Portuguese giants poised for battle
© AFP

Now known as the Liga Zon Sagres, the 16-side Portuguese top tier is set to roar back into life this evening. An exciting nine-month race ensues in which the Jabulani ball will make its reappearance following the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.

The team to beat are Benfica, who are intent on defending the title they won last time around, ending Porto's run of four successive triumphs. While coach Jorge Jesus, the man responsible for their compelling, high-tempo style, is still in the hot-seat, As Águias will have to make do without two of last season’s star performers: Angel Di Maria and Ramires. The Argentinian winger has made the move to Real Madrid and the Brazilian midfielder is now at Chelsea, while goalkeeper Quim has returned to Braga.

To compensate for their departures, Benfica have recruited Spanish custodian Roberto from Atletico Madrid, teaming him up with compatriot Rodrigo, a young striker signed from Real Madrid. Swelling the Argentinian contingent at the Estadio da Luz are attacking midfielder Nicolas Gaitan and forward Franco Jara. After putting together some fine pre-season results, the club from the capital will be hoping their 2-0 defeat to Porto in the curtain-raising Super Cup is not a sign of things to come.

Having appointed a new coach in 32-year-old Andre Villas-Boas - a former assistant to one Jose Mourinho - Os Dragões are aiming to re-establish their supremacy. And if their Super Cup display is anything to go by, that objective looks a feasible one, despite the relative inexperience of the new man at the helm. Coming in to replace Jesualdo Ferreira, the former Academica boss also has the task of reviving Porto’s fortunes in the UEFA Champions League, a competition in which they have made little impact since glory in 2004.

If they are to achieve that aim, it will be without captain Bruno Alves, who has moved to Zenit, although the summer’s big transfer story was Portugal midfielder Joao Moutinho’s arrival at the Dragao from Sporting.

The other contenders
As well as letting go their captain, Sporting also sold talismanic midfielder Miguel Veloso to Serie A side Genoa. To offset their exits, Os Leões drafted in former Pacos de Ferreira and Guimaraes coach Paulo Sergio, his brief being to improve on a poor showing in 2009/10, when they finished in fourth place, fully 28 points behind Benfica.

Sergio has been busy restructuring his squad, bringing in some classy replacements such as international midfielder Maniche, who returns to the Alvalade after spells with Benfica and Porto among others. Argentinian defender Marco Torsiglieri, Chilean midfielder Jaime Valdes and Spanish playmaker Alberto Zapater have also arrived, along with left-back Evaldo, who joins the club after two seasons of sterling service at Braga.

After going every step of the way with Benfica in last season’s unforgettable title race, Braga are currently closing in on another major achievement to follow up that unexpected second place. Having just disposed of Celtic in the third qualifying round for the UEFA Champions League, Domingos Paciencia’s over-achievers are now plotting to overcome Sevilla in the play-offs, the final obstacle to a place in the group phase.

The rest of the field
Aside from their lofty European ambitions, Os Arsenalistas also aim to cement their place in the Portuguese elite by securing another top-four finish. They have been quick, however, to dampen expectations of an improvement on last season’s heroics. Among the other sides expected to push for the European places are Maritimo, Vitoria Guimaraes and Nacional, while the remainder of the field are also eyeing a surprise challenge.

This weekend’s fixtures
Friday
:
Braga-Portimonense

Saturday:
Maritimo-Setubal
Naval-Porto
Pacos Ferreira-Sporting

Sunday:
Rio Ave -Nacional
Beira-Mar-Uniao Leiria
Benfica-Academica

Monday:
Olhanense-Vitoria Guimaraes