From the home of Mourinho, Ronaldo and Xavier
Portugal capped a memorable European night as all three teams involved in Europa League action progressed to the quarterfinals.
Benfica and Porto went into the second leg of their respective ties with a good chance of going through, but the story of the night developed at Anfield - where Braga pulled off a famous upset.
The Minho Warriors seem bent on ending the season on a high - and there’s hardly a better way to do that than by defeating a top team that last year handed a 4-1 drubbing to Benfica in the same competition.
All in all, we now have three teams in the last eight of the competition and, quite frankly, there’s a good chance we may see at least one in Dublin, especially since the draw brought no immediate all-Portuguese tie.
Jorge Jesus replaced his entire team against Portimonense – with the exception of Pablo Aimar - to ensure most of his key men would be available and fit for the clash against the Paris Saint Germain.
Benfica were able to field a full-strength side (if you discount the accumulated fatigue) and enjoyed the rare advantage of virtually playing two home legs, thanks to the vast hoards of Benfica fans at Parc des Princes.
Still - and this is something that should worry them - that was one of their worst performances of late and they needlessly get themselves into a position whereby they had to weather a storm, having won the first leg 2-1.
PSG, especially through Nenê, caused all sorts of problems in the first half, but against the run of play and from their very first short on target, Benfica scored through Gaitán. The French side didn’t throw in the towel and Mathieu Bodmer would level eight minutes later with a well-struck volley.
Things calmed down in the second half as Benfica got a few chances that could have settled the tie, but the Portuguese side had to endure a very nervy finish to as PSG pushed harder for a goal.
Overall, the French outfit will feel aggrieved for not being able to force extra time as Jean-Eudes Maurice squandered a glorious chance in the dying moments of the match.
Benfica will now set their sights on PSV Eindhoven. The Dutch outfit are a good side, but definitely not the most dreaded team in the draw and progression should be well within Benfica’s grasp.
Having said that, a performance such as the one in Paris won’t see them in the semi-finals, so Jesus may need to find a way of tinkering with his side to keep his players in peak condition for European matches.
The Dragons went into their home leg against CSKA Moscow having won the first in Russia 1-0,leaving them as huge favourites to progress, especially considering their superb home record.
That’s why the Portugeezer wasn’t all too surprised when Hulk put the hosts in front within sixty seconds of the start of the second leg.
Vágner Love still hit the woodwork the following minute, but the match and the tie would ultimately be killed off after an incredible error from Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev.
Defender Sergei Ignashevich headed the ball back to the keeper, but the pass was too heavy and Akinfeev rushed to dive and prevent a corner; Colombian starlet James Rodriguez immediately turned and sent a cross to the box and even though Falcao was unable to head it home the in-form Guarín was there to pounce.
Zoran Tosic would score a consolation goal but that was it from the Russians.
Porto are through and are now many people’s favourites for the competition. Indeed, their pedigree is getting recognition across the continent, with a ‘Who will win the Europa League’ poll on Spanish website ElMundoDeportivo.es putting them ahead of even Villarreal.
Ironically, they will return to the Russian capital to face Spartak in the next round. The Russian side finished in third place of their Champions League group behind Chelsea and Marseille, though their performance in the Europa League has been rather impressive as they knocked out Metalist Kharkiv and Ajax without conceding a single goal.
Still, are we supposed to believe they pose a bigger threat than CSKA? Doubtful. By no means will it be a walk in the park, but generally speaking the Dragons look the better side.
Braga went to Liverpool with a narrow 1-0 lead, which they were expected to fail to maintain.
The fact that many had written them off perhaps worked in their favour as a polished display full of commitment and willpower appeared to surprise and frustrate Liverpool and kept the five times European champions at arms length for most of the evening.
In truth, the match itself was a bit of a snoozefest, with few clear-cut opportunities for either side, but the Portuguese outfit seemed in control for large periods of the match.
Only in the last 10 minutes the Merseysiders turned up the heat, but their stunning lack of ideas prevented them for getting anything more than a dull 0-0. Also worth noticing was the fact that Andy Carroll didn’t look more impressive than Lima despite costing just about 160 times more.
They will now play against one of the heavyweights remaining in the competition - Dynamo Kiev, having played against other Ukrainian side in the group stages of the Champions League.
They lost both home and away against Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev – who knocked out Manchester City – will be a stern test for them.
Still, they relish their role as underdogs and as they showed this season, “impossible is nothing”.
One last word to counter the over-the-top celebrations regarding the Portuguese teams’ exploits in the Europa League.
Much like what José Mourinho said when he was asked about the performance of Porto, Benfica and Braga, this ‘success’ was only possible at the expense of early exits in the Champions League, which is the elite competition in Europe, and Porto’s rare omission from the competition.
Yes, let’s celebrate and take the opportunity to boost the league’s coefficient ranking and attract the spotlight beams into our league, but let’s try to emulate the feat in the Champions League next year.
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