedia Commons/Ludovic Péron

Photo: Wikipedia Commons/Ludovic Péron

The Ballon d’Or, club football’s most prestigious award will be handled out in Zurich, Switzerland on January 13th. If momentum and personal endorsements mean anything at all, Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo should collect the prize for the second time in his career.

He faces competition from media-designated rival Lionel Messi and Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery. Barcelona striker Lionel Messi had another excellent year individually on the way to another La Liga title. French international Ribery was probably the best player in an all-conquering Bayern side that won five trophies in 2013.

The award is given to the best individual performer in football, and on that basis it is very difficult to argue against Cristiano Ronaldo winning this award for a second time. Lionel Messi, again put up outstanding numbers, but he has been sidelined for most of the second half of the year. Ribery had a terrific year but some argue that he was the beneficiary of an excellent Bayern team.

Cristiano Ronaldo was again, outstanding for Real Madrid, despite the club not winning any silverware. He was the leading scorer in the Champions League and finished second to Messi in La Liga scoring. However, it was his performance in Portugal’s World Cup qualifying play-off against Sweden that probably tipped the balance in his favour.

It would still be unfair to say that the Real Madrid winger will win this award for his performance in one game, out of many. Instead, Cristiano Ronaldo will win the 2013 Ballon d’Or because he is the most deserving overall. His three-goal performance against Sweden to seal Portugal’s place in Brazil was the defining moment of an exceptional year for an exceptional player.

Here are the 5 reasons Cristiano Ronaldo should, and will win this year’s Ballon d’Or.

Cristiano Ronaldo Had The Best Year Individually

As personal statistics are concerned, it was probably the best year of Cristiano Ronaldo’s career. He scored 69 goals in total for Real Madrid and Portugal. He also broke several records, including the most Champions League goals in a calendar year with 15. Ronaldo also broke the record for most goals in the Champions League group stage with nine. And, if that is not enough, he scored in six consecutive Champions League games in 2013.

In comparison, Cristiano Ronaldo’s 69 goals were more than Lionel Messi (45) and Franck Ribery (23) combined. All things considered, could the Argentine captain have outscored the Portuguese if he had remained healthy. Yes, absolutely, especially if you consider the fact that Messi has outscored Ronaldo over the last five seasons, 272 to 253. But, of course, that did not happen. An award like this should only take into account concrete facts.

Cristiano Ronaldo Cannot Be Blamed For Real Madrid’s Problems

The best argument against Ronaldo winning this award is that his club, Real Madrid did not win a single title in 2013. In comparison, his great rival Lionel Messi won another La Liga title. Not to mention, Franck Ribery’s Bayern Munich side which won the Bundesliga title and the Champions League.

But the Ballon d’Or is designed to be awarded to the best individual player in a calendar year. And based on that, the award should still go to Ronaldo. Also, team success has not always been a major factor in awarding the Ballon d’Or. In 2012, Lionel Messi scored an amazing 92 goals in all competitions but Barcelona only won the Copa del Rey that year. Cristiano Ronaldo in comparison, won the La Liga title with Real Madrid and led Portugal to the semi-finals of the European Championships.

Cristiano Ronaldo Is, At The Very Least, A Worthy Rival To Lionel Messi

Over the last decade, the Messi Vs. Ronaldo debate has dominated the public discourse in the football world. In fairness, the Argentine has bested the Portuguese in terms of individual awards and team success. However, many people still think the Portuguese is still an equal, if not more.

The fact is that most people do not blame the Portuguese for the lack of trophies at Real Madrid in his four seasons. It is not like he has not played his part. Ronaldo has scored an amazing 228 goals in 220 matches as of January 3rd for the club. Plus, it has always been dubious to compare a player with another player, especially if they are different types. The fact is that so much comes down to subjectivity. In terms of the all-time greats, Messi and Ronaldo will surely be on any shortlist and let us leave it at that.

Cristiano Ronaldo Is The Most Complete Player Today And One Of The Best All-Time

The Portuguese captain is perhaps the closest player to the definition of an ideal modern footballer. Ronaldo has virtually every tool at his disposal that any manager or pundit could ask for. Judge for yourself: speed, football IQ, dribbling, physique, muscle mass, height, powerful shot, heading ability, kicks with both feet, scores on free-kicks, goals from distance, and plenty more.

