Half way through the Portuguese league season, champions FC Porto lead the way, five points clear of arch rivals Benfica.
Saturday’s dour 0-0 draw with Sporting Lisbon at the Estádio José Alvalade may have seen them miss the chance to set a new Portuguese record of consecutive wins across all competitions, but manager Sergio Conceição is unlikely to have lost any sleep over it.
After suffering their second league defeat of the season back in early October against Benfica, the Dragons won their next 18 games on the trot to set a new club record.
And while the run ended at the weekend, that achievement has seen comparisons being drawn between the current vintage and great Porto sides of the past.
However, the expert view, indeed the that of many of the club’s fans, would suggest they’ve quite a way to go before Conceição’s men claim legendary status. But the same may not be true of the manager.
“The record was a fantastic achievement,” says World Soccer Magazine’s man in Portugal and creator of www.portugoal.net Tom Kundert.
“But truth be told, even the club’s own fans are not really convinced this is or could become a special Porto team, certainly not one that can be compared with the great Porto sides of the recent past.”
For Kundert, the squad’s lack of star quality on the field and their workmanlike style explain the doubts. Conceição’s men rarely “steamroll their opposition” and are unlikely to get you out of your seat, unless of course it’s tenacity, organisation and will to win that float your boat.
Nevertheless, all champions need these traits, and Porto have them spades.
Their ability to amass points is not in question, and for this Conceição, who brought the club its first Primeira Liga title in five years last season, deserves the credit and attention he is currently getting.
Kundert believes the 44-year-old has performed miracles at the club.
“When he arrived, Porto were in deep Financial Fair Play trouble,” he says. “They had to sell star striker André Silva and were forbidden from buying anyone.
“Conceição simply worked with what he had, recalled several players the club had appeared to give up on from loan spells and transformed them, with striker Moussa Marega being the most obvious example.”
The Mali striker scored 22 times to help Porto win the league last season and has bagged another 12 in his 20 domestic and Champions League games this time round.
“Marega has been transformed from a bulky, clumsy forward into a menacing battering ram and goal-scoring machine.”
But its not just the powerful striker who has prospered under Conceição.
“He has improved the performance level of practically every squad member, with players such as Héctor Herrera and Jesús Corona unrecognisable compared to how they were playing before Conceição arrived.”
And the team has continued to thrive despite the sales of important players like Ricardo Pereira, Diago Dalot, Iván Marcano in the summer and the fact that the club made minimal investments in the transfer market to replace them.
The Conceição-effect, Kundert feels, makes Porto strong favourites to claim a second title in a row.
“He has installed a tenacity and a determination to win that characterised his playing career, and the whole squad has bought into it,” he says.
“I said at the start of the season that I didn’t think there was too much difference between the squads of the Big Three, but the big difference was that Porto had the best coach. Halfway through the season, I see no reason to change that opinion.”
But it’s not just at home that Porto have impressed World Soccer’s man. Porto sailed serenely into the last 16 of the Champions League, only dropping two points in the group stages.
And while Kundert agrees that Group D, which contained Schalke, Lokomotiv Moscow and Galatasaray, wasn’t exactly the group of death, winning five of their six games (equalling their best ever performance in the group stages) was nevertheless a fantastic feat.
And that may not be the end of the story, as Kundert believes given how Porto have been playing this season, they’ve every chance of seeing off Roma and reaching the quarter finals.
However, unfortunately for Dragons fans, Porto’s progress under Conceição won’t have gone unnoticed outside of Portugal – and Kundert feels the manager may quickly outgrow the club. “I can see him moving to England, Italy or Spain sooner rather than later.”