5 May ~ Two trios are in the news in Portugal this week. One is made up of the IMF, the EU and the European Central Bank, overseeing negotiations on the terms of a loan to the ailing country of €78 billion (£70bn). The other is made up of FC Porto, Benfica and Sporting Braga, involved in tonight's Europa League semi-final second legs. Given the truly parlous state of the Portuguese economy and the certainty that a long period of austerity is on its way, the former has rather taken the shine off the latter.
Having said that, it really is some achievement, the first time Portugal has had three clubs through to this stage of a European competition. Given Porto’s 5-1 trouncing of Villarreal in the first leg, and the strong whiff of foregone conclusion about the overall result, it will also be the first time Portugal has had both sides in the final. Porto will certainly be in Dublin on merit; they’ve had an exceptional season and were this week ranked the third best club in the world by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics, after Barcelona and Madrid.
In the domestic league, they’re set to finish unbeaten over 30 games, equalling Benfica’s record from 1972-73 under English coach Jimmy Hagan. In Europe, they’re the most successful Portuguese side of recent decades, with a UEFA Cup and Champions League, in 2003 and 2004 respectively, still fresh in the memory. Those titles were won under José Mourinho when he was in his early 40s. Porto’s current coach André Villas Boas, 33, was an assistant to Mourinho at Porto, Chelsea and Inter. This season looks like definitively bringing him out of Mourinho’s shadow.
Porto also have the top scorer in the competition in the Colombian Radamel Falcao, the flavour of the month in Portugal after his astonishing four goals against Villarreal, bringing his Europa League tally to 15. With perhaps just a pinch of hyperbole, one columnist writing in sports daily A Bola this week compared his various exceptional skills to those of Gerd Müller, Romário and… Eusébio.
His counterpart at Benfica, Óscar Cardozo, is South American too, but there the similarities end. The lumbering Paraguayan has been having an on-off-on tiff with the club’s fans all season and is looking tired and fed up. His prime usefulness has been from penalties and free-kicks around the area, which Benfica are adept at winning in the domestic league through skilled exponents of the trip/sprawl (especially Javier Saviola) and gullible, if not partial, referees. Braga will be hoping English ref Martin Atkinson is not taken in on that score.
Braga have been the revelation of the European competitions, having dispatched Celtic and Sevilla in the preliminary rounds of the Champions League, won three of their group games, one of which was a 2-0 defeat of Arsenal, and put out Liverpool and Dynamo Kiev in the knock-out stages of the Europa League. The club’s budget is a fraction of Porto’s and Benfica’s, but their strength lies in organisation, cohesion and hard work. They go into the second leg 2-1 down, but will fancy their chances in the magnificent two-sided Axa Stadium against a Benfica side with disintegrating morale.
Benfica coach Jorge Jesus, on a curve of popularity and achievement that is diametrically opposite to that of Villas Boas, has said that the Europa League will not save Benfica’s stuttering season. Benfiquistas will agree that the major objective at the outset was the domestic title, clinched by Porto weeks ago, but they would also relish the chance to bring a rampant Porto down a peg or two. Certainly, while Braga deserve much admiration for their campaign, the most popular outcome of the semis here would be to have a Porto v Benfica clássico played out in Dublin. And if Benfica could win that against their bitterest rivals, then some honour would at least have been saved. Phil Town