We lamented a bit last week over the close of the (European) club season, with most of the big leagues decided (and after the weekend, France (Lille) and the Netherlands (Ajax) also crowning champions). So what else is a CultFootball fan to look to, aside from the upcoming Champions League final (10 days away!)? Well, just today there are three tasty matches to watch.
First, there’s the Europa League final taking place in Dublin between two Liga Sagres sides–the nearly Invincible Porto against Sporting Braga. And later in the day, two Copa Libertadores quarterfinal 2nd leg matches– Brazilians Santos hosts Colombian Once Caldas (Santos having won the 1st leg 1-0 on the road), and Paraguayan side Libertad hosts Argentine Vélez Sársfield in Asunción (Vélez Sársfield won the 1st leg 3-0 in Buenos Aires).
(US TV coverage is as follows: the Europa League final is at 2:15pm ET live on DirectTV and rebroadcast on GolTV in the evening. The Copa Libertadores matches will be on Fox Deportes.)
The first European final to be played between two teams situated less than 50km apart is noticeable for the sporting chasm that exists between them. Porto, two-times winners of the European Cup and 25-times winners of their domestic championship, face a club whose proudest moment in their 90-year history came last season, when they finished second in the Primeira Liga.
That changes in Dublin on Wednesday evening, however, as Braga look to defy the odds again and win their first European trophy (second if anyone is counting the 2008 Intertoto Cup). Few give them a chance against André Villas Boas’s rampant champions, but within a squad whose home ground is built in a quarry there is a belief that they can unearth a golden moment for themselves.
Not sure where Porto and Braga are located? Neither were we:
Porto in particular is worth watching. They’ve had a remarkable season: they won the Liga Sagres going away, going undefeated in the process (27 wins, 3 draws, 0 losses). They were also undefeated in their Europa League group, and marched through the knockout phase, beating a couple Spanish and a couple Moscow clubs along the way: Sevilla, CSKA Moscow, Spartak Moscow, Villareal. (Braga dropped down from the Champions League after finishing third in their group behind Shakhtar Donetsk and Arsenal, although they did defeat Arsenal 2-1 at home in November. In the Europa knockout phase, they beat Polish Lech Poznan, before upsetting Liverpool, then Dynamo Kyiv and finally another Portuguese power, Benfica, in the semis.)
For today’s match, keep your eye on the handful of rising stars on their squad, quite a few of whom are South American: the Brazilians Fernando and Hulk (yes, the Hulk); Colombians Falcao and James Rodríguez; Argentine midfielders Fernando Belluschi and Nicolás Otamendi; Uruguayan defenders Fucile and Álvaro Pereira. They also have a few Portuguese internationals (midfielder João Moutinho, winger Silvestre Varela, the Cape Verdean-born defender Rolando).
And of course there’s 33-year old first-year manager Andre Villas Boas–who everyone is hyping up as another Special One.
Here is the Guardian’s Dominic Fifield posting yesterday on Villas Boas:
His coaching career is not yet two years old but already his reputation precedes him. The domestic Primeira Liga title is his. This club’s first European trophy since 2004 and the Portuguese Cup could both have been hoisted by Sunday. These days he spends his time attempting to shrug off constant comparisons with Mourinho, the mentor under whom he cut his teeth but with whom he no longer speaks, and the links with Chelsea, Juventus and Roma which refuse to go away.
And here is Michael Cox (aka Mr ZonalMarking) contributing a column on Villas Boas to ESPN.com:
The similarities are clear — like Mourinho, Villas Boas is young, Portuguese, had no professional playing career to speak of, and is making his name at Porto. He is effectively Mourinho’s protégé, having worked under him at Porto, Chelsea and Inter.
Of course, Cox blesses us with detailed tactical notes on Villas Boas’s squad:
Villas Boas is a keen tactician. His primary job under Mourinho involved pre-match scouting and compiling amazingly detailed notes on Chelsea’s upcoming opponents. However, he has had great confidence and belief in his own strategy throughout this season, sticking to a 4-3-3 system throughout, and often simply overpowering sides. In that respect, there’s a similarity to the Chelsea side Carlo Ancelotti assembled last season, which was based around strength and power and based on an intent to ruthlessly dismantle opponents, rather than break them down with finesse, as Benfica is more likely to do.
The formation owes much to Villas Boas’ predecessor, Jesualdo Ferreira, who was also a 4-3-3 man. That continuity extends to the players used, though there are two notable exceptions. Villas Boas was happy to sell previous captain Bruno Alves to Zenit St Petersburg, and practically pushed another big name, Raul Meireles, out the door, signing Sporting’s Joao Moutinho instead. These deals were not necessarily about balance and cohesion in the squad, but about marking a new era at the club, in the dressing room and on the training field. Again, note the similarities to Mourinho’s arrival at Real Madrid, where the two longest-serving players, Raul and Guti, were both told that it was time to leave. Porto’s main threat is up front, where the amazingly powerful Hulk starts from the right, cutting in and charging at goal. His strength is complemented by the skill and trickery of Silvestre Varela on the other flank, who stays wider and stretches the play, providing plenty of assists for Falcao, a fine finisher.
The midfield is based around the strong Brazilian Fernando, who was excellent in the game against Benfica. He is assisted by Moutinho, a clever passer who has rediscovered his best football since his controversial transfer, and Fernando Belluschi, more of an attack-minded player who storms forward and links up with Hulk down the right.
The defense is unremarkable in terms of personnel, but is always very well-drilled, despite occasional rotation at center back. Against weaker sides, it often appears that Porto defends with only five players when it loses the ball — with Fernando ahead of the back four — but against stronger opponents, the wide players tuck in and create a solid 4-1-4-1 system in the defensive phase of play.