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CommentaryEuropeSpain

An All-Iberian Europa Final Four

April 6, 2012 — by Suman

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Yes, we’re eagerly looking forward to the big-name UEFA Champions League semifinal ties–but don’t overlook UEFA’s other final four. (Indeed, as Zonal_Marking wrote for ESPN today, the Europa League deserves more respect.) Given our growing interest in La Liga beyond the Big Two, yesterday’s quarterfinal results make for an especially interesting Europa League run-in: Athletic Bilbao, Atlético Madrid, Valencia, and Sporting Clube de Portugal advanced to the semifinals, setting up an all-Iberian set of semifinal ties:

1st legs on Thursday April 19:  Atlético Madrid-Valencia & Sporting CP-Athletic Bilbao

2nd legs a week later, Thursday April 26: Valencia-Atlético Madrid & Athletic Bilbao-Atlético Madrid

As we wrote earlier in the week, the Athletic Bilbao-Schalke tie was the only was that was pretty much wrapped up after the 1st leg, with Athletic’s 4-2 win in Germany. But the return leg at the legendary San Mames turned out to be a match worth watching (not that we did, unfortunately). It was a game of tit-for-tat: Dutch marksman Klaus-Jan Huntelaar  scored, pulling Schalke to within one goal on aggregate–but then Athletic equalized shortly 4 minutes later. And then it happened a second time: Raul scored yet another European goal, but Athletic equalized 3 minutes later.  So Athletic wins another tie in convincing fashion, by an aggregate of 6-4.  They have to be considered the favorites to win the whole thing, given how much energy they bring to their Europa fixtures.

The other three ties had 2-1 scorelines for the home team in their first legs: Atletico, AZ Alkmaar, and Sporting CP were leading Hannover, Valencia, and Metallist Kharkiv, respectively.

The match at the Mestalla was one we thought might be worth watching–and it was, in some sense, as Valencia quickly and convincingly turned the tie around. They were up 2-0 by 22′–both goals suprisingly by French international center back Adil Rami, off assists from the impressive Algerian youngster Sofiane Feghouli and the always dangerous Roberto Soldado. They added 2 more scores in the 2nd half–Spanish international wingback Jordi Alba scored one, and Pablo Hernandez added the final goal. The 4-0 win gave them a 5-2 win on aggregate.

The other two ties came down to the final minutes. Sporting CP held on for a 1-1 draw in far eastern Ukraine, eliminating Metallist. And in Hannover, Falcao scored a fantastic late goal to seal the deal for Atlético. Via twitter at approx 5pmET:

 

PreviewSchedule

This Week in Europe – From Elite Eights to Final Fours

April 3, 2012 — by Suman

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We did tune in over the past few weeks for bits of March Madness–culminating in Calipari’s Kentucky completing the professionalization of the college game last night–but we found it mostly uninteresting.  And although we haven’t found the Champions League completely compelling this year either, we’ll certainly be watching these quarterfinal 2nd leg matches over the next couple days to see which clubs advance to the Final 4–at which stage it should get very interesting.  And it’s not only the Champions League winnowing down from 8 to 4 this week.  The Europa League too–that largely overshadowed European stepchild to the Champions–also has its quarterfinal 2nd legs this week.  True to our name, we actually find Europa League worth following–and this season especially so, given Athletic Bilbao’s scintillating run which has them on track for the semifinals.

Here are the fixtures and some match notes:

Tuesday, April 3 (both matches kickoff at 2:45pmET):

Barcelona vs Milan: The match of the week, and of the competition so far. After a taut scoreless draw last Wednesday at the San Siro, Milan have a realistic chance of eliminating the defending champions.  It’ll be the 4th Champions League meeting between these two this season, since they were drawn into the same group.  The first match last September was similar to last week’s: despite dominating possession, Barcelona could do no better than emerge with a draw. At least there were goals in that one though–Pato’s stunning 1st minute goal and Thiago Silva’s extra time equalizer sandwiched around Barcelona goals by Pedro and Villa.  The return at the Camp Nou in November was an exciting affair with even more goals: Xavi’s 2nd half score eclipsed goals by Zlatan and that memorable finish by Kevin-Prince Boateng.

