Their run of four consecutive league championships brought to an end by a rampant Benfica side last season, Porto are already heavy favourites to reclaim the title after a near-perfect start to 2010/11. The team coached by Andre Villas-Boas are already ten points clear of closest pursuers Benfica and Vitoria Guimaraes, have conceded just four goals in 11 leagues games are already safely qualified from Group L of the UEFA Europa League.
In 19 competitive games in all competitions so far this campaign, Os Dragões have recorded 17 wins and two draws – a mighty impressive start to 33-year-old Villas-Boas’ tenure. Indeed, the up-and-coming strategist and his charges have imbued the Portista fans with such optimism that expectations are high of a repeat of the 2002/03 and 2003/04 seasons when, under Jose Mourinho, Porto won back-to-back league titles plus the UEFA Cup and UEFA Champions League.
Villas-Boas has managed to get the very best from the players at his disposal, with Brazilian keeper Helton shining between the sticks, his defenders displaying remarkable consistency, and a midfield featuring ex-Sporting Lisbon icon Joao Moutinho and Fernando Belluschi oozing class. Yet it is up front that the team in blue-and-white stripes have set themselves apart from the pack, with the trio of Hulk, Radamel Falcao and Silvestre Varela all currently in the top five of the Liga ZON Sagres scorers’ charts.
Moreover, the lethal triumvirate’s tally of 23 goals in 11 league games exceeds that scored by any of the other 15 teams in Portugal’s top-flight. And having found the net 27 times overall, Porto’s attacking prowess far outstrips the 18 goals struck by the next most effective team, Academica Coimbra, and the 17 of reigning champions Os Encarnados.
Return of the Hulk
Powering to the top of the goalscorers’ standings is Brazilian front-runner Givanildo Vieira de Sousa, better known as Hulk. As you would expect given his nom de guerre, Hulk boasts phenomenal strength and speed packed into a muscle-bound frame, though he is by no means one-dimensional. Subtly skilled and endowed with a thunderous left foot, Hulk appears to have found the focus under Villas-Boas that eluded him during his two previous seasons in the north of Portugal. Indeed, his tally of 11 league goals and five Europa League strikes has underlined his status as a rising star of world football.
Aiding and abetting the Brazil international is another South American forward in Colombia’s Falcao. Dispelling the myth that a true goalscorer only thinks about finding the net, the former River Plate man has racked up 12 goals in all competitions in 2010/11 while also dovetailing wonderfully well with his fellow front-men. A gifted supplier and finisher, the No9 moves constantly in search of space and battles for every ball, while he also has a knack for the spectacular, as shown by his delightful back-heeled goal in Os Dragões 5-0 thrashing of Benfica on 7 November.
And though Falcao would clearly love to finish the season atop the division’s scorers’ charts, having come within a goal of Oscar Cardozo’s 26 strikes for Benfica last term, he has stated on several occasions his preference for a league winners’ medal rather than individual glory – a further sign of the ‘team-first’ mentality that pervades this Porto squad.
Varela confirming early promise
Meanwhile, the case of livewire attacker Varela illustrates perfectly how, in life as in football, it is sometimes necessary to take one step back before taking two forward. A product of the youth system at Sporting, the wide-man suffered from a paucity of first-team opportunities, mainly due to then coach Paulo Bento’s preference for a system without out-and-out wingers.
After loan spells at Vitoria Setubal and Spanish outfit Recreativo de Huelva, Varela signed for Estrela da Amadora, where his performances during 2008/09 caught the eye of Porto. Nor did he waste any time in shining at the Estadio do Dragao come 2009/10, with eight goals and a series of excellent performances opening the door to Portugal’s senior side and a potential trip to the 2010 FIFA World Cup™.
However, injury would ultimately deny him the opportunity to travel to South Africa, but Varela has bounced back from that misfortune in fine style. A barn-storming start to 2010/11, featuring six goals so far, earned him a call-up from Bento, recently installed as Portugal coach, for 17 November’s friendly against world and European champions Spain.
Yet bad luck once again befell Varela, with a muscular injury picked up in his last league outing against Portimonense denying him any involvement in A Selecção das Quinas’ 4-0 humbling of La Roja. Not that the 25-year-old will give up hope, with a swift recovery and a continuation of his stunning club form alongside Hulk and Falcao sure to secure him another chance to challenge for international recognition.