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Portugal´s powerhouses divide to conquer once more

The unifying afterglow of Portugal’s Euro 2016 triumph will turn somewhat cooler on Sunday when two of the country’s traditional heavyweights ready themselves for a first battle of the new season.

Sporting CP host Porto in Lisbon, with both sides occupying the top two positions in the Primeira Liga at the start of this weekend thanks to two wins from two matches.

Reigning champions Benfica, who are gunning for a fourth straight title, are the only side who will upset that pairing over the coming months.

Such is the dominance of ‘Os Tres Grandes’ in Portuguese football – only twice in the history of the top flight has the winner come from outside the triumvirate – that it is only fair to see the national team’s moment of euphoria in France as a collective one for the elite clubs whose daily business is attempting to deny one another glory.

While a cursory look down Fernando Santos’ squad for Euro 2016 reveals just four Sporting players and one apiece from Benfica and Porto, that does not tell the whole story.

Braga, who stunned Porto on penalties to win the Taca de Portugal last term, also had one representative in midfielder Rafa Silva.

He joined Benfica in a Portuguese record deal this month, meaning French-born duo Raphael Guerreiro and Anthony Lopes, along with unlikely final hero Eder, are the only three out of Santos’ 23 not to have been on the books of Sporting, Benfica or Porto during their career.

More remarkably, 10 of the 14 Portugal players used in the extra-time win over France were graduates of Sporting’s acclaimed Alcochete academy. Given the big three’s prints were all over Portugal’s finest hour, it was perhaps fitting that Santos, as one of only four men to have coached each club, helmed the success.

The manner in which he did so was not always to everyone’s taste.

“I want them to keep saying the same thing,” he said, goading critics of his pragmatic style of play on the eve of the final. “That we’re this and we’re that; that we won undeservedly.

“That’s what I would like them to say – that we won and we didn’t deserve it. That would be amazing.”

There was nothing wrong with the curmudgeonly 61-year-old’s predictive powers, as this is broadly what happened after Eder’s unexpected moment of inspiration illuminated a forgettable 120 minutes.

According to Santos, Swansea City reject Eder was “the ugly duckling, he is now a beautiful swan”, but there was little beauty in Portugal’s work over the course of seven matches.

The nation that spawned supreme football artists such as Eusebio and Luis Figo, while fielding another in Cristiano Ronaldo, were functional, aware of their limitations, but worked tirelessly to maximise what virtues they had.

Even if it was rarely pretty, these are all qualities easily recognisable within Portugal’s leading clubs.

Benfica’s record outlay on Rafa Silva amounted to €15million – a drop in the ocean compared to fees recouped on major names sold during their ongoing period of dominance.

Teenage sensation Renato Sanches and Nico Gaitan became the 14th major first-team names to leave Estadio Luiz over the past six years when the teenage sensation joined Bayern and Atletico Madrid respectively. Those outgoings – including the likes of Angel Di Maria, David Luiz and Jan Oblak – total in excess of €340m

It is a similar story of buying low and selling high at Porto. Their vast scouting network, reported to be 250 strong by director Antero Henrique in 2014, keeps a conveyor belt that adequately serves Europe’s powerhouse leagues turning fast enough to keep themselves up to speed.

Sporting rest more heavily on that remarkable youth programme, with a measure of the wheeling and dealing that has helped Portugal’s giants stand tall enough amid economic turmoil in the country and paltry television revenues in comparison to the continent’s big hitters.

Player turnover has become increasingly pronounced, while clubs abroad have also driven their riches into scouting and player development to make dents into Porto, Benfica and Sporting’s comparative advantage.

Jorge Jesus, Sporting’s former Benfica coach in this tapestry of familiarity, insisted last weekend Euro 2016 star Joao Mario would face Porto. The reality is he might watch the from Milan if he gets a moment in between the formalities of signing for Inter. The production line must and will churn once more      

Nevertheless, this bullishness common to Santos and Jesus was also in evidence on Thursday.

Benfica, Porto and Sporting do not feature in Deloitte’s annual Football Money League but they sat there proudly among its luminaries in Monaco, having all reached the Champions League group stage.

Like the national team following painful near misses before France, they were back for more and ready to take their lumps.

The capacity to remain strong on shifting sands unifies Benfica, Porto and Sporting and allowed to provide the foundations for Portuguese glory. Now the latter two – north versus south; Dragoes vs Leoes – must train their sights on what divides.

Sat 27 Aug, 2016
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