2009/10: A European Odyssey

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Even though it’s not the remake of Stanley Kubrick's groundbreaking sci-fi movie, the race to the millions provided by continental competitions is still a very important event for every team.

The group stages are just getting under way but some clubs have already been through gruelling battles in the qualifiers.

And even though there were some casualties, the overall performance of the Portuguese teams has so far lived up to expectations.

Portugal started the 2009/10 season in a modest eighth place in the UEFA National League ranking, which guaranteed two places for the Champions League and four for the Europa League.

It's interesting to note that the Portuguese ranking exhibits a cyclical behaviour due to the huge gulf in quality between the Big Three and the other teams.

When we have fewer teams in the UEFA competitions, we score more points because those teams are the ones that possess international pedigree.

However, once we climb up the ranking and claim more European places, we are unable to keep that position.

Smaller teams usually end up being knocked out in the first two rounds and we quickly lose our hard-worked points, since they are divided by the number of teams.


While champions Porto went straight into the Champions League group stage, runners-up Sporting had to start in the Third Qualifying Round.

They very luckily squeaked past FC Twente on away goals to face Fiorentina in a play-off for the group stage.

History tells us that we usually have trouble beating Italian sides, and so it proved.

Sporting were better than the Viola over the 180 minutes, but suffered the same fate as Twente and went out on away goals. The Lions will now hope to roar in the Europa League.

Third-placed Benfica, seeded in the Europa League play-off draw, faced Ukrainian minnows Vorskla Poltava and tied it up in the first leg with an emphatic 4-0 home win.

Despite a very good run to the last 16 of last season's UEFA Cup, fifth-placed SC Braga went out early this term in surprising fashion against IF Elfsborg.

Despite good domestic form of three wins in three, the Archbishops weren’t able to confirm their status as favourites and were knocked out after losing both legs of the Third Qualifying Round against the organised Swedish side.

Much less was expected of Paços de Ferreira, the northern club with the 5,000-capacity stadium, who had finished 10th in the league but got into Europe by dint of losing the Portuguese Cup final to Porto.

They had to play two qualifying rounds and after squeaking through 1-0 on aggregate against Romanian side Zimbru Chisinau, they lost both legs to Israeli outfit Bnei Yehuda.

If those two sides were lacklustre, Portuguese pride would have to be preserved by CD Nacional – another side with a 5,000-capacity stadium, this time on the island of Madeira.

So when they drew 2008 UEFA Cup winners Zenit St Petersburg in the play-off match, many – The Portugeezer included – predicted a good old-fashioned battering.

With the odds heavily stacked against them, even after a 4-3 thriller on the island, they produced a spirited display and Rúben Micael scored with just a minute left to give the Islanders their key to the Europa League.

They did more than they were asked to and deserve every bit of praise.

Here’s a free tip to any scout that might be reading the blog: take a look at Nacional’s midfield trio – Micael, Leandro Salino and Luiz Alberto.

After all, the club has produced some good players – ask their old boy Cristiano Ronaldo.


So after the dust had settled, Portugal have three teams in the Europa League (Nacional, Benfica and Sporting) with Porto in the Champions League. So it's now time for the Portugeezer’s predictions!

FC Porto
Champions League Group D: Chelsea, Atletico Madrid, APOEL Nicosia
Prediction: 2nd

Atletico Madrid president Enrique Cerezo is currently living in a mighty state of denial after only mentioning Chelsea as big opposition in the group.

Evidently, he didn’t see last season’s Champions League last-16 matches between Atletico and Porto, which the Dragons dominated and were unlucky not to win by a big margin, rather going out on the away-goals rule.

The Spanish side may have world-class players, but they’re still not a world-class squad. Why? They lack the experience and the winning mentality at this level – something Porto acquired many years ago.

Second-seeds Porto will chase Chelsea for the top slot, but right now I have to give the upper hand to the English side due to their promising start under Carlo Ancelotti. [Ed's note – Sergio wrote this before Tuesday night, but Chelsea's narrow 1-0 Stamford Bridge win over Porto appears to prove his point...]

Europa League Group D: Heerenveen, Hertha Berlin, Ventspils
Prediction: 1st

After that unlucky elimination from the Champions League play-offs by Fiorentina, Sporting have been handed perhaps the easiest group for any of the Portuguese teams.

Among the top seeds for the Europe League group-stage draw, their main rival for top slot is less likely to be Heerenveen (who qualified by winning the Dutch Cup) than Hertha Berlin.

And as the German side lost two very important pieces in the likes of Andriy Voronin (yes Liverpool supporters, that same Voronin!) and Marko Pantelic, that surely gives an edge to the Lions.

Europa League Group I: Everton, AEK Athens, BATE Borisov
Prediction: 1st

Benfica have assembled a squad capable of advancing to the later stages of the competition and even though they usually stutter when playing away, there are no excuses for expecting an early exit.

Like Sporting, they were in the top-seed pot and can be happy with the teams drawn beneath them. Everton have one of the smallest squads in the Premier League and their main objective is achieving a top-six finish in the league, which is why they’ll finish second.

Like any Greek side, AEK will hope their fierce supporters push the team forward while Belarusian minnows BATE will be battling to upset the football odds.

Europa League Group L: Werder Bremen, Austria Vienna, Athletic Bilbao
Prediction: 3rd

Unsurprisingly given their unseeded status, Nacional were handed the toughest draw.

The Germans – the best side in the competition, according to UEFA's coefficients – and Basques are way out of their league. As much as I would like to see them pulling an once-in-a-lifetime shocker, Nacional will almost inevitably bow out of the competition.

However, they can be a tough nut to crack in Madeira, while they shouldn't be overawed by Austria Vienna's 12,500-capacity stadium.

And that’s the reason for the 3rd place prediction, which would represent a respectable performance.

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