Liga NOS returns: what to look forward to?

Liga NOS table returns
Corona versus Rafa Silva in the Liga NOS table Classico. Credits: MIGUEL A. LOPES/LUSA

Every football fan is definitely very excited for this month of June, where all the major leagues are finally returning to action. La Liga is coming back on June 12th, Premier League is returning on June 17th and Serie A returns on the 20th of June. Even in the US, the Major Soccer League is returning soon to action during this month.

Meanwhile, this Wednesday is time for one of the most underrated leagues in Europe to take off again. We are talking about the Liga NOS and if you are already rolling your eyes, we have a few reasons for you to be excited about the return of the Portuguese topflight.

It might not be the most exciting competitive league, but the Portuguese league does present us with some talented youngsters and a title race that normally goes last until the last matchday. We know that are only two contenders for the title as the others are very further down the table.

Still, there is only 1 point separating the two top teams in the league and if we tell you that Benfica was once 7 points ahead of its competitor and it’s now trailing behind, it might even ignite some more curiosity. However, there are many other reasons to be looking forward to the return of the Liga NOS schedule.

The league returns tonight with two matches: Portimonense vs Gil Vicente and Famalicão vs F.C. Porto, all played under closed doors. Here is everything you need to know.

The two-horse title race in Liga NOS

Not so long-ago Benfica fans were confident on getting a second title on the bounce, as they were 7 points ahead of their usual competition (F.C. Porto). They arrived at the match point against their rivals knowing that a victory would seal the deal on another title win.

The match in the Dragão was thrilling. Porto broke the deadlock after 10 minutes, through Sergio Oliveira, but Benfica bounced back and equalized immediately by Carlos Vinicius. But, before the break, Porto would get the advantage again, through a cheeky penalty converted by Alex Telles and an own goal by Ruben Dias.

Another goal by Carlos Vinicius brought Benfica back into the decision, but the ‘Eagles’ were unable to score another one, and Porto got some season-saving 3 points.

Losing twice against Porto in the same season brought Bruno Lage into the spotlight for the wrong reasons, with critics blaming the manager for wrong decisions throughout both matches. However, Benfica doubled their bad luck when they had a surprising home loss against SC Braga (we will get there!), reducing their 7 points advantage… 1.

The lead would be completely lost later on, with a home draw against Moreirense, who was on the verge of making history if it wasn’t for Pizzi late goal.

Porto hasn’t been doing much better and has been dropping points left and right, wasting a chance in the last matchday (before interruption) to further their lead. Benfica conceded another draw against Vitória FC and Porto decided to imitate the feat with a home draw against Rio Ave.

It seems both teams are far from playing their best football right now and they lack the fierce energy we saw on the past from Jorge Jesus’ Benfica or Andre Villa Boas’ Porto.

Still, the fact that they are more unpredictable and inclined to drop points makes the matches ahead look like an opportunity for their opponents to explore their flaws. And the neutral fans will be eager for these surprises happening.

So, who is favorite for the title?

There are some factors to analyze, but putting them all into perspective it will take some luck and a huge winning mentality for Porto to stick to their advantage.

Porto has several players missing for their next fixtures. Alex Telles is out of this evening’s match, due to the 5 yellow cards punishment. Also, the fullback is tipped for a move to Chelsea or PSG, so he might not be fully focused on the matches ahead.

Perhaps the most damaging loss, however, is the one of Marcano. A key piece of Porto defending, the Spanish center-back brought back from Roma this Summer, has suffered an injury that will leave him sidelined for 3 months.

This leaves Porto with majorly 3 options for the center back position: 37-year-old Pepe, who is often struggling with injuries too, Chancel Mbemba and youngster Diogo Leite.

It might be Leite’s opportunity to shine, especially considering he is also been rumored to be on the transfer list. However, if he fails when the spotlight comes down on him, it can cost Porto and himself that the transfer gets postponed (or downgraded in value).

As for Benfica, we tip them as favorites because they aren’t struggling with so many injuries as Porto and also they got a theoretically easier calendar.

It might all come to the last matchday when Porto visits SC Braga and Benfica hosts Sporting CP. Will the title fight last that long?

Note: To spice things up, both teams are also in the Portuguese Cup final. Porto x Benfica will play the last game of the Portuguese calendar on the first weekend of August.

The chasing pack

There is not much left unless there is an utterly disastrous return campaign for the top two, but it is only fair talking about the chasing duo. These are two teams that, most likely, will fight for the 3rd and 4th place and be satisfied with a Europa League placement.

SC Braga have done an impressive recovery from a troubled season start, without barely losing any points since January.

