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Benfica steeled for tough title defence

With new coach André Villas-Boas aiming to take FC Porto back to the top and SC Braga well placed to challenge, SL Benfica face a real test when their title defence begins this weekend.

Benfica coach Jorge Jesus
Benfica coach Jorge Jesus ©Getty Images

Portuguese champions SL Benfica launch their Liga title defence at home to A. Académica de Coimbra on Sunday looking to prove last week's Super Cup defeat by FC Porto was no more than a blip as they aim to reassert their dominance on the domestic scene.

Jorge Jesus's team finished five points above SC Braga and eight clear of Porto last season to end the latter's four-year title stranglehold, but will face a real challenge to reclaim the crown. Ángel Di María has left for Real Madrid CF and Ramires is expected to move to Chelsea FC, and although Jesus insists "our squad is not weaker", new arrivals Nicolás Gaitán, a left-sided midfielder, and Franco Jara, a striker, have much to live up to.

Goalkeeper Roberto Jiménez, an €8.5m capture from Club Atlético de Madrid, is the other significant addition, yet otherwise the Benfica side has a familiar feel, making last Saturday's 2-0 Super Cup reverse against Porto a particularly nasty jolt. It also marked a winning start for new Porto coach André Villas-Boas who replaced Jesualdo Ferreira.

The 33-year-old is best known as José Mourinho's former assistant at Chelsea and only took on a senior job for the first time at Académica last season. He is determined to make a name for himself in his own right in one of Portuguese football's most testing environments.

Despite the handicap of losing linchpin Bruno Alves to FC Zenit St. Petersburg last week, first impressions have been positive, with new boy João Moutinho appearing to settle in quickly. But as Villas-Boas prepares Porto for their opener at A. Naval 1º Maio on Saturday he is quick to stress: "We must not relax, regardless of any praise the team are getting. You don't go from the worst to the best overnight." He admitted, though, that after beating Benfica his side are "feeling very strong and mentally well prepared".

Braga have shown enough to suggest the big two will not have it all their own way after seeing off Celtic FC in the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round. They have also been busy in the transfer market and despite coach Domingos Paciência's best attempts to play down their chances, big things are expected again. Braga can steal a march on their rivals and set down a marker when they kick off their campaign at home to promoted Portimonense SC tonight.

Like Porto, Sporting Clube de Portugal begin a new era and, with Paulo Sérgio now at the helm, the Lions have undergone something of a summer revolution with the departures of home-grown talents João Moutinho and Miguel Veloso and the signing of former Porto favourite Maniche. Sporting finished 28 points behind Benfica in 2009/10 and it remains to be seen how much ground they can make up as they target a first title since 2002.