Runaway Portuguese champions Porto were clinging on to parity against visitors Villarreal at Estadio Dragao; as the Yellow Submarine seemingly breached the Dragons’ unfeasibly high defensive line almost at will, but to no tangible effect. The prompting and probing of Borja Valero, effortlessly combining silk and steel in central midfield, threatened Porto’s brittle-looking back four throughout, while Nilmar and Giuseppe Rossi’s clever runs continuously threatened to subdue the home fans’ fervour.
Meanwhile, in Lisbon, Liga ZON Sagres runners-up Benfica were in the ascendancy against Braga –in the first all-Portuguese tie in European football history – but looking rather susceptible to the counter-attack. As the clock ticked over to 45, Benfica’s much-lamented centre-forward Oscar Cardozo, heckled of late by his own fans, brushed aside Braga’s defensive lynchpin Paulao with ease to curl a low shot against the base of the post. Over in Oporto, Nilmar then upped the ante by drifting out to the right wing to swing in a peach of a cross which Cani duly flick-headed past the unprotected Helton, giving Villarreal a deserved lead and – potentially – a crucial away goal.
The floodgates had been opened.
Goal after goal, the trickle quickly became a second-half flood. And one man in particular was more responsible for the deluge than any other. Radamel Falcao Garcia Zarate, Porto’s Colombian striker, kick-started the favourites’ challenge with a 48thminute penalty, after struggling Villarreal ‘keeper Diego Lopez had brought him down in the area. Less than 45 minutes later, Falcao was leaping majestically, like some kind of modern-day Latino version of Gerd Muller, to head in his fourth of the night – Porto’s fifth –and his 16th of a remarkable Europa League campaign. Sandwiched in-between were a classic poacher’s finish from that rarest of things – a right-footed Hulk cross – and an exceptional diving header of impeccable precision, into the corner of Lopez’s net.
The 25-year-old is, without doubt, the real deal. He is the kind of striker that managers, and fans alike, dream about – one that lives for goals and converts half-chances with consummate ease. As a bonus, the former River Plate forward’s aerial ability, for such a diminutive guy, is parallel to that of Aussie salmon-impersonator Tim Cahill or Manchester United’s ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez. A high-profile move to La Liga or Serie A surely awaits, but another year with Porto would do Falcao’s development no harm – as the club aim to make a serious impact on Europe’s senior club competition next season.
His scintillating salvo, hot on the heels of a hat-trick against Spartak in the quarters, brutally brought to the fore familiar feelings for Villarreal supporters, growing wearily accustomed to semi-final failings in continental competition. Their inevitable exit will be the second such failure to reach a major final in five years for the club from Castellon, which now faces losing both Rossi and Valero to bigger-budgeted clubs in the summer.
Inevitably, Porto will line-up hot favourites in the Dublin final later this month, but their opposition is undecided as yet. Braga and Benfica fought out an entertaining, but goalless, first period at Estadio da Luz, which gave way to a goal-tastic start to the second.
Cardozo again struck the woodwork, this time with a header, and Benfica defender Jardel broke the deadlock with a poked finish from the rebound. But, within a couple of minutes, Braga were back on level terms: Vandinho heading-in fortuitously from a free-kick conceded by veteran playmaker Pablo Aimar’s reckless hack on Braga’s key creator, Alan. The unnecessary challenge not only led to the concession of an away goal, but also brought a booking which rules the former Valencia man out of the second leg – Benfica will miss his considerable experience and particular brand of subtlety amid a vibrant, youthful attacking unit.
Not content with his already substantial contribution, Cardozo then whipped in a powerful, curling free-kick which left Artur floundering and the ball in the back of the Braga net. He celebrated pointedly, with hands cupped behind ears, challenging the Benfica boo-boys to target him now, in his moment of glory. They didn’t, of course, as delight and relief coursed through the stadium in equal measure.
Benfica’s slender first-leg lead will not be insurmountable by any means, though. Braga have lost only once in eight European home fixtures this season; a 0-3 reverse against Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League group stage. They enjoy home advantage in the second leg only because the venues for each leg were switched so as not to clash with Porto’s game nearby, which could prove a kind twist of fate. Highly-rated 42-year-old head coach, Domingos Paciencia, guided the tiny club to their highest Primeira Liga finish of second at his first attempt last year and is hungry for their remarkable progress to continue unabated.
The former Porto and Tenerife striker considers Benfica’s visit to the 30,000 capacity Estadio AXA to be the most important fixture in the club’s history to date. Having only once before lifted a major trophy – way back in the era when Eusebio and Mario Coluna bestrode the Liga in Benfica’s colours – this is no idle claim by the canny tactician.
Now, some 45 years later, they are within touching distance of a one-off shot at lifting silverware on Irish soil, in less than a fortnight’s time.
“I am very proud of this squad,” says Domingos, understandably. “We have a brilliant dressing room, great professionals who have been through a lot together, and for a team outside Portugal’s big three it’s great to be in this position.”
He also believes that the nation, still revelling in their unlikely dominance of the EL final four, harbour a fondness for the undoubted underdogs:
“People are happy about what Braga have been doing. I feel there is great affection for this team, for what it has done.”
While Domingos might have the tactical edge on his predecessor in the Braga hotseat, Jorge Jesus, one of the key on-field battles will be between Braga’s talented left-back Silvio and the tireless Maxi Pereira, who effectively plays as a right wing-back for Benfica. Silvio, understudy to Benfica’s Fabio Coentrao at international level, came through the Eagles’ youth system, only joining Braga from Rio Ave last summer. Equally adept in either full-back position, he’s set to join Atletico Madrid in June and is the primary supplier of quality balls into the box for the likes of Lima and Meyong to latch onto.
Pereira, meanwhile, has an engine paralleled only by Coentrao on the opposite flank and is a key arbiter of Benfica’s all-out attacking style. In Aimar’s enforced absence, there could be a significant role to play, too, for skilful starlet Nico Gaitan, who found himself on the bench for much of the first leg.
The clubs’ most recent meeting at the unique ‘Quarry’ stadium, in early March, saw Braga claim a 2-1 win, courtesy of goals from Hugo Viana and Marcio Mossoro – two adroit individuals whose quality most often rises above the heroically workmanlike efforts of their colleagues. This time, the £55m arena will host not only its biggest occasion since Euro 2004 but also, as Domingos claims, the biggest in the modest history of Os Arsenalistas. Surely Benfica wouldn’t spoil the party?