The battle that has dominated and will continue to dominate the headlines in Portugal and beyond is the Primeira Liga title race between SL Benfica and FC Porto. Both sides have had peculiar campaigns and it has felt like the Primeira Liga trophy has been continually passed back and forth between the two. However, there is another battle brewing in Liga NOS, a battle that is just as intriguing as the fight for the title, the battle for Europe.
This is somewhat of a contrast compared to previous Primeira Liga seasons where the European places can often be telegraphed relatively early on. For example, last season (2018/19), Europa League spots were allocated to those teams in 3rd and 4th as well as a bonus place for the 5th placed team, due to Sporting CP’s Taça de Portugal win. The difference in points between those teams in the ‘top 7’ was staggering. Sporting finished 3rd and qualified for the UEL group stage on 74 points, SC Braga finished 4th with 67 points, 7 less than Sporting and entered the competition in the third qualifying round. Vitória SC finished the season with 52 points, a sizeable 15 points less than SC Braga and a massive 22 points behind Sporting CP, qualified for the Europa League second qualifying round. Moreirense to their credit ran Vitória SC close, also finishing on 52 points also but narrowly missed out.
This season is a different story altogether. Going into the final 8 games we have a Europa League battle that could quite literally go the final day of the season. Let’s take a look at the current standings for the 2019/20 season with 26 games played:
3rd | SC Braga | 46 points
4th | Sporting | 46 points
5th | Famalicão | 43 points
6th | Rio Ave | 41 points
7th | Vitória | 39 points
Just 7 points separate Sporting in 3rd and Vitória SC in 7th and this battle could see any of those 5 sides qualify for the Europa League.
A Closer Look
SC Braga – 3rd position in Primeira Liga (46 points)
SC Braga is currently the front-runner for the 3rd place position (automatic group stage qualification) however they are the team currently in the worst form. New and vastly inexperienced manager Cústodio replaced the outgoing Rúben Amorim when he left for Sporting and since then he has presided over three Primeira Liga games, winning the first before the COVID-19 break. Since the return of the Liga however, they have played two, lost two. Both defeats coming at the hands of teams outside of the ‘top 7’, firstly losing 3-2 to mid-table Santa Clara before losing again 1-0 at home to now 10th placed Boavista. This comes as quite a contrast to the form they showed under Amorim which propelled them into the European spaces. During Amorim’s tenure, Braga played 11 games in the Primeira Liga, won 10 and drawn the other. Now under Cústodio, Braga simply has to find their form and find it fast or risk slipping away altogether. A return to form is made even more difficult given that their fixtures for the remainder of the season are tough to say the least. Their next 3 fixtures are all teams currently in the top 7. Next up is Famalicão (A), followed by Vitória SC (H) and then Rio Ave (A). Braga then close the season with a mouth-watering potentially title and Europa League deciding clash with Sérgio Conceição’s FC Porto.
That is 4 incredibly tough matches out of their remaining 8 fixtures. Braga will fancy their chances of qualifying for Europe, if it not through the automatic position in 3rd, then at least in either 4th or 5th. One thing is for sure though, a Europa space will not be handed to them, they have to start picking up points and it has to start now.
Sporting CP – 4th position in Primeira Liga (46 points)
Sporting CP, the long-time perennial 3rd placed team in Portugal have a fight on their hands this season for this position. So far under Amorim, they have played three matches, winning two and drawing the other. The performances haven’t been perfect but the main thing for Amorim is that his side is picking up points.
Sporting’s primary concern thus far has been their inability to come away from clashes with fellow European contenders. So far this season they have lost to both Porto and Benfica at home, lost to Braga away as well as losing to Famalicão. Amorim so far has presided over just 1 game against a top 7 side, a 2-2 draw away in Guimarães, a good point on reflection. This result indicates that Sporting may be on their way to getting more out of these big matches, adapting their style and game-plan accordingly. The last time Sporting failed to qualify for Europe (Champions or Europa League) was the 2012/13 season when they finished 7th in the Primeira Liga.