His two rivals are exceptional individuals as well. Lionel Messi’s main attribute is his dribbling, which must rank among the best of all-time. Franck Ribery, is a more orthodox winger than the Portuguese. The Frenchmen is a great dribbler, excellent one-on-one, provides accurate crosses and also scores plenty of goals. But in terms of individual ability, Cristiano Ronaldo is the most complete in the game today.

Cristiano Ronaldo Is The Most Valuable Player For Club And Country

Among Madridistas and Portugal supporters, Cristiano Ronaldo is without a doubt the most valuable player on the squad. For Real Madrid, the Portuguese has scored many timely goals for the club and has even pitched in when the club has not always succeeded. For example, he has scored 11 goals in the last 12 matches against Barcelona.

As an international player, Cristiano Ronaldo has had his ups and downs but few argue that he is to blame for Portugal’s inability to win a major tournament. He is currently tied as the country’s all-time leading goal scorer with former PSG striker Pauleta. And he has had success, which has just fallen short. As a youngster he made the finals of Euro 2004. Plus, he made the semi-finals of the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2012.

Franck Ribery was on the French team that lost to Italy at the 2006 World Cup. But since then, the Bayern Munich winger has not led France past the quarter finals of any tournament. Lionel Messi won an Olympic Gold medal and U20 World Cup, but in major tournaments at the senior level he has been disappointing. But of course, this year’s World Cup is an opportunity for one of these great players to prove all their doubters wrong. At least for now, advantage Cristiano Ronaldo.

Photo: Wikipedia Commons/Juntas

Photo: Wikipedia Commons/Juntas

Sporting Lisbon manager Leonardo Jardim seldom shows much emotion when he speaks but even he could not hold back after his club’s latest victory on Sunday against Olhanense.

The notoriously serious 39-year old manager praised his player’s effort, saying that they deserved to win because they were the best team on the field.

“Sporting proved to be a team that likes to play good football, pressing hard, offensive-oriented and supportive. I believe that this club will continue to grow,“ Jardim added after Sporting’s 2-0 win.

Sporting’s new signing Colombian striker Fredy Montero scored shortly after the second half began. Portuguese midfielder Andre Martins scored a second at the hour mark to give Sporting the victory over the Algarve club.

The victory was the club’s third in four matches to start the season. The only blemish was a 1-1 draw against city-rivals Benfica. Os Leões sit second in the league behind FC Porto, having outscored their opposition 12-2 so far this campaign.

Just 4 competitive matches into his career with one of Portugal’s ‘Big three,’ Jardim already appears to be winning over many of the club’s faithful who have suffered through some terrible seasons.

What a difference a few matches could make. Sporting dominated Olhanense in the first half of Sunday’s match and were unlikely to be leading at the half. In recent seasons, the club would become visibly frustrated when faced with any kind of adversity.

But this year’s Sporting appears to be different.

Breaking With The Past

The club’ improving performances on the field are the result of a dramatic change of attitude at the club that has permeated down to the players. It has surely taken a long time for this to happen.

Current Portugal manager Paulo Bento was the last to achieve any kind of success with the club. Since he was fired in 2009, Sporting have had eight managers. None of which has achieved any consistent results.

Boasting 18 Portuguese League title, along with 15 Portuguese Cup, the club has not won a single trophy since the 2007-08 campaign. At the same time they have been burdened with mounting debt and disciplinary issues.

In 2011, after two poor seasons, its supporters elected Luiz Godinho Lopes as the club’s new president with the promise that he would attract new investment.

Sporting’s Alcochete academy is one of the most exceptional in Europe, having produced two Ballon D’or winners in Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo. The club has historically relied on developing young talent, many of which have gone one to play for Portugal.

Godinho Lopes decided to break with this tradition and purchased expensive foreign imports who, for the most part never managed to improve the club’s performances.

Elias, Danijel Pranjić, Oguchi Onyewu, Gelson Fernandes and others never adapted well to Portuguese football and were loaned out. Others like Stijn Schaars and Khalid Boulahrouz were often injured in their time at Alvalade.

At the same time academy players like Andre Santos, Wilson Eduardo, Adrien Silva and Andre Martins were either benched or loaned to other clubs.

With continuously poor results the club frequently showed signs of having discipline issues. In a January 2012 league cup match against Moreirense F.C, Sporting was given a penalty in the late stages with the score tied.

Bulgarian forward Valeri Bojinov shoved regular penalty taker Matias Fernandez away and took the penalty himself, which he missed. Bojinov never played for the club again and then manager Domingos Paciência was fired soon after.

