Since FC Porto’s last Primeira Liga title in 2012-13, the trophy cabinet at the Estádio do Dragão has been largely undisturbed.
But hopes are high that Sergio Conceição, who took the reins at the club last June after a short but impressive stint at Ligue 1 Nantes, is set to bring about a change in the club’s fortunes.
The 43-year-old is Porto’s fifth manager in the last four seasons, a period in which Benfica have capitalised on their struggles and Sporting CP have re-emerged as a serious force.
But World Soccer Magazine’s Portugal correspondent and creator of www.portugoal.net Tom Kundert believes that Conceição’s arrival has reinvigorated the club he once graced as a player and could herald another period of success for the Dragons.
Kundert suggests that the former Portuguese international midfielder’s decision to switch to a quicker, more direct style of play has been central to Porto’s greater competitiveness this term.
Concieção’s got them playing exciting, high-intensity, attacking and very vertical football. It’s a huge contrast to almost all his predecessors in the last four years who favoured a possession-based and more measured build-up.
Porto are unbeaten in their 18 league games this season, boasting the best offensive and defensive records in the league. They have also qualified for the lucrative knockout stages of the Champions League – seeing off both Monaco and RB Leipzig in the group stage – and face a tasty last 16 tie with Liverpool next month.
“He deserves tremendous credit,” says Kundert. “He’s a superb motivator and a very intelligent coach. His status as a former Porto favourite was always going to give him a bit more leeway than his predecessors with the notoriously demanding Porto fans, but to be fair, he hasn’t tried their patience at all – his impact has been clear to see from day one.”
Friday night’s narrow victory over Tondela courtesy of Moussa Marega’s 15th goal in 17 league appearances saw Porto return to the top of the table. The Malian has been in outstanding form, as has his Cameroonian partner in crime Vincent Aboubakar, with the two contributing 29 of Porto’s 46 Primeira Liga goals.
Unsurprisingly, their form has been drawing admiring glances from across the continent, and Aboubakar’s additional five Champions League strikes haven’t gone unnoticed either.
But for Kundert its the prodigiously talented Yacine Brahimi who has really caught the eye in an attacking sense.
Brahimi has been sensational. He was brilliant in his first six months at Porto back in 2014 but then went off the boil and never got to that level again, with question marks about his application. But he’s been superb under Conceição, with the twin attributes of being a wondrous dribbler and a magnificent passer of killer through balls.
Should Liverpool be worried? Can Porto cause them problems? “For sure,” says Kundert. “They may not be at the level of Porto sides of the recent past (Mourinho’s 2004 and Andres Villas Boas’s 2010 sides), but it’s the best we’ve seen them for five or six years.”
I’d definitely make Liverpool favourites, but if Porto can keep the tie alive after the first leg, the second game could be quite something. Porto have real power and pace in attack and could thrive playing on the break.
But while a prolonged run in the Champions League would be welcome, the priority is reclaiming the Portuguese title from Benfica. Just two points separate Porto in first from the champions in third, with Sporting sandwiched in between.
But could the fact that both Porto (and Sporting) are still fighting on four fronts play into Benfica’s hands? “For sure,” says Kundert. “That’s why a fifth straight title for Rui Vitoria’s outfit can’t be ruled out. Sporting have strengthened well in the January window, which should help them in this respect, but you can’t help feeling Porto could run out of steam if they don’t do likewise.”
“But it’s so tough to call this season – you can make good arguments for all three of the traditional contenders. I think injuries and suspensions could be crucial. But if Porto, Sporting and Benfica survive the season relatively unscathed personnel-wise, based on what we’ve seen so far, I’d plump for Porto and Concieção.”