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Aug 21, 2012

Shaky start for Portugal's big guns

When assessing a new Liga season in Portugal, it is always worth remembering that only twice in almost 80 years of competition have the winners come from outside os tres grandes (the big three) of Benfica, Porto and Sporting. So this was a curious start to the new campaign. None of the trio - or indeed the newly-established fourth grande, Braga - managed to begin 2012-13 with a win on the season's opening day.

In the end it was Braga that came out of the openers with the most credit, plucking a draw from their meeting with Benfica at the Estadio da Luz, a ground on which they've only ever won once. They managed this despite the red card for central defender Douglao, which saw Jose Peseiro's side play out the last 20 minutes with ten men. With the prospect of this week's pivotal Champions League play-off with Udinese looming over them, they competed fervently in an intense encounter.

Reaching the group stage of Europe's premier competition for the second time in three years would be a tremendous triumph for the club but for new coach Peseiro, it would represent redemption. He faced Udinese with Sporting Clube de Portugal at the same stage in August 2005, but lost out. It capped off a miserable few months in which Sporting let slip the Liga title to Benfica and then lost the UEFA Cup final to CSKA Moscow at their own Estadio Jose Alvalade, paving the way for Peseiro's October exit from the job.

Much has changed since Braga last faced the Champions League. A fleet of players have left the Estadio AXA, while celebrated coach Domingos Paciencia and his successor, Leonardo Jardim, have both moved on. Yet Saturday night's gutsy performance in the bear pit of the Luz will make Peseiro grateful he still has men with the big-game mentality of Mossoro, Alan and Lima.

The new coach showed his own know-how too, dispatching the defensively-minded Luz alumnus Ruben Amorim to the left to stymie the forward runs of Benfica's energetic right-back Maxi Pereira. If Peseiro's counterpart Jorge Jesus had shown a similar shrewdness, Benfica might have got off to a flyer.

Instead, Jesus continued using Lorenzo Melgarejo at left-back. A 22-year-old winger who performed superbly on loan at Pacos de Ferreira last season, Melgarejo suffered a torrid night against Braga, heading an own goal to level the scores before fluffing a clearance that led to Mossoro putting the visitors in front. It made for excruciating viewing.

On the evidence of this so far disastrous experiment, it seems Jesus imagines himself to be a footballing Dr Frankenstein rather than the capable kingmaker that he is in reality. The coach did brilliant work in helping convert former winger Fabio Coentrao into one of European football's premier left-backs, but he was permitted to do so by the player's own qualities rather than by some miracle of alchemy. Melgarejo is a very promising individual, but he is also a square peg being pushed into a big black hole of his coach's making. Saturday night made plain how much a specialist in the position is needed.

Vitor Pereira is already under scrutiny, too, at Porto. Sunday's goalless draw at Gil Vicente was an improvement on last season's result - Porto lost their only Liga match of the campaign there - but it was also the sort of wan, shapeless display that has become all too frequent under Andre Villas-Boas' former assistant.

Pereira has been able to spend since his arrival, and has added Colombian striker Jackson Martinez this summer. Yet the collective drive that was so irresistible under AVB is absent. After a punishing schedule of summer international duty Hulk has had no holiday but is living up to his superhuman moniker to prop the side up. Captaining the side in Barcelos, he was also their greatest threat, forcing the home side's impressive goalkeeper Adriano into a couple of excellent saves from a pair of trademark blasts from range. It is not hard to see why president Jorge Nonu Pinto da Costa is reluctant to let him go.

Benfica's city rivals Sporting also disappointed, closing Sunday's action with another goalless draw, at Vitoria Guimaraes. The northerners have a noble tradition, but are in poor financial shape and have lost a few of their better players during the summer.

Yet they still comfortably contained Ricardo Sa Pinto's Sporting, despite the coach having the luxury of bringing Portugal's star playmaker-elect Andre Martins and el clasico scorer Jeffren off the bench. Last summer, former Braga coach Domingos had been charged with an expensive rebuilding programme. He lasted less than nine months before the call went out for Sa Pinto. The fiery coach is about all that gives Sporting a personality right now.

Sporting at least appear to have some stability, with plenty of trading done and top scorer Ricky van Wolfswinkel negotiating a new deal. A tentative start is perhaps understandable for Benfica and Porto when more movement is on the cards before deadline day. The former are overloaded in midfield and could see at least one big name exit, though Axel Witsel's father, Thierry, insisted this weekend his son will stay.

One's best players departing is part of life in Portugal, but rather more perturbing for Jesus is the threat of serious disciplinary action hanging over one of his cornerstones. As Luisao enters his tenth season with the club, his alleged assault on referee Crhistian Fischer during the bizarre events of August 11's friendly match at Fortuna Dusseldorf have raised the possibility of a lengthy ban.

Pablo Aimar talked of his exasperation at the situation after the game against Braga, describing the situation as "incredible". The veteran playmaker spoke for the whole squad's support of their skipper when he said he would "put my hands in the fire for him". Unsavoury or not, it is a rare show of defiance in a subdued opening to the campaign.

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