From the home of Mourinho, Ronaldo and Xavier
It was in a small trattoria in Rome, near the walls of the Vatican City, that the Portugeezer watched the second leg of Braga and Benfica’s Europa League semifinal. With Porto already all but booking their flights to Dublin after an emphatic 5-1 first leg win over Villarreal in the other semi, all eyes were on Estádio Axa to find out who would face the Dragons in a historic all-Portuguese final.
Having narrowly lost 2-1 in the first leg in Lisbon, Braga – backed it seemed by an entire city - were in bullish mood to defeat the very same team who had prevented them from claiming what would have been a historical first domestic league the previous season.
As you’ll know by now, The ‘Minho Warriors’ did it. The small, unfancied and relatively unknown Portuguese club with Arsenal-like jerseys once again upset the odds by adding Benfica to the list of high-profile sides they have put to the sword in Europe this season, along with Sevilla, Liverpool and Dinamo Kyiv.
It may not have been a stellar performance, and they may not have left 'football pie’ all over their rivals’ shirts, but they put their heart and soul into grinding out the required result and ultimately deserved to advance to the final.
Benfica’s performance on the night was lukewarm at best, and only in brief periods were they able to ask questions of Braga’s defence. Not for the first time this season, a lack of ideas and some weary legs prevented the Eagles from getting a result.
Requiem for a team?
Despite Braga's amazing run to the final, it has to be said that Porto are probably a level above the other teams they have faced on the road to Dublin.
Morale is understandably at an all-time high in the Porto camp thanks to their incredible season, and the squad boasts both the necessary talent and experience to breeze to victory in such a match.
For Braga - on paper clear underdogs - their preparation and mental state will need to be absolutely perfect.
Therefore, it is rather unfortunate that not only some of the players, but also the manager, have chosen this moment to announce they are about to leave the club. Pretty much everyone in Portugal knows that coach Domingos Paciência is set to take the reins at Sporting this summer; it is perhaps the worst-kept secret in Portuguese football, but going public on his imminent departure will perhaps take some of the focus away from the game.
Meanwhile, goalkeeper Artur Moraes - a revelation since January - has already been announced as the replacement for much-maligned Benfica No.1 Roberto Jiménez. When you also hear reports of Alberto Rodriguez joining Sporting, Paulao joining Besiktas and Vandinho heading to Qatar, then you have a level of uncertainly more than capable of unsettling the team.
Porto have the edge
Forget the old adage that playing in a final is a great leveller - Porto are huge favourites, and with good reason.
The way they have systematically crushed their opponents in this year‘s competition – CSKA Moscow (3-1 on aggregate), Spartak Moscow (10-3 on aggregate) and Villarreal (7-4 on aggregate) – should leave them fancying their chances.
Braga’s ability to grind results on the continental stage (they progressed through the last two rounds on away goals having pipped Liverpool by just the one in the round before that) will surely be tested by Porto’s high-octane, high-pressing possession football.
If the two sides’ previous encounters this season are anything to go by, then the Dragons shouldn’t find goals too hard to come by - they scored five in the two league meetings, winning 3-2 at home last September and 2-0 in the quarries in February.
Radamel Falcao v Alberto Rodriguez-Paulao
Colombian ace Falcao has been among the most prolific strikers in the world this season and his 17 goals in this competition have already seen him break Jurgen Klinsmann’s previous record haul of 16. He is the spearhead of Porto’s attack - nullify Falcao and you‘ve gone a long way towards stopping Andre Villas-Boas‘ side. That’s easier said than done, of course, but constantly closing him down and cutting off his supply-line are the best ways to go. Few teams have been able to do that effectively this season, but Braga’s Peruvian centre back Alberto Rodriguez will look to join the elite group of defenders that have this evening.
Hulk v Silvio
Braga fullback Silvio’s breakthrough season has been so good that, not only has he been called into the Portuguese national team, but he is also now expected to seal a move to Atletico Madrid in the summer. He can play on both sides, but is expected to play on the left where he’ll have the unenviable task of minding Hulk. On a good night the Brazilian forward is untouchable, but he does have the occasional bad day at the office, and that‘s what Silvio will be hoping for in Dublin. Sticking to him tightly to frustrate him and prevent him from setting himself to shoot is the best way to get under Hulk’s skin - if the Porto man can keep a cool head it could be a long night for Silvio and his teammates.
Lima v Porto full-backs
Such has been the pressure on Braga’s other forward player to score goals since Matheus’ departure for Dnipro in January, that Lima hasn’t scored a goal since February. Nevertheless, the former Belenenses player is the one to watch in terms of offence. The Portugeezer is expecting a Braga line-up filled with industrious midfielders such as Salino, Custodio and Vandinho with the offensive duties being handled by the pacy forward. His acceleration combined with his powerful shot and ability to drift to the wings can cause some problems to Porto’s full-backs, perhaps their biggest liability in terms of defence.
There's no question both teams will put on a good show for the watching world, but ultimately Porto will prove too strong for Braga, and by emulating the club's successes of 2002/03, Villas-Boas will be a very coveted manager in the summer. Porto 2-0 Braga.
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