The question of Sporting’s remaining fixtures is a strange one, their remaining 8 games are both difficult and not so difficult if you’ll allow me to explain such a paradox. Sporting does not have to face any of their Europa League challengers for the remainder of the season. They have already faced off twice with Rio Ave, Famalicão, Vitória SC and SC Braga which they will hope will make their run-in a lot more straight-forward. Now for the difficult part, whilst their fixture list isn’t congested with constant clashes with Europa League rivals, they do have to face the Primeira Liga’s top two in FC Porto and SL Benfica, not only that, both trips are away from home. A bonus for Amorim’s men is that, in theory, Sporting could go to both the Dragão and the Luz, lose on both occasions, win their other 6 matches and still finish in a Europa League space, whether that would be enough to claim the coveted 3rd position and automatic qualification to the group stages, is yet to be seen.
Famalicão – 5th position in Primeira Liga (43 points)
In 5th position, we have Primeira Liga new-boys Famalicão. Under the stewardship of former Everton assistant manager João Pedro Sousa, Famalicão have garnered plaudits and attention across Europe for their achievements this season. Promoted after finishing 2nd in LigaPro last season, they have taken the league by surprise with their overachievement so far, even sitting at the top of the Primeira Liga for 4 consecutive match-weeks.
Their form started to dip around the end of the November, falling as far down as 7th in the table. From the 19th of January to the 23rd of February, Famalicão played 8 matches (6 of those in the Primeira Liga), during this period they didn’t win a single match, including losses to Santa Clara and Paços de Ferreira. This slump ended with an impressive 3-1 victory over Sporting CP and since then have gotten themselves firmly back on track. In the two matches since the league’s resumption, they have beaten league leaders FC Porto 2-1 in a highly impressive victory and claimed a 3-1 away victory over Gil Vicente. If Famalicão can manage to get a Europa League spot, it will be the success story of the season.
Out of the teams placed 3rd to 7th and chasing Europa League, Famalicão only has to play Braga. Famalicão however, like Sporting, still have to play Benfica. If Sousa’s men can pick up the points against those teams below them and possibly pick up bonus points against Braga and Benfica, they could well claim a spot in Europe.
Rio Ave – 6th position in Primeira Liga (41 points)
Carlos Carvalhal’s men go into the final 8 games as one of the most in-form teams in the Liga, despite a disappointing loss to Paços in the first game back after the COVID-19 mid-season break. In fact, from the 10th of January until the 12th of June, Rio Ave has played 11 Liga matches and have lost just once. The key to their movement up the table and into European contention has been how solid they have been in those big matches with fellow European contenders. During this run, they have drawn with FC Porto, Sporting CP, Famalicão as well as beating Vitória. Then in those games against the mid-table and bottom half teams, they have been remarkably consistent. The side is built on a great defence and that has been pivotal, in those games where they may not create a lot, they more often than not will avoid defeat because of their great defensive organisation. They have conceded just 26 goals all season which is the third-best record in the entire league, with only FC Porto and SL Benfica conceding less.
Benfica and Braga are the stand-out tough fixtures for Carvalhal’s men but if their recent form has taught us anything, they will consistently take points from the other 6 matches against those teams below them and could come away with something from both clashes with Braga and Benfica, especially considering that both sides are not in good form at all.
Vitória SC – 7th position in Primeira Liga (39 points)
Vitória SC is currently the outsiders for a European berth given they are 7th but that doesn’t mean they are out of the question, just 4 points separates them from 5th place in the table and with 8 matches still left to play, we could well see Vitória’s quality start to show as we move towards the climax of the season.
Vitória’s form took an awful turn in the months prior to the COVID-19 break, winning just two games out of eight from January to February. Frustratingly for Vitória, it’s losses against those teams that surround them such as the defeats to Rio Ave, Sporting and Braga which has resulted in them sitting 7th. Their form has gotten better in previous months however and they are now unbeaten in 5. Since the restart they have played twice and drawn twice, not the best form but also not the worst considering one of those draws was against Sporting, who beat them earlier in the season.
Ivo Veiria’s men got a taste for the Europa League this season and did themselves proud despite finishing bottom of the group. They drew with Arsenal in London and were narrowly beaten 3-2 at home, narrow losses to Eintracht Frankfurt (1-0 & 3-2) meant their European dream had ended but returning to Europe will be something firmly on the agenda for those at the head of the club.