From Darwin Núñez to João Palhinha, from Rúben Dias to Bruno Fernandes, from Luis Díaz to Fábio Vieira, more and more players are earning moves to Premier League clubs after impressing for one of Portugal’s Três Grandes (Porto, Benfica, and Sporting). In today’s weekly round-up for BET Central, we’ll be taking a look at five players from five different Primeira Liga clubs who are 23 years old or younger and who could be set for a breakthrough campaign and a move to England in the coming months.
Despite selling attacking talisman Luis Díaz to Liverpool midway through the 2021/22 season, Porto won their second domestic double in three years under Sérgio Conceição and finished with a Portuguese record 91 points thanks to a stellar display of options in the front six. Vitinha and Matheus Uribe formed the double pivot whilst further forward, Fábio Vieira, Pêpe, Otávio, Francisco Conceição and January arrival Wenderson Galeno provided quality out wide and Mehdi Taremi, Evanilson and Toni Martínez formed an impressive centre forward department.
Evanilson struggled for game-time behind Taremi, Martínez and Moussa Marega in his debut campaign after arriving from Brazilian outfit Fluminense, but following Marega’s departure to Al-Hilal, the youngster initially bided his time on the bench before winning a starting spot in October and becoming a crucial fixture in Porto’s fearsome attack with 21 goals and 5 assists in all competitions. Whether leading the line by himself or playing alongside Taremi, the 22-year-old Brazilian centre-forward proved a nuisance for Portuguese defences with his raw physicality and explosive movement as well as his cunning movement and positional awareness.
Evanilson began the season with a goal and an assist in the Supertaça in a 3-0 win against second-tier side Tondela before bagging a goal and an assist in Porto’s league opener, a 5-1 win against Marítimo. With three years left on his contract and a €100 million release clause, I don’t see Evanilson leaving the Dragão anytime soon after a summer that has already seen Vitinha, Fábio Vieira, Chancel Mbemba and Francisco Conceição depart, but don’t be surprised to see him become the next South American forward to get a move away from Porto after Radamel Falcao, Jackson Martínez, Luis Díaz and many more.
Following the instant success of their electrifying Colombian winger, Liverpool returned to shop in the Primeira Liga the following summer, purchasing Uruguayan striker Darwin Núñez from Benfica for €75 million plus €25 million in bonuses. Benfica have put that money to use and worked to rebuild their squad around new manager Roger Schmidt’s desires. Croatian striker Petar Musa has joined from Boavista, Serbian left back Mihailo Ristić has arrived on a free transfer from Montpellier, whilst Danish right back Alexander Bah arrived from Slavia Prague. Benfica pipped Porto to the signing of Corinthians centre-back João Victor, with Porto eyeing him as a Mbemba replacement before signing David Carmo from Braga, whilst they also brought in Brazilian winger David Neres from Shakhtar.
All of these players are 26 or younger, with the youngest being Enzo Fernández, who joined from River Plate for €10 million plus €8 million in bonuses, with River maintaining 25% of his economic rights and Benfica putting a €120 million release clause on the Argentine midfielder. Since joining on July 14 following River’s Copa Libertadores elimination, the 21-year-old has quickly become one of the first names on Schmidt’s team sheet, playing alongside João Mário and Florentino Luís in midfield and impressing for Benfica, who won each of their six preseason matches before thrashing FC Midtjylland 4-1 in the first leg of their Champions League qualifier and beating Arouca 4-0. Gilberto opened the scoring within 8 minutes, Rafa Silva added another in the 42nd minute, Mateus Quaresma was sent off for Arouca in the 47th minute, and on the cusp of halftime, Fernández opened his Primeira Liga account by anticipating the trajectory of a bouncing ball and firing a volley past Ignacio De Arruabarrena. It was his second goal in a week after receiving a corner kick from the edge of the box and firing a volley past Elías Rafn Ólafsson.
“When he returned to River from his Defensa y Justicia loan in mid-2021 he was usually a deep-lying playmaker, sitting alongside Enzo Pérez,” says Argentine journalist Santi Bauzá. “But as the games went by Marcelo Gallardo realised that he was a lot more influential playing further upfield, so by the end of River’s title-winning campaign he was almost a number 10. Within the context of this Benfica side I think he would work better as a box-to-box type, he likes to have a lot of contact with the ball and create chances with his line-breaking passes.”
From Ángel di María to Nicolás Gaitán, Benfica are no stranger to developing Argentine youngsters before selling them for hefty profits – don’t be surprised if Fernández is the next player to join the list.
Apart from Brazilians and Argentines, we’re seeing more and more Spanish players take the Portuguese league by storm. Pedro Porro and Antonio Adán played a key role in Sporting’s first league title in 19 years, with Pablo Sarabia dazzling on loan last season, Álex Grimaldo has emerged as Benfica’s starting left-back over the past six years, whilst Iker Casillas, Iván Marcano and Óliver Torres have also left their mark on the Dragão. There is one uncanny trend emerging: Spanish centre forwards impressing for midtable sides.