We expect that Barcelona will emerge victorious again today (at least this half of the CultFootball board does–like El Classico, this is a fixture that divides us)–when was the last time Barcelona lost a European fixture at the Camp Nou? Well, UEFA’s match preview conveniently provides the answer: “Barcelona are unbeaten in 14 home fixtures dating back to October 2009, with 12 wins and two draws at the Camp Nou since then, including the 7-1 defeat of Bayer 04 Leverkusen in the round of 16.”  That’s preceded by these fascinating historical tidbits:

• Milan earned a 0-0 draw at Barcelona in their 2005/06 UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg but lost the tie because of the preceding 1-0 home reverse.

• The lineups for that second leg on 26 April 2006 were:
Barcelona: Valdés, Belletti, Márquez, Puyol, Van Bronckhorst, Edmílson, Deco, Iniesta, Giuly (Larsson 69), Eto’o (Van Bommel 89), Ronaldinho.
Milan: Dida, Kaladze, Costacurta (Cafu 64), Stam, Serginho, Gattuso (Rui Costa 68), Seedorf, Pirlo, Kaká, Shevchenko, Inzaghi (Gilardino 79).

• Milan’s last victory against Barcelona came on 20 October 2004 in the UEFA Champions League group stage, Andriy Shevchenko scoring the only goal. Alessandro Nesta, Clarence Seedorf and substitute Massimo Ambrosini played for the Rossoneri with Xavi, Carles Puyol, Víctor Valdés and substitute Andrés Iniesta lining up for Barcelona. Ambrosini is the sole survivor of Milan’s only previous victory at the Camp Nou, 2-0 on 26 September 2000.

• The clubs’ most high-profile encounter was the 1994 UEFA Champions League final in Athens, which Milan won 4-0. Milan also prevailed when the pair met in the 1989 UEFA Super Cup, winning 1-0 at home after a 1-1 away draw.

In fact, Sid Lowe produced a column on that 1994 Champions League final last week, calling it “the night the Dream died”–i.e., the symbolic end of Cryuff’s Dream Team era, which featured among others a young Catalan holding midfielder named Pep Guardiola.

Bayern München vs Olympique Marseille: This one is pretty much done. Bayern won 2-0 in Marseille last week, and have been on a hot streak lately.  It’s highly unlikely OM will win by 3 in Munich, and so the Bavarians are on track to continue their quest to play in the final in their home stadium on May 19.

Wednesday, April 4 & Thursday April 5:

We’ve split off our previews of the other two Champions League matches & Thursday’s four Europa League matches into a separate post.

 

CommentaryUnited States

American Expats in Europa

December 13, 2011 — by Rob Kirby

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As the final matchday of the Europa League group stages approaches Wednesday and Thursday, so does the best chance to see Americans in action overseas on a TV near you. And with some of the Americans’ teams in danger of crashing out of Europa, it may be the last chance for a while. That is, unless your cable package comprehensively covers the Portuguese, Dutch, German and Belgian leagues, in which case you’re really spending way too much for cable.

The two Fox Soccer Channels offer regular viewing of Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Brad Friedel in England and occasionally Michael Bradley in the Serie A, and GolTV shows some of the Bundesliga exploits of Steve Cherundolo and the German-Americans in the national team, but to see Oguchi Onyewu (Sporting Lisbon), Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht) or Jonathan Spector (Birmingham City) in a non-streamed format, Europa’s the ticket. Furthermore, with the Manchester teams now surprisingly in the impending mix, there could be some great matches ahead.

Some players, like Onyewu, Kljestan and Jones earned early admission to the knockout phase, as Sporting Lisbon, Anderlecht and Schalke 04 each clinched the top spots in their respective groups and secured berths in the last 32 with a game to spare. Others are less likely, but as it stands, everyone’s got a shot, even if mathematical probabilities aren’t as rosy as they might like.

