Lopetegui Battles To Maintain Porto Stranglehold

Such has been Porto’s domestic level of dominance throughout recent history – the 2004 Champions League winners have missed out on just three of the last 12 Primeira titles – that last season’s third place finish almost signified a crisis at the Dragao. To put their plight into perspective having lost only a single league fixture in seven years, Porto were beaten an unprecedented seven times in 2013/14.

The hierarchy certainly had little doubt that substantial action needed to be taken in the face of fierce rivals Benfica’s rise under the influence stewardship under Jorge Jesus – to add further concern 2013/14 also represented a season of renaissance for Sporting CP.

Last season was plagued by managerial upheaval with Paulo Fonseca dispensed with mid-season, before former Spain Under-21 boss Julen Lopetegui was handed the reins long after the title horse had bolted. That appointment symbolised somewhat of a risk, given Lopetegui’s only previous management experience at club level came in the form of a disappointing spell at Rayo Vallecano – although he can boast both the European Under-19 and Under-21 championships.

The spending of €36.4 million would suggest Porto offered Lopetegui significant backing in the summer transfer window, yet a number of key departures means nobody has been left out of pocket – Elliaquim Mangala, Juan Iturbe and Fernando the most notable in a fire sale that totalled close to €80 million.

That Benfica also lost numerous key personnel over the summer – the likes of Jan Oblak, Lazar Markovic, Andre Gomes and Ezequiel Garay all departed for pastures new – softened the blow slightly of those losses, nonetheless having to replace such substantial components of their arsenal only heightened the challenge facing a side already playing catch up.

In order to turn the tide the 27 time champions have recruited no less than 17 fresh faces – although several of those are unlikely to feature in this term. Lopetegui has predominantly shopped at home with seven players arriving of Spanish nationality – the two most notable being Atletico Madrid misfit Adrian Lopez for €11 million and the highly rated Cristian Tello on loan from Barcelona. Lopetegui’s vast experience with the Spanish youth setup undoubtedly a major pulling force in the acquisition of Tello.

Yacine Brahimi – who caught the eye with Algeria in Brazil – should to a degree alleviate the loss of Iturbe, whilst Bruno Martins-Indi will be expected to fufill a similar role in regards to stepping into Mangala’s shoes.

Crucially Porto kept their hands on Colombian striker Jackson Martinez – who can boast 58 league goals in two seasons – and with Vincent Aboubakar – second in the Ligue 1 goalscoring charts – also arriving goals should not be in short supply. Prying eyes were also kept away from Juan Quintero, who at just 21 is one of Europe’s most sort after playmakers – with the World Cup offering several glimpses of the Colombian’s abundant talent.

Benfica have also to an extent reinvested, yet at first glance their enforced recruitment drive suggests in 204/15 the “glorious ones” will be a less intimidating proposition – nonetheless the mere presence of Jesus means Porto would be foolish to perceive their rivals as terminally weakened.

The early indications support that theory with the defending champions able to boast six wins from seven, with the exception being a respectable draw against the dangerous Sporting. By contrast Porto have after three wins in succession – which indicated the dangers of bedding in numerous new faces would not come to fruition – were then hindered by three draws on the spin. Considering Benfica in 2013/14 were defeated only twice, that Porto have already slipped four points behind their great foes is even through these opening furlongs a cause for genuine worry.

Porto’s stuttered opening perhaps isn’t surprising, accounting that gelling there numerous signings into a cohesive unit was never likely to occur overnight – even if the opening three fixtures indicated the opposite – at the same time Lopetegui is in effect learning on the job given his absence of club football involvement. Unfortunately for Porto in an unforgiving league time is of the essence.

The Champions League has however offered signals that the 2014/15 could be brighter for the Dragões with a resounding victory over BATE Borisov being proceeded by a point against Shakhtar – a result which saw Porto score twice in the fixture’s final moments to recover from a position of being dead and buried. By comparison Benfica – last year’s Europa League winners – have suffered defeats in both encounters – although the draw has been considerable more ruthless on Jesus’ men.

Making an impact in Europe’s premier club competition would certainly aid Lopetegui in his quest to be warmed by an expectant public. For a nation ranked fourth in UEFA’s coefficient system just three quarter-final appearances in the last decade symbolise a more than mediocre return – with the right draw Porto undoubtedly have the potential to slightly ease that exasperating statistic.

On paper Porto possess at least the credentials for a prosperous 2014/15 – the string of constant annual departures makes forecasting past the current campaign is futile – yet whether that potential is utilised will hinge on how successfully Lopetegui makes the transformation to not only club management but handling the pressure that comes with stewarding one of Europe’s most prestigious clubs.

A second consecutive league failure would be unthinkable given that not since 1984 have Porto gone longer than a season without the clinching the Primeira crown – such a failure would severely question the club’s standing as Portugal’s gold standard.

Porto have the personnel to avert that threat, however in appointing the talented yet unproven Lopetegui the club have taken a gamble which should it backfire could be catastrophic – the early indications imply Benfica won’t be reeled back in should the Dragões fall behind the Primeira division eight ball over the impending months.

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