Times have changed in Portugal. Where three clubs once battled it out for domestic glory, now one reigns supreme. A new league season is just about to begin and the question the country's football fans are asking is, who can prevent Porto from turning the title battle into another one-horse race?
Thanks to their impressive consistency, the relentless Dragões have won the league for three years in a row, setting a pace that their traditional challengers, Benfica and Sporting, have been unable to match. A further sign of their waning powers was the sight of the unheralded Vitoria Guimaraes muscling their way into third last season to challenge the long-standing supremacy of Portugal's 'big three'.
Yet, the new season has already thrown up a surprise in the shape of Sporting's 2-0 defeat of Porto in last weekend's Super Cup. Could that be a sign of things to come?
Despite that reverse, the defending champions, coached by Jesualdo Ferreira, are still strong favourites. Even so, there are some question marks hanging over their ability to make it four straight crowns. The effect of the departures of Jose Bosingwa to Chelsea and Paulo Assuncao to Atletico Madrid, two vital cogs in the Porto machine, have yet to be seen, and the future of star asset Ricardo Quaresma is still undecided. Should he leave, it would seriously undermine the team's stability.
On the bright side, Porto have drafted in the Uruguayan Cristian Rodriguez, whose brief will be to support the Argentinian duo of Lucho Gonzalez and Lisandro Lopez, a partnership that yielded outstanding results last term.
Boosted by their recent Super Cup success, last season's runners-up Sporting are aiming to maintain the feel-good factor and push for the title. "It's important to start with a win," commented their ex-Porto forward Helder Postiga after lifting the trophy. "It will give us the confidence to go out and achieve something big, particularly as we beat the league champions."
Benfica's latest project also has a promising look about it. The arrival of Spanish coach Quique Sanchez Flores, who made his name by propelling Getafe into the limelight before taking over at Valencia, has coincided with Rui Costa's appointment as the club's sporting director. And the fans seem to be pleased with the new signings the duo have made, particularly former Sporting midfielder Carlos Martins after a year at Spanish La Liga outfit Recreativo Huelva. The change of scene seemed to suit Martins, who earned a place in the Portugal squad for UEFA EURO 2008 and is determined to lead As Águias back to the pinnacle of Portuguese football.
The dark horses
Last season's revelations were Vitoria Guimaraes, who claimed their highest-ever league finish. Anxious to prove that third place was no fluke, coach Manuel Cajuda has made his objectives for the new campaign very clear. "If finishing third doesn't motivate us, then there must be something wrong with us," he said.
"If we can do no worse than fifth or sixth this time around, that will represent a major improvement on our recent record. In the last 20 years our average placing has been eighth or ninth so to establish ourselves in the top six will be quite an achievement."
Another club aiming high is Sporting Braga. Boasting a solid, balanced side, Braga checked into a UEFA Cup slot last term and if their promising pre-season efforts are anything to go by [only two goals conceded in nine games], they could claim an even greater prize this time.
As far as coach Jorge Jesus is concerned, though, continued progress requires complete commitment to the cause, on and off the field. "Sporting can only become a big club if the players pull together as one, whether they're in the side or not. If they only get involved when they're playing, then they won't get a look-in with me," he insisted.
While Porto danced to the tango rhythm imposed by the Lucho-Licha tandem last season, Benfica are hoping the Spanish-Argentinian partnership of Jose Antonio Reyes and Pablo Aimar can help them mount a challenge. The incentive is certainly there. Having fallen on hard times lately, Reyes and Aimar have the chance to kick-start their stalling careers.
Players to watch
While there will be plenty of new names gracing the league stage, there are a host of other familiar faces still on show. Aside from Porto's lethal attacking pairing, all eyes will be on two highly promising youngsters poised for greatness. After lighting up the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007, homegrown starlet Bruno Gama turned has been in excellent form for Vitoria Setubal and this could be the year he cements his flourishing reputation.
Benfica's Argentinian midfielder Angel di Maria has been impressing for his country at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament, alerting the interest of more than a few would-be suitors. And as he awaits his second season in the Portuguese top flight, the young South American looks more than ready to impose himself.
Have your say
Can Quique help Reyes and Aimar shine again? Can Porto overcome the loss of some key players and lift their fourth title in a row? Can anyone pose a threat to Portugal's big three? Click 'Add your comment' to make your opinion known.