Dempsey, the all-time leading American goal scorer in the Premier League, has been firing for Fulham this season, both domestically and in the Europa League, where he will always be remembered for his chip into the Juventus goal in 2010. But Fulham jeopardized their shot at the round of 32 when they slumped to a 1-0 loss in the 89th minute against group leaders FC Twente, down to 10 men. However, if Krakow lose to or draw with FC Twente, Fulham are through. But Dempsey & Co. are in charge of their own destiny. If they win, second is theirs. If Fulham lose to or draw with Odense and Krakow pull off the upset, however, Krakow takes the spoils.

Friedel has proven integral to the Tottenham first team, but he usually sits out Europa nights. For Spurs to progress, Rubin Kazan would have to lose and Tottenham have to win and overcome a goal difference of 5. Good time to have a proven shot-stopper, so Redknapp may choose to select him against Shamrock Rovers. However, one school of thought says exiting the competition would help Spurs finish in the top 3 or 4 in the Premier League, not playing weekend matches on the heels of Thursday nights in Europe, so perhaps the bald-pated American will again see some rest. Many betting sites tipped Tottenham to win the cup. Few expected they’d fail to pass through the group stage.

Spector and Birmingham may soon be crashing out, unless they’ve got some goals in them. They need first-place Braga to down second-place Brugge, while they themselves beat Maribor and hope it all works out such that they overcome the 4 goal deficit separating them from Brugge. Doable if they’ve got their shooting boots on (and Braga, theirs).

Altidore, whose career has witnessed a resurgence since joining the Dutch champions, will likely lead the line again for AZ Alkmaar, but the team must get a result against group leaders FC Metalist. Win and they clinch second. If they lose and Vienna defeats Malmo, they crash out. Draw and they squeak through, unless Vienna beats Malmo by 7 goals, which one would have to consider a tad unlikely, as they have conceded almost a third more goals than they’ve scored in the group stages. Altidore has 9 goals this season.

Onyewu, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s long-lost shorter, stronger brother, has similarly returned to form with Sporting Lisbon. In fact, he scored the lone goal in last weekend’s 1-0 victory over CD Nacional de Madeira. And with former club PSV Eindhoven still in the Europa mix, he may have a chance to exact some revenge for their lack of faith in him that led to selling him off this past summer.

Schalke 04 midfielder Jermaine Jones has been seeing more first team action and will live to see another Europa day, as the Schalke tops its group and is certain to go through.

Anderlecht is similarly a lock, and barring injury so is Kljestan, who has excelled at Anderlecht this season and must be wondering why he’s seen so little time with the national team. The midfielder has started 23 matches and scored 2 goals this season.

Hannover 96 captain Cherundolo and his team look favorites for second. Win or draw with last place Vorskla and they go through.

Americans guaranteed passage:
Oguchi Onyewu (Sporting Lisbon, D)
Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht, MF)
Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04, MF)

Possibles:
Clint Dempsey (Fulham, MF)
Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96, D)
Jonathan Spector (Birmingham City, D)
Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar, F)

Highly unlikely:
Brad Friedel (Tottenham, GK)

Wednesday, December 14

Besiktas v Stoke City    1:00 PM (DirecTV)
PSG v Atletic Bilbao    1:00 PM (GolTV)
Fulham v Odense    3:00 PM (GolTV)

Thursday, December 15

Hannover 96 v Vorskla Potlava  1:00 PM (GolTV)
Shamrock Rovers v Spurs   1:00 PM (DirecTV)
Atletico Madrid v Stade Rennais  3:00 PM (GolTV)
Birmingham v Maribor   3:00 PM (DirecTV)
Udinese v Celtic    3:00 PM (DirecTV)

CommentaryEngland

Manchesters into…the Europa League

December 7, 2011 — by Rob Kirby

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Next time, rake the cleats over the Swiss tendons, Rooney, my boy.

