Portugal has always been a hotbed for some of the best talent in football, but even by usual standards this season has been a special one.
Joao Felix, Bruno Fernandes, and Ruben Dias, all under the age of 24, have caught the eye after outstanding campaigns for their clubs and are now being linked with big-money moves to Europe’s elite.
And they weren’t the only stars of the Primeira Liga season, where Benfica won the league by two points ahead of rivals Porto, who themselves had a memorable campaign as they reached the Champions League quarter-final.
Here’s a look at some of the star names from Portugal drawing raves this season.
JOAO FELIX, Benfica
Chances created: 44 (league and Europe)
Dribbles: 19 (league and Europe)
Star performance: Hat-trick + assist v Eintracht Frankfurt, Europa League quarter-final
Reported valuation: €120million
Linked to: Manchester United, Juventus
Portugal’s current national team squad has recently started earning praise as the country’s latest golden generation, with the likes of Bernardo Silva, Andre Silva, Goncalo Guedes, Nelson Semedo, and Raphael Guerreiro all coming through at the same time.
But a player with the potential to surpass all of them hasn’t even made his senior bow, yet.
Joao Felix has taken the Primeira Liga by storm this season. He’s 19, and yet only three players managed more goals in the league; on five separate occasions Felix had at least one goal and one assist apiece in a game, and in a tight title battle, he equalised against rivals Porto – where he began his career as a youth player – in March during a 2-1 win that effectively decided the race.
But his most impressive performance came in the Europa League quarter-finals. Against Eintracht Frankfurt, the forward became the youngest player in the competition’s history to score a hat-trick, as he was involved in all of the goals during Benfica’s 4-2 first-leg win: three goals, one assist.
He’s been linked with a move to Juventus, where he would be playing alongside Portugal icon Cristiano Ronaldo. Manchester United, who have a history of finding good talent in Portugal, are also thought to be hot on the heels of the Benfica star.
BRUNO FERNANDES, Sporting Lisbon
Chances created: 134 (league and Europe)
Dribbles: 37 (league and Europe)
Star performance: Winning goal v Benfica in the Taca de Portugal semi-final
Reported valuation: €60million
Linked to: Manchester United, Manchester City
Unquestionably the best player in Portugal this season.
20 goals and 13 assists in the league, 28 and 14 overall, and all while playing as a central midfielder – it’s no wonder Bruno Fernandes has been compared to Frank Lampard.
There have been plenty standout moments this season. He’s managed one streak of seven games with at least a goal or assist, and another of six, and it was during the former spell of hot form that he produced his most important contribution.
Sporting had three games in a month against Benfica, including two in three days. Fernandes scored on all three occasions. Two of those came in losses, but even that came with a pretty big silver lining: he scored during a 2-1 loss in the first leg of the Taca de Portugal semi-final, and then, a month later in the second leg, got the only goal to ensure his side went through to the final.
Fernandes has played all across a midfield three this season, along with occasional appearances as an attacking midfielder, winger, and even defensive fulcrum. This makes him the perfect signing for anyone looking to reinforce that area of the squad.
Manchester City have been linked as they continue to look for a replacement to Fernandinho, and crosstown rivals Manchester United have also reportedly registered their interest.
RUBEN DIAS, Benfica
Tackles per game: 1.5
Star performance: Man of the match v Porto; most tackles in the game
Reported valuation: €50million
Linked to: Manchester United, Atletico Madrid, Juventus
Among the current crop of young defenders waiting to take centre stage in world football, Ruben Dias has flown slightly under the radar.
He was one of the few shining lights in Benfica’s doomed 2017/18 Champions League campaign, in which they lost all of their group stage games, and since then his star has only risen.
After being named the Primeira Liga young player of the season for 2017/18, this season he has been the bedrock of Benfica’s title campaign alongside fellow 22-year-old Ferro. Dias has the habit of popping up with crucial goals – he scored one in a derby win over Sporting, and also found the back of the net in the Europa League quarter-final against Frankfurt – while he’s impressed doing his day job, as well.
In an early-season game against Porto last October, Dias produced a man-of-the-match display. He had more tackles than anyone else in the game, and the joint-most clearances and interceptions, as Benfica earned a narrow 1-0 victory that, coupled with the 2-1 March win where Felix made his mark, went a long way in deciding the fate of the title race.
Juventus, where Andrea Barzagli is bidding farewell and fellow stalwarts Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci are 34 and 32, respectively, have been mooted as a destination, while Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone is said to be an admirer and Man United have also reportedly been keeping tabs on the youngster.
Chances created: 152 (league and Europe)
Dribbles: 34 (league and Europe)
Star performance: Goal and assist v Sporting in 4-2 win
Reported valuation: €22million
Linked to: Wolves
Pizzi has been somewhat of a late bloomer for Portugal.
