Argentinians excel in Dragons' den
With the Portuguese top-flight season having reached its halfway point just last week, leading from the front and enjoying a rich vein of form are northern giants FC Porto.
Jesualdo Ferreira's charges have stormed to a hefty nine-point lead over closest rivals Benfica, and are odds on to take the league crown for the third year in succession. In fact, the only blip in an impressive first half to the season for Os Dragões (The Dragons) was a solitary away defeat to Madeira outfit CD Nacional.
"My overall verdict on the first half of the season is positive," said the former Sporting Braga supremo. "We had a poor result in Madeira but we're over that now. We deserve to be this many points in front, but I won't let our standards drop. We can't go thinking that it's all in the bag already because it's not. We've not won anything yet."
Nevertheless, Ferreira's Dragons have certainly roared out of the blocks this campaign, both at home and in Europe, where they await Germany's Schalke 04 in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League. In fact, Porto qualified in first place in Group A ahead of 2005 winners Liverpool, the Lusitanians' only group defeat coming in a pulsating game at Anfield.
Playing starring roles for the blue-and-whites have been midfielder Luis Oscar Lucho Gonzalez and forward Lisandro Licha Lopez, scorers of five of Porto's eight group-stage goals. And the Argentinian duo have been equally effective on the domestic front.
Lucho-Licha double act
Lopez in particular has been firing on all cylinders in the league, to the extent that he currently leads the scorers' charts with 11 goals thus far. The feisty front-runner arrived in Portuguese football in 2005 from Argentinian side Racing Club Avellaneda, with whom he had topped the goalscorers' standings in the 2004 Apertura Championship.
In his first season in Porto colours, the versatile attacker made a steady contribution, grabbing 8 goals in 28 appearances to help his new club to the league and cup double. Ferreira's appointment as coach has seen the striker grow into a vital cog in the Dragons' machine, while Lopez's sheer commitment and work rate continues to inspire his team-mates and the club's supporters in equal measure.
Capable of performing anywhere across the front line, the 24-year-old could find himself moved out wide over the next few weeks in the absence of fellow forward Tarik Sektioui, on duty with Morocco at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations Ghana 2008. Not that Licha is complaining: "I'm able to play on either flank. I thrive on driving forward from deep and supplying the strikers."
Despite the burden of expectation of playing for one of Portugal's big three, the up-and-coming goal-getter is proving more than up to the challenge. "Here (at Porto) you're always under the obligation to win the championship," says Lisandro."Fortunately we got the season off to a flyer."And though a regular spot in the senior Albiceleste squad has eluded him to date, Lopez realises the need for patience in the face of such fierce competition for places.
Part of the reason for Lopez' success on Portuguese soil has been his near-telepathic understanding with compatriot Lucho. "We've been league champions two years running and Lucho and I have shared two fantastic years at the club. We get on really well," says one half of the lethal pairing.
Lucho himself also joined Porto in 2005, from Buenos Aires aristocrats River Plate, bearing the Olympic gold medal won with Argentina at Athens 2004. The classy midfield man soon earned hero status with the Estadio do Dragao faithful, and remains at the club despite reported interest from the likes of Fiorentina, Villarreal, Real Madrid, Valencia and Everton.
A veteran of more than 30 caps for the Albiceleste, including appearances at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, Lucho's reading of the game and impeccable distribution are just two of the reasons Porto fans must wonder how long they can hold onto their much-admired skipper. Part of the Argentina squad that finished second at both the FIFA Confederations Cup 2005 and the Copa America 2007, the powerful midfielder tends to operate to the right of Ferreira's midfield trio, where his driving runs and eye for goal can be employed to full effect. Over the last two league campaigns Lucho has fired no fewer than ten and nine goals respectively, with many of them coming at pivotal moments.
Remarkably, the Portistas' Argentinian contingent stretches to five, with Mariano Gonzalez, Mario Bolatti and Ernesto Farias all champing at the bit in their bid to join Lucho and Licha in the starting 11. With Os Dragões still in the running for three major trophies this season, their opportunity should come sooner rather than later.