And as Matchday 6 of the Champions League separated the wheat from the chaff, the next eight into the Europa League knockouts are:

Valencia
Olympiakos
Porto
Victoria Plzen
Manchester United
Manchester City
Ajax
FC Basel
Trabzonspor

Manchester United failed to beat Basel, so MUFC goes to Europa, while the Swiss progress to the knockouts.

Manchester City defeated Bayern Munich at home, but the team progresses, as it were, to Europa due to Napoli’s victory 2-0 victory over Villareal, which means Napoli goes through.

Lyon, after a fantastic 7-1 match overcame all sorts of goal difference, go through over Ajax on goal difference. Of course, there’s a whiff of controversy about this one, with Ajax accusing Lyon and Dinamo Zagreb of match-fixing. Sour grapes? Who knows. Would’ve been nice to have a bet on that scoreline, though.

Trabzonspor’s goalless draw to Lille means Lille goes though and they go on to Europa.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Mata faced his former club and Chelsea took top spot in the group, consigning Valencia to Europa after a convincing 3-0 victory in which Didier Drogba looked like the monster of old.

Olympiakos defeated a sorry Arsenal 3-1 at home and would have gone through to the knockout stages of the Champions League had Marseille not pulled up an incredible come-from-behind victory in Germany, having been down two goals.

Given Apoel Nicosia’s loss to Shaktar Donesk, Porto would have won their group with a victory over Zenit St. Petersburg, but the goalless draw meant the Russians go through and the Portuguese do not.

Plzen scored in the 89th minute and in stoppage time to draw 2-2 with AC Milan, but given Barcelona’s 4-0 battering of BATE Borisov, they would have gone through to Europa regardless.

CommentaryEurope

First 14 into Last 32 of Europa

December 2, 2011 — by Rob Kirby

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Betting sites had tipped Tottenham to take home the silverware, but the odds are now against them even exiting the group stages.

With two weeks until the final matches of the Europa League group stages, 14 clubs have clinched spots in the knockout rounds of the cup with a game to spare. With the eight teams that finish third in their UEFA Champions League groups transferring over to Europe’s second-tier competition, that leaves 10 spots.

Anderlecht, who alone won all 5 of the first 5 group matches, FC Twente and Sporting Lisbon had already qualified even before Thursday’s matches kicked off, as had PSV Eindhoven and Legia Warsaw before Wednesday’s matches.

Meanwhile, former frontrunner Tottenham’s loss to 10-man PAOK Thessaloniki at White Hart Lane puts makes them unlikely to join the last 32. As punishment, perhaps Jermaine Defoe should write “Panthessaloníkios Athlitikós Ómilos Konstantinoupolitón” 100 times on the blackboard.

First 14:

Anderlecht (Belgium)
FC Twente (Netherlands)
Sporting Lisbon (Portugal)
Atlético Madrid (Spain)
Braga (Portugal)
Hannover 96 (Germany)
FC Metalist Kharkiv (Ukraine)
PAOK Thessaloniki (Greece)
Standard Liège (Belgium)
Stoke (England)
Lokomotiv Moscow (Russia)
Legia Warsaw (Poland)
Schalke 04 (Germany)
PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands)

At the beginning of November, Tottenham had been tipped to take home the silverware, but their loss to PAOK on Wednesday made it such that while it’s still mathematically possible if they go on a goal spree against Shamrock Rovers and Rubin Kazan loses, it’s unlikely. For one, Redknapp may not even truly wish to progress. One school of thought says exiting the competition would help them finish in the top 3 or 4 in the Premier League, not playing weekend matches on the heels of Thursday nights in Europe and avoiding overall fixture congestion with all the two-leg showdowns to come.

Currently, odds are on Atlético Madrid to hoist the trophy on May 9 in Bucharest. Other frontrunners include Schalke 04, PSV Eindhoven, Paris Saint-Germain and Athletic Bilbao, despite the latter two having not yet qualified.

