Porto to ask Sporting questions

FC Porto are considered Sporting Clube de Portugal's biggest threat in the 2002/03 Super Liga.

After Vitória Setúbal and Boavista FC raised the curtain on the Portuguese season with a 1-1 draw last night, the new term begins in earnest tonight when double winners Sporting Clube de Portugal kick off their campaign against Clube Académica de Coimbra.

Super Liga
The Portuguese top flight may have changed its name from 1. Liga to Super Liga but the summer has been anything but super for the reigning champions, whose forward options have been hit by a number of problems.

João Pinto suspended
If long-term injuries to Portuguese international forward Ricardo Sá Pinto and Romanian international striker Marius Niculae were not enough, playmaker João Pinto then earned himself a four-month international suspension after allegedly striking referee Angel Sánchez following his red card in Portugal's FIFA World Cup defeat by the Korean Republic. The ban means Pinto will not reappear until late October.

Jardel 'unfit to play'
And it gets worse. Mario Jardel, Europe's leading scorer last season with 42 goals, is unlikely to figure for some time after returning to Portugal claiming to be "mentally disturbed and unfit to play" after divorcing his wife during the summer. The Brazilian was also understood, however, to be waiting for offers from other European clubs which never came.

Kutuzov boost
With Jardel ruled out for the time being, Sporting have signed on loan the Belarussian international Vitaly Kutuzov from Milan AC. Kutuzov marked his arrival with a fine solo goal in the Portuguese Super Cup victory over Leixões SC. He boosts an attack featuring captain Pedro Barbosa and the youngsters Ricardo Quaresma and Cristiano Ronaldo. The latter is just 17 and made his first-team debut in the 0-0 first-leg draw with Internazionale FC in the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round.

Change to back three
Sporting will start the season fielding three central defenders instead of the back four of last term, a change prompted by the departures of central defenders André Cruz and Phil Babb. Pablo Contreras, signed from RC Celta Vigo, will line up alongside Beto and Facundo Quiroga, with César Prates and Rui Jorge the wing backs in support. In midfield, meanwhile, Ricardo Fernandes has been recalled from Gil Vicente FC to fill the gap left by Hugo Viana's transfer to Newcastle United FC.

Bargain hunt
Boavista FC spent the summer hunting for bargains. Coach Jaime Pacheco has made only one overseas signing in Brazilian striker Luiz Cláudio, who arrived from Sport Recife. Three other players have arrived from other Portuguese top-flight clubs: Brazilian central defender Éder (UD Leiria), Brazilian defensive midfield player Ico (Vitória Setúbal) and Portuguese forward Cafú (CF Belenenses). Their six other signings have come from the lower leagues.

Key figures
Heading out of the Bessa stadium, meanwhile, were captain Pedro Emanuel, who joined city rivals FC Porto on a free transfer, and Portuguese international Petit, who signed for SL Benfica. The key figures for Boavista should be again Portuguese international goalkeeper Ricardo and Bolivian international playmaker Erwin Sanchez.

Busy summer
Yet it is Boavista's neighbours Porto who could pose a stronger threat to Sporting's supremacy, after a busy summer in the transfer market. Coach José Mourinho has looked to his former clubs for new players, signing defender Nuno Valente, defensive midfield player Tiago and Brazilian striker Derlei from UD Leiria as well as the attacking midfielder Maniche on a free transfer from SL Benfica.

Costa returns
Team captain Jorge Costa has returned to the club after a loan spell in England with Charlton Atheltic FC, while the other new boys include Lithuanian international striker Edgaras Jankauskas. Signed from Real Sociedad, he played on loan last season at SL Benfica before joining Robert Enke, Júlio César and Marco Caneira in leaving Lisbon in the summer.

Benfica complete cast
Despite those losses, it is Benfica who complete the cast of contenders. The Eagles have strengthened considerably and for good reason, having now gone an unprecedented eight years without a title, as well as missing out on European football for the past two seasons.

Petit's big impact
Portugal striker Nuno Gomes has returned to the club on a free transfer from the bankrupt AC Fiorentina while his international colleague Petit - one of the few successes of Portugal's FIFA World Cup campaign - has arrived from Boavista. Brazilian playmaker Roger is back at the club on loan from CR Fluminese, while three other players acquired on frees could play important roles: defender Hélder (RC Deportivo La Coruña), midfield player Emílio Peixe (Porto) and Hungary striker Miklos Fehér (Porto).

Moreirense dreaming
Of the rest, CS Marítimo, UD Leiria, SC Braga, Vitória SC Guimarães and CF Belenenses form the group of clubs too good to go down but unlikely to trouble the top sides. For the remaining teams, however, it will be a battle for survival. Among this number are Moreirense FC, the northern club elevated to the top flight by two consecutive promotion seasons. A third such campaign and they could be preparing for a season in Europe in 12 months' time.