From João Félix to Rúben Dias, from Nuno Mendes to Luís Diaz, the Primeira Liga has emerged as one of the finest exporters of talent in Europe. If the recent transfers of Beto to Udinese and Chiquinho to Wolves are anything to go by, teams in Europe’s top five leagues are waking up to the fact that there are boatloads of cheap talent available outside of Portugal’s big three.
Today on Bet Central, we’ll be taking a look at five of the breakthrough sensations in this Primeira Liga campaign – with no more than one player per team.
The 2021 U-21 Euros saw Portugal enjoy a perfect record in the group stage and narrowly advance past Italy and Spain before losing to Germany in the Final. Many of those players, such as Gedson Fernandes or Florentino Luís, were part of the ‘class of 1999’ that won the U-17 Euros in 2016 and the U-19 Euros in 2018. Many of them, such as Diogo Queirós and Diogo Leite, were part of the Porto side that won the 2018/19 UEFA Youth League. And many of them, such as Diogo Dalot, Rafael Leão or Luís Maximiano, are currently enjoying the form of their lives this season.
Porto manager Sérgio Conceição has often been criticized for his lack of patience with youth players, but it seems Portugal’s display in last year’s tournament has helped to change his tune. Diogo Costa has become a starter in goal at the expense of Argentine veteran Agustín Marchesín, João Mário has done well at the unnatural position of right-back, and whilst Fábio Vieira hasn’t always been a starter, he has nevertheless chipped in an impressive 12 assists after renewing his contract until 2025.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary has been Vitinha. After spending a decade in Porto’s youth ranks, Vitinha was sent on loan to Wolves with an option to buy for €20 million, but he too struggled under Nuno Espírito Santo – the man that Conceição replaced at Porto – before returning to his parent club. This season, Vitinha has finally begun to unlock his lofty potential and has emerged as a starter in Porto’s double pivot alongside Matheus Uribe. It’s no coincidence that Porto have hit the finest form of Conceição’s entire time at the club after he became a starter.
After winning their first league title in 19 years, it seemed like a mere formality that Sporting would sign João Mário on a permanent deal. The now 29-year-old had returned to his boyhood club a mere four years after leaving for Inter and played a vital role in Sporting’s double pivot alongside João Palhinha, but after failing to agree on a deal due to salary demands, he ended up joining Benfica on a contract through 2026.
Following a bright start to the campaign, João Mário has now been relegated to a bench role under interim coach Nélson Veríssimo. With Mário out of the picture, Sporting elected to sign 20-year-old midfielder Manuel Ugarte, a mere seven months after he left Uruguayan club Fénix for mid-table Portuguese side Famalicão. Ugarte was given a baptism of fire in a league match against Benfica on December 13 and thrived in a 3-1 win, and he hasn’t looked back since, totalling 29 appearances.
Ugarte stands out via his ability to anticipate passes and dribbles and cut out danger with his excellent positional awareness and tackling, and he’s destined to play a leading role for La Celeste in the post-Suárez and Cavani era. With the Uruguayan and Matheus Nunes impressing in the centre of the pitch, don’t be surprised if Sporting cash in on Palhinha this summer and go all-in on Ugarte-Nunes as the double pivot for 2022/23.
Perhaps the toughest task in this entire article was picking one player from Gil Vicente. Zé Carlos has been arguably the finest right back in Portugal after arriving on loan from Braga, Fran Navarro has been sensational in attack, whilst Žiga Frelih, Kanya Fujimoto and Pedrinho have all played their part in what is proving to be a historic campaign for Ricardo Soares’ side.
At 22 years of age, Samuel Lino has emerged as one of the league’s flashiest attackers with 10 goals and 5 assists, with his superb performances seeing Gil beat Benfica and grab a point in Porto despite playing down a man for 90+ minutes. The Brazilian has been a constant threat on the left flank, able to cut inside and cause havoc for the opposing fullback with his superb combination of pace and dribbling. He has led Gil to the verge of Europa League qualification, a historic achievement for a small club from Barcelos. Enjoy him while you can: he’s set to join Atlético Madrid in the summer.
Whilst they haven’t come close to Gil’s performances or results, Estoril Praia have also been one of the positive sensations of the league campaign. Despite selling attacking midfielder Miguel Crespo to Fenerbahçe in the summer and winger Chiquinho to Wolves in January, the newly-promoted side look set for a comfortable top-half finish under Bruno Pinheiro.
One of the biggest reasons for their impressive form has been André Franco. The 23-year-old attacking midfielder has chipped in an impressive 8 goals and 4 assists this season, capable of getting into scoring areas and beating the goalkeeper with his lethal left foot as well as breaking down deep blocks with a precise through ball or cross. He’s racked up his fair share of Man of the Match and other individual awards, and he could be set for a big move out of Cascais this summer.
We’ve seen various strikers from clubs outside of Portugal’s big three hit double figures this season: Croatian striker Petar Musa has been a consistent threat in Boavista’s attack after arriving on loan from Slavia Prague, whilst Fran Navarro and Óscar Estupiñán have also done well for Gil Vicente and Vitória de Guimarães, respectively.
Simon Banza was born in France to Congolese parents and spent his formative career at Lens before joining Famalicão on loan. After being used in a sporadic role under Franck Haise, Banza has emerged as a star in Portugal with 11 goals in league play thus far, and his technical attributes have allowed him to link up seamlessly with João Carlos Teixeira and Bruno Rodrigues in the final third. After Pote, Manuel Ugarte, and many more, Banza could be the next Famalicão play to earn himself a big move to a major club this summer.