How Porto stung Liverpool

It’s a well-known fact that football is a fast-paced environment and that things can change overnight. For instance, nobody expected someone as professional as Wayne Rooney to pull a ‘Judas’ and drop a bombshell about leaving – even if that ended up being nothing more than a cheap move to get leverage for an improved contract.

Likewise, if we compare the current and the past editions of the Portuguese League, we see two different dynamics. Last year, Jorge Jesus arrived at Benfica and turned around the club's fortunes in style; it was a joy to watch the Eagles' gung-ho style overwhelm opponents. Stadiums – both home and away - were filled, the starting XI looked like Champions League veterans and a new ‘golden era’ seemed to be on the horizon.

After years in oblivion, Benfica finally found a winning formula and they should have kept it. But like a teenager who wants new shoes just for the sake of it, Benfica went on a summer shopping spree when all they had to do was make a handful of key acquisitions to increase depth, balance the books and keep the momentum of last season.

All the glitter and razzmatazz about the impressive Benfica 2009-10 faded away and the Eagles today are a rather bland side. They win at home and struggle away, and that’s not what you want from a true contender.

Porto, on the other hand, suffered a few bumps along the way that disrupted their 2009-10 campaign. They lost Hulk to suspension and would also lose a few important players to injuries while then-manager Jesualdo Ferreira’s influence on the team was already waning.

For a side used to winning, last season was subpar and something needed to change. The Dragons surprised many by gambling on a young manager – the untested André Villas-Boas – but kept the faith with their squad, signing only players that could actually make a difference (with perhaps the exception of Sereno…). Are they much different than last year? No, they're almost the same side, just with much more hunger plus João Moutinho and increased depth.

Every bit of the João Moutinho-Raul Meireles deals was a stroke of genius. Meireles had enjoyed a lacklustre campaign and at 27 he was about to reach his potential. Sensing a good deal, the Dragons signed Moutinho – three years younger and more versatile – for €11m just before dispatching Meireles to Merseyside for €14m.

Moutinho & Meireles: "Look at the size of that comedy cheque!"

Yes, Liverpool supporters may want to think of Meireles as the second coming of Xabi Alonso, but the truth is nobody at Porto cares about him anymore – because Moutinho is simply better. And the cherry on top was the fact that it weakened rivals Sporting and signalled a clear gulf in ambition between both clubs.

The front trio – Silvestre Varela, Hulk and Falcao – have been unplayable and are as lethal as a golf club in the back of the head. They've provided 16 of Porto's 19 league goals and last weekend they all scored as the team cruised 5-1 past Leiria. Hulk’s first goal is a work of art definitely worth appreciating.

One question hovers in the air: Is there a team capable of beating this Porto side? It may be too early to tell, with only eight of the 30 matches played, but domestically the Portugeezer says ‘highly unlikely’. (Out of interest, they're also top of their Europa League group, with three wins from three.)

With minor adjustments, Porto have drastically improved and both Benfica and Braga are definitely not as strong as last season. As for Sporting, well, they started rather slow and lack firepower now that talismanic striker Liédson is in the twilight of his career.

The only match that could prove a decider is the one between Porto and Benfica in two weeks. If Benfica somehow vanquish the Dragons – and you don’t want to bet on that – that could stun the leaders. Should the Dragons shoot down the Eagles, then please tell somebody to order the 2010/2011 Championship medals.

The current Dragons have many shades of the Porto side that won the UEFA Cup back in 2003. Then, a certain special young manager rejuvenated Porto by winning a championship with relative ease and by claiming silverware in Europe.

The main difference between those teams seems to lie on the backline. Porto’s current defence is yet to be truly tested, and only when that happens we will see whether the sky is really the limit for them.

For now, let’s just say Porto have yet to be defeated this season and that André Villas-Boas has claimed 14 wins in 15 official matches (the other match being the 1-1 draw at Guimarães). Not bad, right?

To be reviewed in two weeks…

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