Journey to the Centre of the Europa League – Semi-finals Preview

by Jonathan O'Shea

When the Europa League steamboat first chugged ponderously away from its moorings in the hazy midsummer heat, few pundits foresaw such Portugese primacy so near to journey’s end. Now it’s down to the final four; and only a lean, mean Yellow Submarine stands in the way of Braga, Benfica, or Porto bringing some major silverware back to the westernmost country on the continent.

It’s not unprecedented for three sides from the same nation to dominate the semis of a UEFA tournament (in fact the 1979/80 UEFA Cup semis were monopolised by clubs from West Germany), but for a relatively small league, which has to constantly sell off its stars to ‘major’ clubs in Spain, Italy and England, it’s quite an achievement.

Of course, Portugal has a rich footballing history and boasts bright prospects at international level; with a steady stream of top-class talent showing little sign of drying up. Yet, the established giants of the Liga Sagres are struggling with titanic debts which threaten to consume them entirely. These debts stem from the Portugese political classes’ fiscally fatuous decision to make clubs foot the bulk of the bill for the new and upgraded stadia required to host Euro 2004.

The impact has been something of a slow death. Lisbon giants Sporting have now sunk to the depths of also-rans; selling off star men Joao Moutinho and Miguel Veloso last summer to help service their debts. Porto are enjoying an on-field renaissance under the aegis of Mourinho-elect, Andre Villas-Boas, but face losing their top guns (including the manager) this summer due to an estimated €100m deficit. The biggest, best-supported club in the land; Benfica, are double that amount in the red, despite flogging an eye-catching array of top-class talent to the big leagues over the past 12 months. This prolonged fire-sale (featuring Angel di Maria, Ramires and David Luiz) has reaped an impressive yield of £80m-plus, but has simultaneously pulled the rug from under any realistic hopes of becoming, once more, a major European force.

The next man in line for the exit door at Estadio da Luz is vibrant full-back Fabio Coentrao. His ability to penetrate even the dourest of defensive lines from his station on the Eagles’ left flank could hold the key to unlocking a resolute Sporting Braga back four in the home leg of their semi-final; the first ever tie between two Portugese sides in the long history of European competition.

The two-time European champions have lost just once in 55 home matches against Thursday night’s visitors and sit 14 points ahead of them in the league. However, Benfica’s Argentine attacking trinity (Salvio/Gaitan/Saviola), which supplies the ammunition for ungainly Paraguay striker Oscar Cardozo, will be broken up, to some extent, by injury. Eduardo Salvio played in last year’s final for Atletico Madrid, but the loan-signing broke a bone in his foot in the second leg of the quarter-final win over PSV. Veteran playmaker Pablo Aimar and sparky forward Franco Jara are both able deputies, but they also await the results of fitness tests on Nico Gaitan, Carlos Martins and Cesar Peixoto.

Towering skipper Luisao effectively sealed his side’s passage into the final four by flicking in an outrageous bicycle kick to puncture PSV’s growing hopes of an unlikely 2nd leg revival. But he and his defensive colleagues were given the run around by the direct surges of Jeremain Lens and Hungarian winger Balazs Dzsudzsak in that game (though both men subsequently failed to even flicker as PSV’s title hopes were extinguished by Feyenoord last Sunday.)

Braga, under Domingos Paciencia, are a superbly-organised unit, but can offer no one individual with such electric pace and power to overtly trouble the Benfica defence. The Arsenalistas have founded their success to date on a hugely productive counterattacking style; scoring only four goals in their last six Europa League outings, but seeing off continental heavyweights Liverpool and Dynamo Kyiv in the process.

Their second leg goalless draw with Dynamo at the AXA Stadium (aka the Quarry) owed much to discipline and tremendous mental resilience, after Paulo Cesar was needlessly sent off on the half-hour mark. Defensive totem Paulao has been at the vanguard of Braga’s consistently miserly back-line, and, along with Fabio Coentrao’s international deputy, Silvio – a neat operator on the left flank – will have to pull out a career-defining display to halt Benfica’s myriad offensive threats.

