A perfect night in PortugalÃ¢ÂÂs European odyssey
It was a flawless Thursday for the Portuguese trio still in the Europa League. Porto, Braga and Benfica won their matches to not only get ahead in their last 16 ties, but also contribute more points to the leagueÃ¢ÂÂs coefficient ranking.
LetÃ¢ÂÂs see how each team fared:
Despite their incredible form this season and their immense experience in European competitions Ã¢ÂÂ having won the UEFA Cup and the Champions League in 2003 and 2004 respectively Ã¢ÂÂ there were still a lot of people touting CSKA Moscow as favourites. Porto are a household name in the Champions League knockout stages and usually go toe-to-toe with EuropeÃ¢ÂÂs finest. Were they really underdogs?
History was also on the DragonsÃ¢ÂÂ side as they had claimed two draws and two (away) successes against the Russians. Even more impressively, in those four matches Porto didnÃ¢ÂÂt concede a single goal.
Forced to cope with the cold and the artificial turf, Porto had a few problems in the first half, particularly in the first 25 minutes when the Russian outfit was clearly on the front foot. During that period, striking duo Vagner Love and Seydou Doumbia had a few opportunities but goalkeeper Helton proved up to the task. Gradually, Porto pushed the Russians back and started enjoying meaningful spells of possession themselves.
The second half was completely different, though Vagner Love still had the time to squander CSKAÃ¢ÂÂs best opportunity after great work and an assist from Doumbia. And yet in the 70th minute, the Dragons would melt the Russian ice when Colombian midfielder Fredy Guarin Ã¢ÂÂ very lively throughout the match Ã¢ÂÂ combined with Silvestre Varela and unleashed a powerful drive just outside the box that gave Ã¢ÂÂthe next Lev YashinÃ¢ÂÂ Igor Akinfeev no chance.
CSKA tried to push forward, but with both teams tiring, the scoreline remained unchanged.
A 1-0 win in Moscow is a very good result for Porto, and while it does not guarantee them passage to the quarter-finals, it vastly improves their odds. Few teams have been able to top them or even stop them at Estadio do Dragao, and The Portugeezer doesnÃ¢ÂÂt think the Moscow side will add to the number.
What did I tell you? In a previous post, The Portugeezer had Braga narrowly beating Liverpool at home and they did just that.
Was it a great performance? No. Was it a declaration of superiority? No. But it was an impressive result against a team that had just beaten Manchester United.
Braga have been lacking consistency this season and are currently fighting for a place in next yearÃ¢ÂÂs Europa League, but the win against Benfica in the week gave them a massive boost.
The Minho Warriors led the Reds when Sotirios Kyrgiakos gave away a silly penalty and Alan converted for the goal that would ultimately seal the result. Unable to use the cup-tied Luis SuÃÂ¡rez, who played so well against Manchester United, Liverpool played with just Dirk Kuyt up front and werenÃ¢ÂÂt too keen to push forward, fearing a hit on the break.
It was Braga who could have doubled their lead when full-back SilvioÃ¢ÂÂs wonder strike hit the woodwork, much to the dismay of the home side.
The second half was little more than a snoozefest, with very few noticeable highlights, but that was enough for Braga to secure an historic win against an historic side.
LetÃ¢ÂÂs not get carried away, because in front of the Kop at Anfield the odds will be heavily stacked against Braga. It is hard to imagine another 6-0 thrashing such as the one they suffered at the hands of Arsenal, but Liverpool can still easily score three or four goals Ã¢ÂÂ even without Suarez.
The EaglesÃ¢ÂÂ momentum was halted when they were defeated at Braga. That match, among other things, exposed one problem theyÃ¢ÂÂre now facing: fatigue.
Jorge JesusÃ¢ÂÂ insistence (or stubbornness) on using the same players, coupled with his trademark high-octane football, is finally taking its toll and the players look more tired and less focused.
Whether or not Jesus will opt to tinker now that the faint hopes of claiming back-to-back championships have been dashed, playing the best against Paris Saint-Germain in front of the home supporters was a must.
Nico Gaitan and Salvio returned to the starting XI, but Benfica started the match very nervously, giving away possession easily and lacking both width and ideas. The French outfit, which had left some of their starters in Paris, found plenty of room to operate and their compact midfield outmuscled the Eagles for much of the first half.
It was hardly a surprise when they broke the deadlock through Peguy Luyindula. Minutes later, jeers were heard in the crowd as PSG forward Nene hit the post.
Everything Benfica did seemed out of perspiration rather than inspiration Ã¢ÂÂ until an amazing move in the 41st minute woke up the entire stadium. Uruguayan full-back Maxi Pereira combined with Carlos Martins, controlled the return pass with his chest and volleyed home for an amazing equaliser.
Benfica upped the tempo in the second half, albeit with occasional lapses in the defence, and would claim their second goal nine minutes from time through sub Franco Jara. The former Arsenal Sarandi player came on for Salvio and his fresher legs were pivotal in the comeback.
2-1 is not the best of results at home, but on a normal day Benfica are better than PSG hands down. There will be a strong fan support in Paris, too, from the large number of Portuguese emigrants that will flood the stadium. Still, resting players in preparation for that match is not only the safe bet, but also the smartest option.
After the first leg, it was three wins out of three Ã¢ÂÂ a true hat-trick. Can the performance be repeated next week? Stay tuned...