What next for Portugal's Europa League trio?

One minute: that’s all it can take to ruin a perfect night. Four Portuguese teams played in the last 32 of the Europa League, but only three managed to go through to the next round. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to work out that the sole 'losers' were Sporting.

It was a great shame for Portuguese football, especially as the Lions were winning 2-1 and gave away a silly goal with just a minute to play in the match. Rangers were not the better side, but as in 2008 when the sides met in the UEFA Cup, they did enough to beat them.

With Sporting making an early exit, Paulo Sergio finally succumbed to the insurmountable pressure and left the club. It is debatable whether this will actually do any good, with elections still to be held and an all-important match against Benfica for the League Cup, their last chance to claim a piece of silverware, to be played this Wednesday. But that’s another blog post...

Had Sporting not conceded that late goal, Portugal would have been the only nation with four teams in the Europa League last 16. Having three is still good, but there’s a feeling more could have been achieved.

Nonetheless, the Portuguese league collected more coefficient points and now lie comfortably in sixth position, up three places up from 2010. Sixth guarantees two spots in the Champions League group stages, with another team entered into the qualifying rounds.

That’s three teams - more than the likes of Russia, Holland and Ukraine. And considering Portuguese football revolves around the ‘Big Three’, that should be the domestic league’s realistic target.

Predictions

Braga

The draw for the last 16 had already been settled, so even as they finished off Lech Poznan Braga knew they would most likely face Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool in a David v Goliath tie.

The Portuguese side have two things going against them. Firstly, the disadvantage of playing the first leg at home means the second and probably decisive match will be played in the amazing Anfield atmosphere, where the Kop may be too much for a smaller team to handle. Secondly, Braga’s form has been suspect this season, and they have to be at their best if they want to emulate their Celtic and Sevilla heroics.

Still, Liverpool are by no means invincible. They have just been defeated 3-1 by West Ham United and have struggled all season. A focused Braga can pile more misery on Liverpool, but to stand a chance of pulling another upset, they’d better up their performance.

Prediction: Braga claim a narrow win at home, but eventually bow out.

Benfica

At last the Eagles ended their German hoodoo after a classy, polished display in Stuttgart that boosted their Europa League credentials. They’ll now play against PSG, and should be regarded as odds-on favourites.

The Parisian side are fourth in the French league, trailing table-toppers Lille by just two points, but only managed to see off BATE Borisov of Belarus on away goals.

Enjoying their good run of form, Benfica clinched their 17th consecutive victory and should they win their next matches against Sporting and Braga – two of their toughest tests – the entire stadium will be fired up to root for the Eagles.

Another interesting factor in this match-up is the large number of emigrants in Paris that might just flood Parc des Princes to watch Benfica play. Last time the two teams met in 2007 that played a part in Benfica’s victory, and it might just tilt the scales once again.

Prediction: Benfica win big at home, draw away and go through.

Porto

Porto had a tricky draw that paired them firstly with Sevilla and now with CSKA Moscow. The Russians are one of the toughest teams in the competition with players such as stalwart goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, Manchester United outcast Zoran Tosic, creative yet versatile Keisuke Honda and prolific striker Tomas Necid.

The weather will also pose another problem for Porto as it will be quite chilly in Russia, but the Dragons have every reason to believe they’ll be in the quarter-finals of the competition.

They faced CSKA in the 2004-05 and 2006 Champions League competitions, and in both cases recorded 0-0 home draws followed by victories in Moscow. More intriguingly, the Russian outfit failed to score a single goal in those four matches played.

Prediction: Porto are held by the weather in Russia but win comfortably at home to advance to the quarter-finals.

One final thought, amigos. Looking at the teams still in the competition, the Portugeezer cannot help but wonder whether there is a team that can beat Porto. The Dragons have the players, the winning mentality and the pedigree to win the competition and, on paper, only Liverpool, Manchester City, Benfica and the winner of Bayer Leverkusen and Villarreal may be able to stop them.

Could Dublin witness a massive influx of Portuguese folk around mid-May? We shall see.

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