Deep-lying midfielder Custodio provides a shield ahead of the defence, while Hugo Viana is licensed to spray passes around the field (and take all the set pieces) with his cultured left foot. The ex-Newcastle man also operates something of a shoot-on-sight policy – with mixed results. Going forward; Braga’s Brazilian winger Alan has a bagful of flicks, tricks and no-look passes up his sleeve and his threat promises to keep Coentrao honest throughout the contest. Benfica have conceded goals in each of their past 14 games, so Braga will perhaps fancy their chances of nicking an away goal on the break.

The tiny northern club’s only game since the quarter-final was an anti-climactic home draw with Nacional in front of less than 2,000 fans, though their recent domestic form is impressive. In what was effectively a title decider between the two clubs at Estadio da Luz late last season, Braga froze on the big stage and will hope to cope far better with the big occasion this time round. On the back of their silencing of Anfield last month, they will still harbour aspirations of emulating Fulham’s magical run all the way to the final last year.

However, Benfica will be clear favourites to notch up a first leg advantage. Their superior reserves of talent and, crucially, experience should help them take one step further towards a prestigious cup double, following their League Cup Final win over Pacos de Ferreira on Sunday. Surely Benfica coach Jorge Jesus has too many aces in his pack to falter at this stage, against his former club.

Whichever side comes through faces the potential prospect of an all-Portuguese final in Dublin next month, because league champions Porto are only 180 minutes or so away from their first European final since an all-too brief golden period in the mid-noughties.

The Dragons have not lost a league match this term, boasting a 19-point lead over their closest rivals. Their European record is equally impressive: Porto are the competition’s top scorers with 29 goals since the start of the group stage. Such attractive stats indicate that Villas-Boas’ side have the makings of a Champions League  force next year – provided they can keep the wolves from the door for a just little while longer.

Such hopes are ever-diminishing though, with the likes of competition top-scorer Radamel Falcao and the unstoppable Brazilian cannonball, Hulk, heading shopping lists at numerous European super-clubs. Falcao, as his record suggests, is a goal-poacher extraordinaire, while Hulk – a bargain buy from the J-League – is most dangerous cutting in from the right wing and unleashing the hammer-like force of his left boot.

Goalkeeper Helton has been lauded for his tremendous reflexes and much-improved consistency, having previously been culpable for some high-profile errors. Villas-Boas likes to play a high defensive line (helmed by the resolute Rolando) ahead of the Brazilian custodian, which speed-merchants Welliton and Aiden McGeady sporadically breached during their quarter-final mauling of CSKA Moscow.

This potential chink in their impressive armour could be ruthlessly exploited by their semi-final opponents Villarreal, who boast one of the continent’s most prolific partnerships in Nilmar and Azzurri star Giuseppe Rossi. But, otherwise, the portents look less rosy for Juan Carlos Garrido’s men.

Sunday’s defeat at Sevilla made it 3 losses in their last six games, though the Yellow Submarine are still latched onto fourth spot in La Liga. In addition, their illustrious opponents undoubtedly boast the greater European pedigree and the last two major semi-finals Villarreal have contested brought only heartbreak. They lost against local rivals Valencia in the 2004 UEFA Cup semi and missed out on a dream final with Barcelona after Juan Riquelme’s fluffed penalty saw them falter in the Champions League’s final four against Arsenal two years later.

Only injury-stricken Marcos Senna remains at the club since those heady days. But integral members of the new generation have also been decimated by injury – right-back Angel Lopez was ruled out for the season back in January and captain Gonzalo broke his leg in the quarter-final first-leg. Veteran centre-half Carlos Marchena will shoulder the bulk of defensive responsibility in their continued absence; Santi Cazorla and ex-Baggie Borja Valero (strongly tipped for a summer move to previous opponents Napoli) pull the strings in midfield.

The inherent nature of both sides promises progressive football and goals aplenty at Estadio Dragao; after all, both teams filled their boots against able opposition in the quarters. The sheer weight of attacking talent on show is certainly a mouth-watering prospect and, unlike the ugly events of Wednesday night, cynicism will hopefully be in short supply.

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