Porto still the team to beat
© AFP

The new season in Portugal’s Liga ZON Sagres gets underway this Friday, with 2009/10 champions Benfica kicking off proceedings with a trip to newly promoted Gil Vicente. Title holders Porto, who were unbeaten in the league last season, begin their defence on Sunday away to Vitoria de Guimaraes.

Intriguingly, the latter encounter is a repeat of last week’s Portuguese Supercup clash. In the traditional curtain-raiser, Porto won 2-1 to hint at another glorious season ahead for Os Dragões – having won the Portuguese league, Cup, Supercup and the UEFA Europa League in 2010/11. The only available silverware that did not find its way into their bulging trophy room was the League Cup, which proved a consolation prize for fierce rivals Benfica.

However, Porto’s phenomenal run of success did cost them their gifted young coach Andre Villas-Boas, who made the switch to Chelsea in exchange for a record 15 million Euros in compensation. Rather than looking further afield for a replacement, Os Azuis e Brancos stayed in-house by handing 43-year-old Vitor Pereira, Villas-Boas’ assistant, his big coaching break.

The defending champions
“He’s our secret agent,” Porto’s Uruguayan international Jorge Fucile once said of his new boss Pereira, given the latter’s work behind the scenes and insightful exchanges in the dugout with Villas-Boas. Though no longer able to work away in the background, Pereira has the good fortune to have an enviably strong squad at his disposal.

Indeed, though the transfer window does not close until the end of August, at the time of writing Os Portistas have not sold any of their highly coveted star names. Alvaro Pereira, Joao Moutinho, Falcao and Hulk are all still wearing the blue-and-white stripes while, as they have done so successfully over the years, the club have also signed some of the finest up-and-coming South American talent around.

As a result, Argentinian forward Juan Iturbe and Brazilian duo Danilo and Alex Sandro will join up with their new team-mates after the conclusion of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011. The Auriverde pairing, who cost a total of €22.6m , represent a major opening shot across Benfica’s bows, with the Lisbon giants having also been in the race for their signatures. Also joining Os Dragões’ cause is Brazilian striker Kleber, signed from Maritimo, who has shown signs of being able to fill Falcao’s shooting boots should the lethal Colombian head for pastures new.

The challengers
Though they may have missed out on Danilo and Alex Sandro, Benfica boss Jorge Jesus has been able to bring in a number of other quality reinforcements. Much-maligned Spanish keeper Roberto has been shipped off to Real Zaragoza, and in his place have come Brazilian custodian Artur and Portugal international Eduardo – signed on loan from Serie A outfit Genoa.

And though fans’ favourite Fabio Coentrao has departed the Estadio da Luz for Real Madrid, some of the €30m fee received for the flying left-back has already been spent on the likes of Argentina defender Ezequiel Garay and the midfield trio of Alex Witsel, Bruno Cesar and Enzo Perez. As Águias also have high hopes for Brazilian-born Spain U-20 striker Rodrigo, who is currently catching the eye at Colombia 2011.

The main challenge for coach Jesus is to rediscover the verve and winning mentality his side showed when storming to the title in 2009/10. Lisbon neighbours and arch-rivals Sporting have to go back to 2001/02 for their last championship win and, after the disappointment of last term, have gone for a ‘clean break’ approach.

Therefore, at Sporting’s Alvalade stadium there is now a new President, a new coach and a host of new players. Fresh from his historic tenure at Braga, who he guided to an unprecedented second spot in the Liga in 2009/10 and the final of last season’s Europa League, coach Domingos Paciencia has been charged with making Os Leões a force once more.

To help him achieve that aim, Paciencia has been handed a squad packed with new faces, many of whom are established internationals. Among the incomers are defenders Alberto Rodriguez (Peru) and Oguchi Onyewu (USA), midfielders Stijn Schaars (Netherlands), Fabian Rinaudo (Argentina), Diego Capel (Spain) and Luis Aguiar (Uruguay), as well as attackers Valeri Bojinov (Bulgaria) and Ricky Van Wolfswinkel (Netherlands).

The contenders
In recent years, Braga have threatened to break the monopoly of Portugal’s big three, who between them have won all 77 editions of the championship, with the exception of successes for Belenenses and Boavista in 1945/46 and 2000/01 respectively. Os Minhotos look well placed to continue their now customary battle for a top-four position and a place in Europe, though the club’s fans, after the highs of the last couple of seasons, will expect at least a podium berth from new boss Leonardo Jardim and his charges.

A European berth will also surely be among the objectives for Vitoria de Guimaraes and Madeira outfits Maritimo and Nacional, though life is expected to be extremely tough for the remaining nine top-flight clubs. Yet the season is long and surprises are part of parcel of the beautiful game, so why shouldn’t the league's least-fancied sides also be able to dream?

Have your say
Will Porto dominate once more or can Benfica, Sporting or Braga douse Os Dragões’ fire? Which team will be the surprise packages of the 2011/12 Portuguese top-flight season?