After arriving from West Ham, Toni Martínez racked up 14 goals and 6 assists in all competitions for Famalicão who, in their first Primeira season since 1993/94, challenged at the top of the league and only missed out on fifth place and Europa League football on the final day of the season. Martínez would last just one year in Fama before moving to Porto, where he has scored 17 goals despite not being a regular in attack. One year after Martínez’s breakthrough in Famalicão, it was Villarreal youth product Mario González who scored 14 goals in 2020/21 for Tondela on loan before moving to Braga on a permanent deal. The latest Spanish striker to make a name for himself in Portugal is 24-year-old Fran Navarro.
Having developed in Valencia’s academy, Navarro made the permanent move to Gil Vicente in 2021 after failing to make a first-team appearance for Los Che, and he got off to a sizzling start by scoring a brace on his league debut in a 3-0 home win against Boavista. Navarro would go on to score 16 goals to lead Gil to a fifth-place finish and European qualification for the first time in the club’s 98-year history. And whilst Gil’s squad has been raided this summer with Pedrinho, Samuel Lino, and Ricardo Soares departing Barcelos, Navarro has remained put despite a feasible €20 million release clause and two years left on his contract. After scoring 6 goals in preseason, Fran Navarro will be looking to open his season’s account at home on Monday against Paços de Ferreira, before preparing to lead Gil to the next round of Europa Conference League qualifying after drawing 1-1 in the first leg in Riga.
The Primeira Liga season kicked off with a 4-0 win for Benfica against Arouca, followed by a 1-0 win for Vizela at Rio Ave, a 2-0 win for Estoril Praia against Famalicão, and a 5-1 win for Porto against Marítimo. The main course of the weekend, however, was undoubtedly Sporting’s trip to Braga, a match that would see Sporting manager Rúben Amorim, as well as a variety of players such as Pedro Gonçalves, Paulinho, Ricardo Esgaio and Francisco Trincão, return to their old stomping grounds.
Sporting opened the scoring within nine minutes as Matheus Nunes picked out Pedro Porro’s run with an incisive pass, as Porro fired a cross for Gonçalves to convert from close range. Simon Banza equalized shortly after, only for Nunes to pick the ball up from deep in his own half, outmuscle and evade various opponents before picking out Nuno Santos with a cross-field pass, with Santos somehow outdoing Matheus’ individual brilliance with a delightful finish.
Sikou Niakaté – another French player who joined Braga in the summer – headed home from a free kick to equalize on the cusp of halftime, but Sporting would regain the lead in the 83rd minute as Rochinha set up Marcus Edwards to convert from close range. Five minutes later, Álvaro Djaló burst towards the edge of the box before firing a cross for Vítor ‘Vitinha’ Oliveira to convert the equalizer. The game finished 3-3, but no player stood out more than Matheus Nunes: 3/3 long balls completed, 3 key passes, 40/44 passes completed, 4/5 successful dribbles completed, 6/8 ground duels won, 2/3 aerial duels won, 2 interceptions and 2 fouls won. An all-action midfield display from the 23-year-old that deserved a better result to go with it. With four years left on his deal and a €60 million release clause, it’s only a matter of time before Matheus Nunes earns a move to one of the Premier League’s biggest clubs.
Vítor ‘Vitinha’ Oliveira
Vitinha has left for Paris Saint-Germain for €40 million after dazzling in Porto’s midfield, but he’s not the only Vitinha would could be set for a big move soon. After joining Braga’s academy in 2017, Vítor Oliveira would score 9 goals in 11 matches in his debut senior campaign in 2020/21 for Braga’s reserve team in the third tier whilst making two brief cameos for the first team. The following season, Oliveira exploded onto the scene for the Arsenalistas despite the arrival of Mario González, with the 22-year-old striker racking up 14 goals and 4 assists in all competitions. He has begun the season on the right note against Sporting with a stellar display in attack alongside summer recruit Simon Banza in Braga’s 4-4-2, working diligently to win the ball back and press the opposition and showcasing his sheer combination of physical grit and a goalscorer’s movement. Braga may be bidding farewell to Ricardo Horta soon – their all-time top scorer who looks set for a late-summer departure to Benfica – but in academy talents Vitinha, Miguel Falé, Rodrigo Gomes, Roger Fernandes and more, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic for Braga’s chances this season as they enter a new era under manager Artur Jorge. It seems likely that Vitinha will remain at Braga for the coming season and hone his skills in the Minho, but with a contract until 2024 and a release clause of €20 million, Vitinha could be a bargain waiting to be snapped up for quite a few major European clubs.