Change is in the air in the 2009/10 Liga Sagres where, at the halfway point of the campaign, none of the country’s traditional big three of FC Porto, Sporting Lisbon and Benfica are currently on top of the tree. Indeed, it is Sporting Braga, from the northern Minho region, who are leading from the front after 15 games and have high hopes of holding firm and clinching their first ever Portuguese league title.
Exceptions to the rule
To illustrate just how dominant Portugal’s big three have been, in 71 official editions of the league championship, only Belenenses in 1945/46 and Boavista in 2000/01 have ever managed to break up the status quo.
Braga’s near-faultless first half of the campaign has made them viable candidates to join that exclusive club. That said, with Benfica level on points with Os Arsenalistas, and serial champions Porto looming just four points further back, nobody in the Minho is celebrating just yet.
Under the steady hand of coach Domingos Paciencia, the former Porto and Portugal striker who took the Braga reins in June 2009 and is in just his fourth season as a head coach, the team's only league defeat so far came at the hands of neighbours and arch-rivals Vitoria de Guimaraes. Aside from that setback, Paciencia’s charges have drawn three games and won the rest, including seven wins in their opening seven matches.
Anyone doubting their credentials need only look at their results so far against the division’s heavyweight trio, with Benfica and Porto beaten 2-0 and 1-0 respectively at Braga’s Estadio AXA and Sporting dispatched 2-1 in Lisbon. And though these victories have undoubtedly buoyed the confidence within the squad and strengthened the club’s push in the eyes of both fans and pundits, coach Paciencia is determined to keep his players’ feet on the ground.
Despite topping the standings since the start of the season, it is only since the turn of the year that the 41-year-old strategist has stated his desire to “win the championship”, and he remained cautious when speaking to FIFA.com.
“The players feel that we can do as well in the second half of the season as we did in the first. In football, that belief in own ability is very, very important and could even prove decisive,” said Paciencia, one of the youngest coaches in his country’s top flight.
The Braga faithful have grown used to Os Minhotos holding their own in European competition in recent years, with Braga reaching the Round of 16 of the 2008/09 UEFA Cup under current Benfica boss Jorge Jesus and claiming the Intertoto Cup in the process. That Paciencia’s failure to take his new charges past the third qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League drew criticism was therefore little surprise, though the absence of European distractions appears to have done wonders for the club’s league form.
“We’re under no illusions about the strength of our title rivals, and we know that at any time things could stop going as well as during the first half of the season. But we’re going to do everything in our power not to let our supporters down, and we’re certainly capable of matching what we did in the first 15 games,” said Paciencia, before underlining three reasons he feels are behind the team’s success.
“Above all else, you have our honest approach to the job. Then comes belief in the ability of these players and finally the huge level of ambition that we all share.”
Adding further weight to Braga’s bid is that, of the last 20 top-flight seasons, only three times have the team that reached the halfway point top of the pile failed to win the championship. The fact that Braga boast the division’s steeliest defence so far, with just six goals conceded in 15 games, is yet another argument in their favour.
However, Os Arsenalistas’ tally of 21 goals is well behind the 39 struck by Benfica and the 30 hit by holders Porto, winners of six of the last seven championships. Could a lack of firepower cost Paciencia’s boys in the finishing straight? Or will 2009/10 be the season Braga join Belenenses and Boavista in striking a historic blow against Portugal’s big three?