The Portuguese Primeira Liga (Liga NOS) becomes the latest European league to return this week after football was suspended for three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like the German Bundesliga, the Primeira Liga’s return would see several measures put in place to ensure the health and safety of players, officials and all stakeholders.
With other major European leagues yet to resume, the Primeira Liga is bound to attract a few new fans .
The 2019-20 Primeira Liga title race
It comes as no surprise that Porto and Benfica currently occupy the top two places in the Primeira Liga. With the two powerhouses set to battle it out for the Portuguese crown once again, it is Porto who go into the final stages of the season in pole position.
After an underwhelming start to the season that saw them lose on the opening day to minnows Gil Vicente, the Blue and Whites have not looked back since. Before the Primeira Liga came to a halt in March, Sergio Conceicao’s men were in a rich vein of form, having lost only to Braga in 22 league games.
Benfica, on the other hand, are breathing down Porto’s neck as they seek to win a record 38th Primeira Liga trophy. Should Benfica not win the Primeira Liga title, they will rue missed opportunities throughout the campaign, especially in the two O Clássico (“The Classic”) fixtures. With the top two sides in the Primeira Liga rarely slipping up, these crucial games have the potential to be the defining moments during a season.
Benfica have lost three games in the Primeira Liga this season. But crucially two of these defeats came in O Classico. The first loss came in August at the Estadio da Luz where Porto ran out 2-0 victors. The second came in the return fixture in February, where The Eagles succumbed to a narrow 3-2 defeat at the Estadio do Dragao.
The Primeira Liga title race could easily go down to the final game of the 2019-20 season. Benfica host Sporting at the Estadio da Luz in the last match week of the campaign while Porto travel to Braga. That could set up a tantalising finish to the Primeira Liga season.
The surprise packages in the 2019-20 Primeira Liga:
Over-achieving Braga currently occupy third position after an impressive season under new coach Custodio. Os Arcebispos (The Archbishops) have managed to beat both Porto and Benfica during the current Primeira Liga campaign. But they have not managed to challenge the Primeira Liga duopoly of Porto and Benfica. Braga resumes the 2019-20 Primeira Liga season 13 points behind Benfica. Os Arcebispos remarkably won the Taca da Liga (Portuguese League Cup) in February, beating Porto 1-0 in the final.
Rio Ave have also succeeded expectations this season in the Primeira Liga, currently sitting fifth in the league table. Rio are only four points off of a Europa League position, thanks due to the impact new coach Carlos Carvahal has had on their performances.
Fans of English football would remember Carvahal for his time at Swansea and Sheffield Wednesday. The Portuguese coach has successfully tightened up Rio’s defence. Rio have the third-best defence in the Primeira Liga, conceding just 23 goals, which is only behind that of the leading duo of Benfica and Porto. The minnows have also been helped by the crucial goals of Iranian forward Mehdi Taremi.
The Primeira Liga disappointments
Sporting CP, who make up the traditional Os Tres Grandes (The Big Three) in the Primeira Liga currently sits way back in a surprising fourth position. Despite winning 18 titles during their history, the Lisbon giants have become a shadow of their former selves in recent years. As such they are more of a giant by name, rather than by their recent on-field performances. Sporting have lost to both Porto and Benfica in a Primeira Liga campaign that has seen them lose one-third of their games, a tally unacceptable for a club of their stature.
The most humiliating Primeira Liga defeats for Sporting this season came in both fixtures against newly promoted Famalicao. In a chaotic and disorderly season, the Leoes (Lions) are already on their fourth coach of the season, and many would not be surprised if current coach Ruben Amorim does not last beyond the current Primeira Liga campaign.
Victoria de Guimaraes have been another disappointment in the 2019-20 Primeira Liga season. Although they are by no means one of the giants in Portuguese football, they have competed in Europe in recent seasons. Vitoria would be familiar to many English fans. Perched in Arsenal’s Europa League group this season, they finished fourth in the group.
Their poor European form has been replicated in the Primeira Liga. Ivo Veira’s men are sixth in the Portuguese top-flight this season.
The stars of the 2019-20 Primeira Liga
With 15 goals in 22 Primeira Liga games this season, it is no surprise that Carlos Vinicius’ name finds a mention. The Brazilian forward has been in superb form in front of goal for Benfica, settling in well at the club since his move from Napoli in the summer.
In second place in the 2019-20 Primeira Liga scoring charts is Portuguese wide midfielder Pizzi. His impressive performances have seen him tally 14 goals while he leads the way in the assist charts with eight. Without Pizzi’s performances, Benfica would have been further adrift of Porto in the Primeira Liga this season.
Jesus Corona and Alex Telles have also been in fabulous form in the 2019-20 Primeira Liga. Corona is on Pizzi’s tail with seven assists while the Brazilian Telles has clocked up an impressive eight goals and five assists from defence.
Reports suggest that PSG are interested in the left-back. With Porto needing to sell players this summer to comply with UEFA’s financial fair play regulations, the South American could well be on his way out of Portugal in the summer.
Forwards Fabio Abreu and Paulinho have had breakthrough seasons as well, for Moreirense and Braga respectively. Sandro Lima has scored vital goals for Gil Vicente. All three forwards have 10 Primeira Liga goals apiece this season.
The Primeira Liga wonderkids
Compared with other European leagues, the Portuguese Primeira Liga has become one of the best in the world for the development of young talent.
Romario Baro is just one example in a long list of players who have gone on to become superstars in major European leagues. At only 20 years old, the Portuguese midfielder has already broken into the Porto first team, and he certainly looks set to stay there.
Porto also have Fabio Silva, 17, coming through the ranks. The striker has already made nine Primeira Liga appearances for the club at such a young age. He opened his account for the club with a goal against Famalicao back in October.
Both Romario Baro and Fabio Silva have been heavily involved in the Portuguese U19 setup as they look set to make the step up to the senior team.
Meanwhile, Benfica have also continued to develop and churn out exciting wonderkids. Ruben Dias and Tomas Tavares have been crucial to the Eagles backline this season, and both look set to move on to bigger clubs in the not too distant future.
Braga have a remarkable young talent of their own in Trincao. The Portuguese midfielder, who has scored six goals and has three assists this season in the Primeira Liga is joining Barcelona at the end of the season for a fee of £ 26 million.
The ‘new’ normal in the Primeira Liga
The Liga NOS restart is not without drastic changes though. The most obvious of them is the fact that the remaining games of the season would be played in the absence of fans.
Not only would clubs Belenenses and Santa Clara be finishing the campaigns without home fans, but they would also be playing their football away from their home grounds. Both would conclude the 2019-20 Primeira Liga season at the Cidade de Futbol in Lisbon (the Portuguese version of St. George’s Park) where the national team trains.
It is a decision that means that Santa Clara, the club from Ponta Delgada in the Azores, would be playing their ‘home’ games in the Portuguese capital, about 1500 km away from their home ground.
It is also worth noting that the Primeira Liga would not be implementing the post-COVID-19 proposal of five substitutes per game after opposing the said recommendation made by the International Football Association Board (IFAB).
The five-substitute system, which is currently being used in the Bundesliga, is expected to be introduced in the Premier League when it resumes later this month.Published 04 Jun 2020, 14:04 IST