CommentaryEnglandUnited States

Dempsey Ties American Expat Talk

October 31, 2011 — by Rob Kirby

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If Dempsey were a dolphin, he'd have a platinum fin.

When Clint Dempsey scored for embattled Fulham in the 2-0 victory over Wigan this weekend, he tied the record of former U.S. international Brian McBride as all-time highest American goal scorer in England’s top flight. (McBride did loan spells at Preston North End and Everton before his tenure at Fulham.) The pair also share another distinction, along with Landon Donovan they are the only American players to have scored in multiple World Cups.

The 28-year-old Dempsey now has 36 league goals in his Premiership career. He also holds the record for highest goal scorer at Fulham, where he joined from the New England Revolution in 2007. Only the most down and out gambler would bet against him extending that onward and upward. Duece be doin’ it up. Clint D, Nacogdoches, represent.

For those who have never checked it out, watch him shout out an alternate reality in which he’s a  platinum-finned dolphin. It’s astounding that he has the balls to rhyme with cameras capturing it all for posterity. But you can’t help but love this clip. Could anyone actually hate a player dophin?

Don’t hate, celebrate (with Clint). Perhaps by reliving his incredible chip at Juventus in the 2010 Europa League.

“He scores with his left,
He scores with his right.
That boy Clint Dempsey
Makes Drogba look shite.”

              — Fulham chant

 

CommentaryPreview

Europa League: American Expats in Europe

October 18, 2011 — by Rob Kirby

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For those looking to spot Americans in action overseas, check the Europa League—it’s televised, great teams abound and, well, there are Americans, too. The elusive soccer grail, as it were. Europa League matches offer rare chances to see national team expats competing against high-caliber opponents on a real live TV. No streaming, no pirating, just a mildly usurious cable package.

He rocks the mic, he rips through defences. Word.

While English Premier League devotees get to see Clint Dempsey (right), Tim Howard and Brad Friedel scoring and shot-stopping on the regular, and Serie A followers will catch the occasional glimpse of Michael Bradley, the Europa League showcases players in the Portuguese, Dutch and Belgian leagues who get showcased seemingly nelsewhere. To be fair, GolTV does broadcast  the occasional Bundesliga match, giving some small-screen shine to Steve Cherundolo and the German-Americans in the national team, but to see Oguchi Onyewu (Sporting Lisbon), Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht) or Jonathan Spector (Birmingham City), Europa’s your best bet.

Ironically, the team most populous in expat Americans, Rangers, utterly dominates the Scottish Premier League this season but got dumped out of the Europa League in late August (after getting dumped out of the Champions League qualifiers in early August). Carlos Bocanegra, Maurice Edu and Alejandro Bedoya regularly receive starting berths, but that didn’t stop Slovenian minnows NK Maribor from handing the team its collective Glaswegian ass two months back, so that’s that for the American Rangers. Other Americans who could be seen until they couldn’t are/were Clarence Goodson (Brøndby) and Michael Parkhurst (Nordsjaelland), who both compete in the top flight in Denmark.

Fear not, though. Many survived the qualifying cull, performed well in Matchdays 1 and 2, and may again feature this Thursday on Matchday 3.

High-functioning U.S. perennial Dempsey has been on fire for Fulham this season and he scored the lone goal against Honduras two weeks back. He gives everything in every game and excels at nearly everything he does (check the Deuce’s rhymes on YouTube…or better yet, don’t). Friedel, for his part, has proven such a crucial addition to Tottenham since joining this summer that Tottenham keep resting him in the Europa League, so don’t necessarily expect to spot his particular shiny bald pate, unless it’s atop a body seated on the bench. Spector, who once more sees the TV cameras zooming in after West Ham’s relegation last season, helped exact revenge on Maribor for his SPL compatriots in Birmingham City’s 2-1 win over the Slovenian outfit on Matchday 2, so good on him (thanks be giving, Rangers supporters).