Paciência’s replacement, Ricardo Sá Pinto was fired after a poor start to the 2012-13 campaign and replaced by Belgian Franky Vercauteren who lasted less than 3 months.

Veteran manager Jesualdo Ferreira was appointed in January 2013 and injected some new players into the club’s formations including central defender Tiago Ilori and über-talented winger Bruma. The club’s performances improved but but not enough to qualify for the Europa League.

A New Hope?

In March, the supporters elected life-long Sportinguista Bruno de Carvalho as the new president. He immediately set out to repair the club’s fledgling reputation. With the club not able to agree on a permanent contract with Jesualdo Ferreira, De Carvalho appointed Leonardo Jardim manager in May.

At the news conference announcing his hiring, Jardim spoke directly to fans and promised that things would be different from now on.

“I want to completely rebuild the club, with the unity and support of all sportinguistas, as well as through hard work. It is in our nature to believe and I know we will give our best to improve. I will not set targets, long or short-term. But we will build on what we have; with enough ambition it is possible to win every match. That is why I am here,” Jardim said.

“I want the unity of everyone at the club, with the objective to return it to its rightful place. In football, it is not only about the manager but also about the strong foundation around them,” he added.

What has emerged is a Sporting Lisbon under an austerity regime that looks re-energized and ambitious for the first time in years.

The club terminated its contracts with Onyewu, Pranjic, Boulahrouz and Bojinov. Schaars moved to PSV, while budding star Bruma demanded a major raise which the club was not able to meet and was sold off to Galatasaray.

The makeup of this year’s Sporting will look very familiar to long suffering fans. 7 of the 11 players in Jardim’s starting XI against Olhanense were academy players.

Wilson Eduardo and William Carvalho have returned from loan spells and have played well for the club. While midfielders Andre Martins and Adrien Silva have received call-ups for the Seleção.

This combined with the addition of Colombian striker Fredy Montero and the resurgence of Peruvian winger Andre Carrillo, Sporting appears destined for a top 3 finish this year.

Speaking to reporters this week, Bruno de Carvalho reaffirmed his belief that the new Sporting has the quality and resolve to win again.

“Leonardo Jardim and I are fulfilling a life-long dream. Our hard work has begun to pay off and with the support of sportinguistas, this could continue for many years. There is a sense with this Sporting squad that when the first negative result arises we could pick ourselves up again.”

Photo: Wikipedia Commons/Alface

Photo: Wikipedia Commons/Alface

Benfica has the dubious distinction of having played the fewest Portuguese nationals of any team so far this campaign, this according to the union representing players in the Portuguese league.

Benfica manager Jorge Jesus responded to this report on Saturday to journalists in his typical combative style: “We are a country of immigrants, stop it with your tricks.” The findings came as no surprise.

In the online Portuguese expatriate community, in which I like to say I am a part of, it has been slightly mistranslated by some people wanting, at least in part to make Jorge Jesus look worse than he probably should be.

But there are many things worth discussing here. First, what exactly Jorge Jesus said and what he meant. And second, what it means for Portuguese futebol in general.

“My primary concern is not having players of quality. Therefore, their nationality matters little to me. The world has changed with globalization and the labour market has changed because of it. Futebol is the same,” Jesus said.

“In Portugal we cannot just develop Portuguese players. We have to develop Portuguese and foreigners in order to be competitive in Portugal and in European competitions.”

This is the usual argument that Jorge Jesus and others often use when asked about the lack of Portuguese players on their rosters. Jesus is stating that Portugal alone, as many good players as it produces cannot supply Benfica and other clubs to compete in Europe.

This would be a fair argument except, it ignores the fact that many young Portuguese players have not been given a fair opportunity to flourish for Benfica and other Portuguese clubs.

The examples are numerous. Paços de Ferreira’s midfielder Josue was a promising youth player with Porto but never received his chance with the senior club. In 2011, he was allowed to leave on a free transfer and has become a big part of a surprising Paços de Ferreira team this year.

Benfica recently signed Portuguese midfielder Diogo Rosado on loan from English side Blackburn Rovers. Rosado used to belong to the Sporting academy. After showing great potential on loan at Feirense last year he realized his chances with the Leões would be limited and signed with the English club.

And numerous other examples exists. So, how can we assure that our young players get a chance? Fact is, foreign players or not, 16 Portuguese-based clubs compete in a Portuguese league in order to earn the right to call themselves Portuguese champions.

