Rebuilding shows Porto's ambition
It is already a summer of sweeping change at the Estadio do Dragao, and it really needed to be. There is always a period of self-examination for Porto when they are beaten for the Liga title, especially when by their archrivals from Benfica. As the Eagles triumphed for the first time in four years and came within a whisker of an unprecedented quadruple this past season, the northern giants floundered in a sea of mediocrity -- a whopping 13 points behind Benfica and six shy of the resurgent Sporting Clube de Portugal. The 2013-14 campaign was only the third time in 14 attempts that Porto have failed to lift the trophy.
So they arrive on English soil for a pair of friendly matches against Everton (Aug. 3) and West Bromwich Albion (Aug. 9) not only with a big reputation, but also with a big season ahead of them, their first under Spaniard Julen Lopetegui. Something special is expected from the new coach, after the deflating regimes of Vitor Pereira and Paulo Fonseca made the scintillating football of Andre Villas-Boas' tenure seem like a very long time ago.
Lopetegui, with negligible club experience but European under-19 and under-21 Championship wins with Spain under his belt, is Porto's first foreign coach since Co Adriaanse (who left in summer 2006) and only the club's fourth non-Portuguese appointment since the days of Sir Bobby Robson (that includes Luigi Del Neri, Jose Mourinho's immediate successor who was fired without taking charge of a competitive match.)
As he aims to bring attractive football that wins games both domestically and in Europe back to the Dragao, he will have few excuses. Already, an eye-catching squad is taking shape. Cristian Tello and Oliver Torres, expected to be two of Spain's titans of the future, have both arrived on loan deals -- Tello for two years from Barcelona; Oliver for the season from Atletico Madrid. Adrian Lopez has also come in from Atletico on a permanent deal, while Netherlands defender Bruno Martins Indi signed after an impressive World Cup. On an aesthetic level, the early front three of Tello, Adrian and Ricardo Quaresma (with Jackson Martinez still away) tested in friendlies offers all sorts of amorphous possibility.
It is certainly more resource than Fonseca had at his disposal, as he attempted to stabilise a team which had just lost the formidable pair of James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho to Monaco (by extension, that hand was the one interim coach Luis Castro, now returned to the B team, had to play). The 2013-14 squad was reinforced mainly by transfers from within the Liga, and it was a disaster. After promising starts Josue (who had been Fonseca's on-pitch muse at Pacos de Ferreira) and Lica looked anything but Porto standard, and it is said a lot that Quaresma was by some distance the team's best player after returning in January following seven months without a competitive game.
Looking too far beyond president Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa as the catalyst for change would be wrong, but Lopetegui has made a considerable difference in the way Porto do their business. His connections and the level of respect he has from his work with Spain's youth have already proved to be considerable. Tello said after signing that Porto "was always my first choice" but admitted that without Lopetegui, he might not have even considered it. We can assume similar of Adrian, perhaps the outstanding player in Atleti's Champions League quarterfinal second leg win over Barcelona this past term.
All of a sudden, the barely credible seems possible again, in the best Porto tradition. Real Madrid's 40 million euro signing, Asier Illarramendi, was even targeted to replace Manchester City-bound Fernando in the trinco (holding midfield) role on loan, though Lopetegui always admitted it was "the impossible dream" and ended up instead borrowing his Bernabeu teammate, Casemiro, who is not a bad consolation prize at all. If we add Yacine Brahimi (a sensation for Algeria at the World Cup) and centre-back Ivan Marcano (who has yet to complete his move) into the mix, Porto already look like serious opponents for their rivals.
And the summer recruitment drive continued this week with the signing of left-back Jose Angel as a free agent and goalkeepe Andres Fernandez from Osasuna.
The combination of Lopetegui's standing and Porto's finely oiled transfer team looks like a fruitful one. On the business side of things it's looking good too, with Tello's loan costing just two million euros for the term, with an option to make the deal permanent for eight million euros. If he fulfills even part of his potential, it looks like a real money spinner. Versatile left-footer Martins Indi appears the ideal replacement for the outgoing Eliaquim Mangala, and it is a fine exchange when one considers Feyenoord received 7.7 million euros for the former, while Porto will bank 40 million euros for the latter. The Dragons are looking more and more like their old selves.
The only caveat to all this positivity is that now Porto simply have to win the Liga title, at a bare minimum. Benfica, having played dazzling football under Jorge Jesus, have now presented their canny coach with the most difficult task of his almost five-year tenure at the Estadio da Luz. As sports daily A Bola pointed out this past week, Jesus could well start 2014-15 with just three of his first-choice XI from last season's title triumph at his disposal following this summer's exodus. Ezequiel Garay, Guilherme Siqueira and Lazar Markovic are among those already gone, and others are set to follow. They are vulnerable, but they are still Benfica under Jesus -- and never to be underestimated.
There is also the small matter of a Champions League playoff for Porto to consider, with Athletic Bilbao, Lille, Besiktas and Dnipro among those barring the way to a potentially lucrative group stage participation, which is intrinsic to both the club's financial plan and its sense of self. Much is expected of Lopetegui, and he will eventually be called on to puff out his chest and take on Jesus eye-to-eye. If he gets the first month of the season right, it will make the rest a lot easier. His squad's preseason form in England will be noted with interest all over Europe.