From the home of Mourinho, Ronaldo and Xavier
Portuguese football is on the brink of making history this Thursday, as Porto, Benfica and Braga all continue the fight for a ticket to Dublin for next month's Europa League final.
History in the making
The fact there are still three Portuguese sides left at the semi-final stage of course means at least one side from Liga Zon Sagres will be in the final, with Benfica and Braga going head-to-head in the first semi.
Clearly this is something to be proud of, but regardless of what happens over the four semi-final matches, it is guaranteed Portugal’s UEFA coefficient ranking will be boosted, with the above-average performances likely to see the country rewarded with an extra Champions League slot for the 2012/13 season.
Even if only temporarily, Portugal is making a real splash in continental club football, which is a huge achievement for such a small league. It is not an overstatement to rate Liga Zon Sagres as currently the best 'second-tier' domestic league in Europe.
Braga celebrate eliminating Liverpool from the Europa League
It may not boast the foreign investment of the English Premier League, the attendances of the Bundesliga or the extravagant TV agreements of the top Serie A or La Liga sides.
It lags in all those area, but it possesses two main characteristics that allow its major clubs to thrive:
• Just like in Brazil and other South American countries, there is a culture of dribbling, showboating and bending the rules. Football has more pizzazz and the teams relish the chance to defy the odds; That’s why Braga beat Celtic, Sevilla, Liverpool and Dynamo Kiev despite have a budget far smaller.
• The fact the league is not as demanding as the Europe’s elite divisions and the fact Portuguese are able to speak the two languages most spoken in South America instantly makes it a perfect gateway for young Argentinean and Brazilian talent looking to make a name for themselves in Europe.
Porto v Villarreal
Many pundits are touting this match as the de facto final of the competition – and you can see why. This is a match between two teams who have regularly competed in the Champions League in recent seasons – with Villarreal reaching the semi-finals in 2006 and Porto lifting the trophy in 2004.
There is perhaps slightly less excitement and glamour surrounding the other tier, with Benfica massively inconsistent this season and Braga ‘unfashionable’ dark horses.
The Spanish media are trying to pass off the Porto/Villarreal match as a battle between equals, which it isn’t. Porto are far more experienced, have that ‘winning mentality' and have players who are used to making the difference at this level. Furthermore, if the ‘form’ is a variable in this equation, then it is the Dragons who have the upper hand as they have been in devastating form both domestically and in Europe throughout the season.
The Spaniards may be drooling over Giuseppe Rossi’s exploits this season, and his 30 goals are certainly an impressive return, but Porto's leading man Falcao has been equally prolific, and he'll have Hulk and Varela backing him up, too.
The industrious midfield trio of Fernando, Moutinho and Guarin – the engine room of the team - will also pose a lot of problems to Villarreal with their pressing and movement on and off the ball.
Porto trio Hulk, Varela and Falcao would pose a threat to any team
If that still doesn’t convince you that Porto should be heavy favourites, then get this...
Since 2009, Porto have played against Spanish opposition three times: Atletico Madrid, twice in the Champions League, and Sevilla, this season in the Europa League.
In each of the four matches against the Rojiblancos, Atletico supremo Quique Sánchez Flores was arrogant enough to label his club as favourites, yet Atletico were not able to win a single match despite possessing the likes of Sergio Aguero, Diego Forlan and Simao.
Against Sevilla, the pattern was similar: a team that usually qualifies for the Europa League, that possessed a vast array of attacking options – Kanouté, Fabiano, Negredo, Navas, Peroti - but ultimately lacked steel at the back and organization in the engine room.
It is true they claimed a 0-1 victory at Estádio do Dragão, but they were fortunate to get that result, and they had already lost the first leg 2-1 and promptly were eliminated on away goals.
The one thing going for Villarreal is that they seem to acknowledge their role as underdogs. They have seen Porto dismantle the ever-dangerous CSKA Moscow and destroy their neighbours Spartak. They know how dangerous the Dragons can be and if they want to stand a chance against them, they have to acknowledge the fact they’re not the favourites to go through.
Prediction: FC Porto to sink the Yellow Submarine
Porto will likely win the match. Few teams are able to turn up at Estádio do Dragão and spoil their party, and although Villarreal have good individual players, they are not able to match the Dragons as a unit. The only question remaining is whether the Spaniards can keep the tie open going into the second leg. For now, the Portugeezer is sticking to a 2-0 home result.
what a surprise, focus only on the porto match
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