Portuguese quartet still in Europa contention after a mixed night

For Portugal to have four teams in the Last 32 of the Europa League is quite some accomplishment - even if two of them were demoted from the Champions League. And looking at recent history, one cannot help but feel that the chances of a Portuguese team going on to feature in the semis or even the final of the competition are rather favourable.

FC Porto won what was then known as the UEFA Cup back in 2003, before Sporting fell short by 45 minutes two years later, when they surrendered a one-goal half time to CSKA Moscow on their home turf. Benfica have been enjoying a rich vein of form as of late, while Braga were handed perhaps the easiest job on paper against Polish side and conquerors of Juventus, Lech Poznan.

After the first legs of the first knockout round this week, the four Liga Sagres teams have all been left with a realistic chance of going through, even if Benfica and Braga may have some restless moments ahead.

Stuttgart’s perilous position in the Bundesliga, which belies their genuine quality, perhaps lulled Benfica into an false sense of security early on. The fact is Stuttgart were the better side in the first half, hitting the woodwork once before scoring in the 20th minute when the Austrian forward Harnik stunned Estádio da Luz with a cheeky lob over Roberto Jimenez.

Benfica handed Bruno Labbadia’s side a 45 minute advantage, but after the break the game would completely change. Desperate to keep their hot streak intact, the Eagles came on for the second half with a more positive approach and pinned Stuttgart back in their own half. The pressure eventually paid off as Cardozo levelled the game in the 69th minute.

Knowing that a score draw wouldn’t be an adequate result, the Eagles went gung-ho at that stage. Without Saviola, it was Franco Jara who partnered the towering Cardozo, but the former Arsenal Sarandi forward had struggled to pose the same level of threat. That is until the 81st minute…

Jara, most likely running out of options, decided to strike from distance and the ball took a deflection; goalkeeper Sven Ulreich - who had  kept his team in the match with a string of awesome saves was still able to block the shot, but the ball hit the bar and dropped just over the line. Nonetheless, the onrushing Cardozo was there to emphatically ensure the net bulged.

Even then, Benfica pushed hard for a third, but they had to settle for a narrow 2-1 victory which leaves the tie very much hanging in the balance going into the second leg – in a country where Benfica have NEVER won - but at least this time round a draw will suffice.

Braga went to Poland and had the unfortunate task of facing not only the surprise package of the competition, Lech Poznan, but also some rather adverse playing conditions. How adverse? Let’s just say it has been a while since the Portugeezer saw a snow-covered field and an orange football.

The Minho Warriors controlled the first half and could have scored, but allowed the home side to grow after the break half and were cruelly hit on the counter when star player Rudnevs intercepted a poor pass from Hugo Viana and easily beat Artur Moraes.

It is a pity Braga are not the same side that defeated Sevilla, but even this toned-down version should be capable of vanquishing the stubborn Poles and overcoming the 1-0 deficit at home.

In what was the best match involving a Portuguese team, FC Porto went to Sevilla hoping to continue their good record in Spain - which they did, even if it wasn’t the way they were expecting.

The Dragons started the match as you’d expect from a respected team accustomed to play against the best every season with fairly good results: dictating the team away from home to settle the round in the first leg.

With star striker Radamel Falcao still not fully match fit, manager André Villas-Boas went with the offensive triangle of James Rodríguez, Hulk and Varela, and it was the young Colombian Rodriguez who came closest to snatching the lead in the first half.

The home team would improve drastically in the second, with Navas, Fabiano and Kanouté creating all sorts of problems for the Dragons defence, but against the run of play Rodriguez hit a free-kick that Rolando connected with to give the Dragons the lead in the 58th minute.

Kanouté levelled eight minutes later and the Spaniards turned up the heat, only to suffer a lapse in concentration with just five minutes to go, allowing Fredy Guarín took to restore Porto’s lead and put the Portuguese table-toppers in a strong position to qualify for the Last 16.

In truth, Sporting's match at Ibrox was an uneventful one with relatively few opportunities for each side.

Paulo Sérgio made quite a puzzling decision when he handed January signing Cristiano a place in the starting XI, relegating the ever-reliable André Santos and the fierier Simon Vukcevic to the bench. As a by-product, Sporting’s offensive production dropped a few notches.

Still, if Rangers had a striker better than Kyle Lafferty, maybe the SPL outfit would have gotten a better result, as the Ulsterman wasted some good opportunities afforded him by the shaky Sporting defence.

Steven Whittaker scored from a corner to give the hosts the lead, but Chilean playmaker Matiás Fernández would score a precious goal just two minutes from time, meaning all eyes will be on Lisbon next week for the second leg.

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