From the home of Mourinho, Ronaldo and Xavier
Hey, what’s wrong with you? You’re looking kinda’ down to me. Do these words sound familiar? Yup, that’s Phats & Small’s smash hit Turn Around from 1999, back when the Portugeezer was still in high school. It's a question that could be asked of Braga: what is wrong with them?
It feels like their achievements last season – when they pushed Benfica all the way to the wire and clinched their very first Champions League place – are distant, bittersweet memories as they currently lie in seventh place with 23 points, and have just lost 2-3 at home against Paços de Ferreira in the League Cup.
A promising start
An above average season could have meant a mass exodus in the summer, but the club made the right moves in the market and improved their squad. Despite the losses of Eduardo, Evaldo and André Leone, Braga retained their core and added depth to the squad by bringing in the likes of Silvio, Leandro Salino, Quim (and later Felipe), Hélder Barbosa and Lima.
The Portugeezer said before the start of the season that Braga had, on paper, the ability to have a similar season and avoid the ‘one-hit wonder’ moniker. And they passed their first real test back in August when an aggregate 4-2 win over Celtic in the Champions League third qualifying round pre-emptively silenced their critics and booked the passage to the play-off round, the last remaining hurdle separating them from the European elite.
The draw was once again merciless: the Minho Warriors would have to face tricky Sevilla. The tie was delicately poised after Braga claimed a 1-0 home win, but the return leg was an epic battle that players and supporters won’t ever forget. Braga's sheer grit and heart overcame the more talented Spaniards, stunned half of Europe and rewarded the club with an incredible presence in the group stages of the Champions League.
Yet it seems the pressure to perform at this level consistently has taken its toll and Braga are now suffering from burn-out.
A dip in form brought a slip down the league table and the club felt it necessary to make some adjustments in the January transfer window. Felipe, Andrés Madrid, Luis Aguiar and Elton all packed their bags to trim the wage bill, but the club has to be disappointed to sell mercurial duo Moisés and Matheus to Qatari outfit Al-Rayyan and Ukrainian side Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk respectively.
With all due respect to these clubs, both players could have moved to a bigger stage had they waited until the end of the season. After all, Braga are still in the Europa League and, whether or not you rate the Portuguese League, at the end of the day it’s still more competitive than the Qatari or the Ukrainian leagues. Unfortunately, both players’ contracts were going to expire in the summer and with little chance to keep them, Braga were forced to sell them.
It is difficult to make the transition from being a top-six side to being a Champions League certainty. Tottenham Hotspur, even with all the resources at their disposal, have found it extremely hard to cross that chasm because they don’t yet possess the staying power to keep up with the usual suspects.
For Braga in particular it might be even harder due to the lack of financial clout when compared to foreign clubs. For that fact alone, Braga is an extremely attractive pond from which an Eastern Europe club can fish talent.
Where to go now?
This year they should focus on clinching a European berth. There are four Europa League spots this term and while Sporting are the only side with a guaranteed place, it's well within Braga's reach.
Moreover, they should ignore the boo-boys who jeered Domingos Paciência at the last match and retain the services of their gaffer, because he has proved he can take the club forward.
And since next year Portugal will gain an extra spot in the Champions League (two direct and one in the last qualifying round), they can plan next season early on and spend a modest chunk of the €11.7 Champions League prize money to adjust their squad and launch an effective raid in the 2011/2012 season.
So, Braga supporters, don’t worry: there’s no reason to think you're going to revert back to the old not-so-ambitious club. Though they’re going through a bumpy patch right now, with António Salvador and Domingos Paciência at the helm of the club, they can only move in the right direction
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