He wasn’t in the national team squad that won Euro 2016, or in the group that travelled to Russia for the World Cup last year, though he had begun making his mark by the 2011/12 season, when he joined Atletico Madrid. He won the Europa League that year and then, after going on loan to Deportivo La Coruna, scored a memorable brace against Barcelona.
But it’s taken a return back home for his quality to get noticed. He ended the 2018/19 season as the Primeira Liga’s assists leader, and only Fernandes was involved in more goals this season.
On the back of that form, Pizzi has become a regular in Portugal’s squad, making three appearances during their UEFA Nations League campaign.
He, too, made his mark in the title race, getting the assist for the only goal in that 1-0 win over Porto where Dias starred. But his best game of the season came in the derby in February.
In Benfica’s 4-2 win, Pizzi assisted Dias to restore a two-goal advantage, then scored a penalty to make it 4-1 and wrap up the points.
Wolves, who have made a habit of signing Portugal stars over the last couple of years, are thought to be interested in the 29-year-old.
RAFA SILVA, Benfica
Chances created: 46 (league and Europe)
Dribbles: 73 (league and Europe)
Star performance: Winning goal v Porto in title battle
Reported valuation: €22million
Linked to: Newcastle
Rafa Silva has just enjoyed the best season of his career.
In the previous three seasons, the 26-year-old had managed a combined 16 goals, a figure he topped just in the league in 2018/19, with his 17 goals the Primeira Liga’s third-highest tally.
It’s been a remarkable improvement for a player who’s just hitting his prime.
And he hasn’t just scored a lot of goals, he’s scored important ones, too, including the one that effectively sealed the title. After Felix levelled the scores against Porto it was Silva who got the winning goal in the second half.
Newcastle struggled for goals this season at times, and have been linked with a move for the Benfica star.
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Henrikh Mkhitaryan will not be involved in the Europa League final after Arsenal confirmed he would not travel with the squad.
The Armenia international’s safety was a concern due to the dispute between his country and host nation Azerbaijan.
Therefore the Gunners have decided against him travelling to Baku for next Wednesday’s game with Chelsea.
A statement read: “We are very disappointed to announce that Henrikh Mkhitaryan will not be travelling with the squad for our UEFA Europa League final against Chelsea.
“We have thoroughly explored all the options for Micki to be part of the squad but after discussing this with Micki and his family we have collectively agreed he will not be in our travelling party.
“We have written to UEFA expressing our deep concerns about this situation. Micki has been a key player in our run to the final so this is a big loss for us from a team perspective.
[...] It‘s the kind of game that doesn’t come along very often for us players and I must admit, it hurts me a lot to miss it.I will be cheering my teammates on! Let’s bring it home @Arsenal 🏆💪🏼💪🏼💪🏼 #uel #final #arsenal #chelsea #AFC #COYG pic.twitter.com/gnDA6oyolw— Henrikh Mkhitaryan (@HenrikhMkh) 21 May 2019
“We’re also very sad that a player will miss out on a major European final in circumstances such as this, as it is something that comes along very rarely in a footballer’s career.
“Micki will continue to be part of our preparations until we depart for Baku at the weekend.”
The former Manchester United man admitted he is “hurt” to miss the showpiece event.
He tweeted: “Having considered all the current options, we had to take the tough decision for me not to travel with the squad to the #UEL Final against #Chelsea.
“It‘s the kind of game that doesn’t come along very often for us players and I must admit, it hurts me a lot to miss it.”
UEFA later insisted that a “comprehensive security plan” was in place for Mkhitaryan.
It said in a statement released to Press Association Sport: “Working alongside Arsenal FC, UEFA sought and received assurances regarding the player’s safety in Azerbaijan from the highest authorities in the country.
“As a result of these guarantees, a comprehensive security plan was developed and given to the club.
“While the club acknowledges the efforts that UEFA and the Azeri government have gone to in this matter, we respect the personal decision not to travel with the player.”
Arsenal will warm up for next Wednesday’s Europa League final clash against Chelsea by playing a closed-doors friendly against Austrian side LASK Linz this Thursday.
The fixture, due to be played at the club’s London Colney training ground, will be Arsenal’s first since the end of the Premier League season last Sunday, and helps the team avoid a 17-day gap between then and the May 29 final, said to have been a concern for manager Unai Emery.
LASK finished runners up in the Austrian Bundesliga, 12 points behind champions Red Bull Salzburg.
Chelsea also played a friendly ahead of the final, facing American side New England Revolution last Wednesday in the United States. But that game resulted in the injury of key midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who suffered a torn Achilles tendon that will keep him out for nine months.
However, Arsenal’s fixture against LASK will feature the team’s top players, despite the risk of similar injuries which could deplete the squad ahead of the final in Baku.
Having finished fifth in the league, Emery’s side enter the game against Chelsea with added incentive, as winning the trophy will come with the additional prize of qualifying for the Champions League – which Chelsea have already sealed by finishing third.