Hits & Misses: Heroic Hulk, bobbins Benfica and middling Maniche
WeÃ¢ÂÂre already into the 11th round of the Portuguese League, and it seems a good time to stop for a moment and acknowledge the highs and lows of the league so far. Who has been a revelation? Who is still stuttering? Who has been an utter disappointment? Read on... (Please!)
The 33-year-old manager arrived at Porto under a multitude of question marks. After all, his stint at Academica wasnÃ¢ÂÂt enough to show he had the potential to take on the mantle from his former mentor Ã¢ÂÂ one Jose Mourinho.
Yet Villas-Boas is still undefeated this season and the free-flowing football practised by his team has earned him rave reviews. Where can he go? At the moment, everything seems possible. Europa League, Portuguese League and Portuguese Cup Ã¢ÂÂ what a breakthrough season would that be.
Porto's explosive Brazilian forward was unable to further hone his skills last season due to the infamous suspension that left him out in the cold for a large chunk of the campaign. Perhaps fuelled by the chance to claim poetic justice, Hulk Ã¢ÂÂ just like his Marvel namesake Ã¢ÂÂ turned incredible and his performances have dazzled everyone (mostly opponents).
Last season, the Portugeezer predicted Hulk could become big if he toned down his showboating instincts and improved his work rate. Well, heÃ¢ÂÂs doing just that, and EuropeÃ¢ÂÂs big guns are alert to his impressive 11-goal haul in the league. One thing is certain: if he leaves, heÃ¢ÂÂs going to cost a lot of money.
PortugalÃ¢ÂÂs fourth club in terms of following and attendances, Vitoria de Guimaraes have seen neighbours Braga take the spotlight in recent years. This season under Manuel Machado, however, Guimaraes are performing well above expectations, currently sitting in second alongside Benfica.
They also managed to seal what was arguably one of the deals of the summer, selling Bebe to Manchester United for a princely sum just weeks after paying a pauperÃ¢ÂÂs wage to sign him from Estrela da Amadora.
Joao Ribeiro and Tiago Targino are two players worth following.
One of the two promoted sides, the historical club from Aveiro have been playing well and currently lie in the top half of the table, seven points away from the dreaded relegation zone.
They already claimed a famous win at Braga and young manager Leonardo Jardim has been raising an eyebrow among his peers with the good results. Think of them as youÃ¢ÂÂd think of Blackpool in the English Premier League: a happy-go-lucky team that overcomes a lack of talent and financial clout with a never-say-die attitude.
Reigning champions Benfica have failed to cope with increasing expectations and the departures of Ramires and Angel di Maria. Jorge Jesus, whose judgement was once unquestionable, is now starting to cut a fragile figure unable to steer his team forward.
The early warning signs at the Supercup would be later confirmed, as the team has struggled to get a result away from home and got a nasty reality check last week when they were handed an old-fashioned 5-0 spanking by Porto. Lagging 10 points behind the leaders, the Eagles had better focus now on the Champions League and the Portuguese cups if they want to look back at this season in a positive fashion.
The Lions were looking to bounce back from a dismal season that saw them finish 28 points behind Benfica. Manager Costinha and chairman Jose Eduardo Bettencourt promoted a small revolution in the squad Ã¢ÂÂ which included the shocking sale of captain Joao Moutinho Ã¢ÂÂ in the hope it would lead to better results, but the truth is they look a second-rate side, years away from past glorious Sporting sides.
Next round Sporting will host Porto, and it will be interesting to see how theyÃ¢ÂÂll cope with the Dragons. Their defence is anything but watertight and they lack firepower upfront. Will they ever learn from their mistakes?
This edition of the Portuguese League has seen the worst average attendance of the last four seasons, with a mere 10,545 people per match. Last yearÃ¢ÂÂs average attendance at this stage was 12,200. If the league wants to move forward, it needs to address this nagging problem that has been holding back Portuguese football. Seriously, you donÃ¢ÂÂt need John LegendÃ¢ÂÂs Wake Up Everybody to know itÃ¢ÂÂs time. Am I right? [Yes? Ã¢ÂÂ Ed]
Not everyone can be labelled as a top or a flop at this point. Fortunately (or unfortunately) for some, the jury is still out...
The former Benfica and Porto player arrived at Sporting to replace Joao Moutinho and, on paper, he seemed a shrewd piece of business. Cheap, much-travelled and with bags of Champions League experience, the prospect of watching him marshalling the midfield alongside Pedro Mendes was interesting.
The only flaw in that masterplan was that Maniche peaked five years ago. His all-round game has waned. Not only that, but he is still prone to silly mistakes, such as the dismissal against Guimaraes that ultimately caused his teamÃ¢ÂÂs collapse. He is still capable of exerting his influence on the team, but he needs to step up and show he can lead the team.
For a guy who arrived at Benfica with a hefty Ã¢ÂÂ¬8.4m price tag, Nico Gaitan is a flop. People expected him to replace crowd favourite Di Maria overnight, apparently forgetting it took two years before the now Real Madrid player started showing what he was capable of.
The other problem for Gaitan is that heÃ¢ÂÂs more of a trequartista than a winger; playing on the wing has undermined his development. Still, he scored two goals in the last match against Naval and showed glimpses of talent.
Will he be given time, and a proper role in the starting XI, to flourish? Only time will tell, but Benfica supporters will have to wait if they want to see something from him...
It may be a bit unfair to label BragaÃ¢ÂÂs current campaign as a question mark. After all, they already boast the Herculean feat of reaching the group stages of the Champions League after knocking out Celtic and Sevilla. They managed to improve the squad with smart moves in the market, too: Lima, Luis Aguiar and Felipe to name but three.
But Braga already trail rivals Benfica and Guimaraes by seven points, something that last season would be unthinkable. Are we expecting too much for a team not used to dealing with continental and domestic duties? Maybe, but thatÃ¢ÂÂs only because theyÃ¢ÂÂve shown us many times that they can upset the odds.