“That question belongs in the past, it is no longer the time of D. Afonso Henriques but of our ex-colonies, when it was possible to get players born in Angola and Moçambique. In the 80s, Benfica had a majority of Portuguese players from there. Today, it is not like that,” Jesus continued.

Jesus is arguing here that Portugal used to have a supply of good players from its former colonies who would play for Portugal internationally. He says this is no longer the case.

But this is difficult to believe considering the makeup of the current Seleção. Nani, Nelson, and Rolando were born in Cape Verde. Pepe was born in Brazil. Bruno Alves’ father was Brazilian. Manuel Fernandes and Silvestre Varela were born in Lisbon but have African heritage. Young striker Éder was born in Guinea-Bissau.

It is difficult to see this argument holding up, especially since many of Portugal’s youth squads are made up of players of African heritage.

“Now we look at the best clubs in the world, there are only one or two players from that country playing. I look to find players with the intention of developing them, regardless of their nationality.”

This is only partly true, but Jesus is not wrong on this account. Many teams like Manchester City, Chelsea, Real Madrid and others do not field many players from the country they are based. However, FC Barcelona, Juventus, Bayern Munich do field more nationals.

“It is not possible for Benfica, Sporting and FC Porto to have a majority of Portuguese players. When you start to pay attention to those who begin to emerge, they usually have already gone abroad. With players leaving Portugal at 16, 17 and 18 years of age there are less players to recruit.”

Again, this is a bit of a red herring, an argument designed to lure someone away from a logical conclusion. The fact is that many quality Portuguese players do not leave at that age. Cristiano Ronaldo left at age 19 but he is the exception. Manchester City’s Marcos Lopes left Benfica’s academy at age 16.

Most quality players usually play in their domestic leagues to earn playing time and experience before they move on to a bigger stage. Raul Meireles, Miguel Veloso, Bruno Alves, Fabio Coentrao, Pepe and others are just some of the examples. Porto’s Joao Moutinho seems destined to be the next to move on.

“Those born in Portugal usually leave at a young age, because others recognize their quality. We understand that is the reality and we have to work around that. We are a country of immigrants, and we export workers all over the world. Are the Portuguese the only people allowed to work in Portugal? Stop it with your tricks,” Jesus added.

In terms of what this all means, it is first important to consider the benefits of signing young promising foreign players, both financially and on the pitch.

FC Porto and Benfica have been successful at finding promising players mainly from South America, developing them and selling them for a big price. This makes these clubs competitive and raises the profile of the domestic league as well. Players like Ramires, Angel di Maria, and others have raised the profile of Portuguese futebol no doubt.

But the principal point of contention is whether these players hinder the development of Portuguese nationals. And what if any impact does this have on the Seleção. Somewhere a balance has to be found.

Clubs like Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, FC Barcelona and Juventus have been successful through a combination on three factors: develop good players through your academy, sign good domestic players from lower teams and fill the remaining deficiencies in your line-up with at least a few good foreign players.

This is the fine balance I have always advocated for the Portuguese league. Right now, there just is not enough evidence to suggest that the three big clubs of Portuguese futebol are heading in that direction.

This recent criticism from Portuguese media and fans about Jorge Jesus’ perceived lack of interest in developing Portuguese players is nothing new. But, so far this season, Jesus has shown an interest in some promising young players. Defender Andre Almeida, midfielder Andre Gomes and Roderick Miranda have all been signed to long term deals. Plus, forward Rui Fonte was signed from Espanyol.

Portuguese champions FC Porto have used Joao Moutinho and Silvestre Varela regularly this season, but manager Vitor Pereira has shown little interest in using players from its junior side. Though 20-year-old Portuguese midfielder Tozé has been on the bench for the last few games.

At Sporting Lisbon, manager Jesualdo Ferreira has been using more Portuguese players than his predecessors. Rui Patricio, Adrien Silva, and Joãozinho have seen regular team action. Ferreira has even given young players from its prestigious academy some game time in recent matches, including Andre Martins, Pedro Mendes, and Ricardo Esgaio.

There are some examples, but it is just too early to come to any logical conclusions. The economic crisis that is still ravaging the country have made it harder for some Portuguese clubs to do business. Sporting Lisbon in particular is struggling under a pile of debt, partly due to bad foreign signings in current president Godinho Lopes’ time.

So perhaps, it will be these market forces that will determine the future of Portuguese futebol going forward.