This is solely due to the appointment of Ruben Amorim, who replaced coach Sa Pinto and brought back the glory days to Braga. They are still to lose a league game in 2020, having only conceded a draw and got three important victories over Porto, Benfica, and Sporting.

The amazing success that Amorim had in Braga left the other third-place contenders quite jealous. Sporting decided to move for the coach, paying €10M for the manager to ‘save’ their season.

Custodio now took charge of Braga (making him their 3rd manager this season). He only managed one game and they won 3×1. The 4 point gap to Sporting might be enough for the ‘Arsenalists’ to assure their 3rd place, which would give them automatic qualification to Europa League’s group stages.

Afterward, we have Sporting CP. As we already mentioned, they got a new coach, replacing Silas with Ruben Amorim. Although there are high expectations that Amorim will perform some miracle, it is unlikely with a calendar that features matches against Benfica and Porto.

The loss of Bruno Fernandes in the last week of January had a great impact on Sporting. The midfielder was not only the team’s captain but by far the source of any creativity on the Lions attack. Sporting has already lost twice in the month of February, proving that Bruno is definitely missed.

The gold mine might be in… the 5th place

As for now, only two Liga NOS teams have access to the Champions League, it is fairly obvious than none other than Porto or Benfica have a chance to qualify. That leaves the remaining 3rd to 5th place with the chance to get a spot in next season’s Europa League.

If for some fans the Europa League is frowned upon, for some teams in Liga NOS table getting to any kind of European competition is an incredible feat.

There are 3 places for Europa League reserved for Liga NOS teams. The 3rd and 4th teams got their places secure (although the 4th one needs to go through a play-off).

The other place is reserved for the Cup winner. As it was mentioned briefly before, Porto and Benfica are the teams aligned for the final. Since they are the top 2 in the league right now (so they will play in next season’s Champions League) that means the 5th placed in Liga NOS gets a ticket for the preliminary stages of the Europa League.

The 3 contenders

Rio Ave, who is coached by former Swansea manager Carlos Carvalhal, are the current holders of the place. They have 38 points, 1 more than the other 2 contenders: Vitoria SC and Famalicao.

The team from Vila do Conde plays very attractive football and have a solid defense. So far Rio Ave has conceded 23 goals, less than Sporting and SC Braga (26 each). However, they also scored less than all the 3 teams below (32).

Rio Ave doesn’t lose since 14/01. They will still have to face Benfica and SC Braga, where they might lose points.

Then we got Vitoria SC. The fierce team from Guimaraes relies on their fans more than anything, so playing without a crowd might have an impact on their performances. They sold Tapsoba to Bayer Leverkusen in January, but despite that, they won 4 in the last 5 games (the only defeat was against leaders Porto).

Finally, we got Famalicao. A team we have debunked here on SoccerAntenna because, earlier this season, they were leaders of the table. However, they struggled on some match points against the big boys, showing some inexperience.

The lack of experience might be costly in the games left. They got a calendar that contemplates matches against Porto, Benfica, and SC Braga, so 7th place might be the best they can do this season. Which, looking at the fact they got promoted last season, isn’t at all bad.

Finally: the relegation battle

Sometimes the fiercest competition is where you least expect and the relegation battle on the Portuguese league is always worth it. Aves is pretty much relegation doomed right now, with 13 points only so far. Since there are only two teams getting relegated from the Liga NOS, then the battle to run away from the 17th place is the most interesting one.

Portimonense is currently the one on the spot, with 18 points, 4 less than the team just above (Paços de Ferreira). Even though Farense just got promoted from division 2, Algarve might not have 2 teams in the first division as their region rivals seem to be in trouble.

They have not won a game since November and in the last 4 months, they got 5 points. They will need quite a miracle to stay up – gathering many points as possible – and facing the match against Paços de Ferreira (33rd round) as a final.

Besides these 3 teams, Maritimo is also holding relegation-threatened. They have 24 points, and the fact they got the hold of Zainadine Junior, the best player on 1vs1 duels in Liga NOS is keeping them above the dropping line.

Nonetheless, their calendar has games against Porto, Benfica, Rio Ave, and Famalicao, so if their opponents below step up their game Maritimo might be in trouble.

Tondela is the other team who can get a surprise. They got 25 points and seem safe for now, but they have lost 3 games in 4 matches in the last month of the competition. Their calendar consists of games against the current top 4.

Here you have it, some reasons to be hopeful for tonight’s Liga NOS return. Who are you backing for the title? Who do you think will drop down?

Check out the Liga NOS table here.

About Jorge Costa 127 Articles
Jorge Costa is a freelance journalist, with a Masters Degree in Journalism and Communication, through the University of Coimbra, Portugal. He specializes in sports and soccer in particular.

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