Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Braga seeking to escape giant neighbour's shadow on their maiden voyage to the biggest stage

It has already been a tough week for Celtic fans. Tonight’s Europa League final may only serve to prolong the agony as two ghosts of European suffering from season’s past and present meet in Dublin.

Unheralded Braga’s amazing European adventure started with a Champions League qualifier against Celtic in July. Now, after 18 games in European competition they stand just one more away from claiming only their second ever trophy.

However, that final remaining hurdle will be the biggest one they have faced all season. For the club whose stadium is built into a rock face, the task this evening is of Everest-like proportions. Their opponents the ones they have forever lived in the shadows of.

Less than 50 kilometres separate Braga from Porto, but in footballing terms the gulf between the two is gargantuan. Porto recently secured their 25th Portuguese title, are chasing their seventh international trophy and lie only two games away from a historic achievement themselves. Victory tonight and in Sunday’s Portuguese Cup final would see them replicate the league, cup and Uefa Cup treble achieved by Jose Mourinho’s side in the 2002-03 season.

It is that Uefa Cup victory, won 3-2 in Seville, that remains the bitterest of defeats for many Celtic fans.

There are distinct similarities between this year’s competition and that of 2003. In that year only a Henrik Larsson goal 10 minutes from time in the second-leg of the semi-final against Boavista prevented an all Portuguese final.

This time around Portuguese domination of the competition was assured with Porto’s stunning 5-1 triumph over Villarreal in the first-leg of the semi-finals. With Braga facing more Portuguese opposition in Benfica in the other semi, the eighth meeting of two clubs from the same country in the final was assured.

Indeed those two semi-finals symbolise the contrasting styles that have got both sides to the final. Porto have been unstoppable all season. They secured the title having gone undefeated with 27 wins and three draws from their 30 league matches. They have been equally impressive in Europe, losing only once and scoring 43 goals in their 16 Europa League ties.

Such domination has led to unending comparisons with Mourinho’s side that went on to win the Champions League in 2004. In particular, coach André Villas Boas, a former member of Mourinho’s backroom staff, has been hailed as the new shining light of European football and destined to follow in the footsteps of his former mentor.
However, the 33-year-old has often refuted those comparisons and has recently pledged his immediate future to the club. Villas Boas’ style is very different to Mourinho’s. The major difference between the modern day Porto and that of a decade ago is their relentless attacking intent.

Villas Boas has been more accurately compared by some to Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola for his loyalty to an offensive 4-3-3 system allied to intense pressing of the opposition when they have the ball.

The key figure in the success of that system has been striker Radamel Falcão. The Colombian has scored a remarkable 16 goals in the Europa League this year, breaking Jurgen Klinsmann’s 15-year-old record for a single European campaign.

On paper it looks like no contest. Porto finished 38 points ahead of Braga in the league campaign and beat them twice in doing so. Yet, Braga have defied the odds throughout the whole season. After beating Celtic they defeated Sevilla to progress to the Champions League for the first time in their history. Despite finishing with nine points, including a victory over Arsenal, a third place finish behind the Gunners and Shakhtar Donetsk saw them parachute into Europe’s second tier competition. Since then they have reveled in the role of underdogs by eliminating Lech Poznan, Liverpool, Dinamo Kiev and finally Benfica. In all those ties it has been a solid defense and a never say die attitude that has seen them prevail.

What has been most impressive about Os Arsenalistas – so nicknamed because of the resemblance of their shirts with those of the North London side – has been their ability to regroup after the loss of key players.

Last season’s incredible second placed finish saw the vultures swoop to prise their stars away. Portuguese international goalkeeper Eduardo left for Genoa. Then in January Matheus, who had scored both goals in the 2-0 win over Arsenal and centre-back Moises headed for pastures new.

This though you feel will be the last chance for this side. Manager Domingos Paciencia has already agreed to join Sporting Lisbon next season. Goalkeeper Artur and right-back Silvio have been snapped up by Benfica and Atletico Madrid respectively, whilst striker Lima is another expected to leave.

For Porto another trophy, another treble would be the icing on the cake. For Braga tonight represents the chance for something truly historic.

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