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.