Altidore will likely lead the line again for AZ Alkmaar, after netting his fourth in the tournament and seventh of the season for the Dutch champions last time out. The spectacularly bearded Onyewu, that unlikely cross between Isaac Hayes and Kareem Abdul-Jabar, has similarly returned to form with Sporting Lisbon, after escaping from PSV Eindhoven purgatory this past summer. From the bench, current Schalke 04 midfielder and former Blackburn loanee Jermaine Jones came on as a substitute in the 3-1 Matchday 2 victory over Maccabi Haifa. AZ Alkmaar, Sporting Lisbon and Schalke 04 all top their groups, and the group leader trend continues at Anderlecht, where Sacha Kljestan will look to start again, having done so in all 13 matches this season, including Anderlecht’s 5-0 thrashing of Standard Liege on Sunday.

Hannover 96 captain Cherundolo, meanwhile, must cope with the ignominy of second place. Although tied with Standard Liege on points, the team cedes first on goal difference. Let’s see some more clean sheets, Steve.

Dominic Cervi, third in line for the goalkeeper spot at Celtic, has yet to feature this season. Perhaps he will at last get a shot to stop the shots. (But be honest. Have you ever heard of him?)

Stay tuned for the continuing exploits of Uncle Sam’s soccer spies overseas. (Seriously. I mean to make a series of this.)

As one last word on Deuce’s iced-out flows, in a freestyle a few years back he had a truly great/awful line in “If I was a dolphin, I would have a platinum fin.” That one really is kind of worth checking out.

 

Matchday 3, October 20:
1:00 pm EST on GolTV, DirecTV: Club Brugge vs. Birmingham (Jan Breydel Stadium)
1:00 pm EST on DirecTV: AZ Alkmaar vs. Austria Vienna (AFAS Stadion)
1:00 pm EST on DirecTV: Wisla Krakow vs. Fulham (Stadion Miejski im)
1:00 pm EST on DirecTV: Stade Rennes vs. Celtic (Route de Lorient)
1:00 pm EST on DirecTV: AEK Larnaca vs. Schalke 04 (Neo G.S.Z. Stadium)
1:00 pm EST on DirecTV: SK Sturm Graz vs. Anderlecht (UPC Arena)
3:00 pm EST on GolTV, DirecTV: Sporting Lisbon vs. FC Vaslui (Estadio Jose Alvalade)
3:00 pm EST on DirecTV: Tottenham Hotspur vs. FK Rubin Kazan (White Hart Lane)
3:00 pm EST on DirecTV: Hannover 96 vs. FC Copenhagen (AWD-Arena)

To recap, Americans still in the competition:
Clint Dempsey (Fulham, MF)
Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96, D)
Brad Friedel (Tottenham, GK)
Jonathan Spector (Birmingham City, D)
Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar, F)
Oguchi Onyewu (Sporting Lisbon, D)
Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04, MF)
Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht, MF)
Dominic Cervi (Celtic, GK)

And those Americans who let down themselves, their teams and their country:
Carlos Bocanegra (Rangers, D)
Maurice Edu (Rangers, MF)
Alejandro Bedoya (Rangers, MF)
Clarence Goodson (Brøndby, D)
Michael Parkhurst (Nordsjaelland, D)

Just by plucking names from this group of current and eliminated Europa players, one could field a highly competitive national side. In fact the back 4 and front 2 played the second half against Honduras in the last international break.

Friedel

Cherundolo – Bocanegra – Onyewu – Spector

Kljestan – Edu – Jones – Bedoya

Altidore – Dempsey

 

 

CommentaryMapsPreviewSchedule

Matches Today: Intra-Portuguese Europa League final, Copa Libertadores quarters

May 18, 2011 — by Suman1

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.)

Regarding the Europa League final, here is the Guardian’s Sachin Nakrani intra-Portuguese

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:


View Larger Map

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.)

Another squad of Invincibles?

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).

"I'm a Special One!" "I'm Special Too!"

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: