Mighty Moutinho

Posted by Tom Kundert

Dynamism, controlled aggression, positional intelligence, creativity, boundless energy. All five foot, seven inches of him.

As the 2012-13 season kicked off, only one aspect was missing from Joao Moutinho's game: Goals. This season he has set about putting that right.

"We've been working hard on my shooting in training because I know I should score more goals," said Moutinho after netting a 25 yard thunderbolt against Academica in November. So impressive has Moutinho's improvement been in striking a dead ball that he is now invariably first choice to take free kicks awarded to Porto around the box. His classy finish tonight against Malaga is his fifth goal of the season. That compares to just three in his first two years wearing a Dragon on his chest.

- Moutinho goal gives Porto advantage

The result? A near perfect modern day box-to-box midfielder.

Much of the talk before FC Porto's first leg last 16 Champions League game against Malaga focused on three players: the home side's extravagantly talented Colombian midfielder James Rodriguez, his compatriot and teammate Jackson Martinez, who is fast turning into a goal-scoring phenomenon and Malaga's star man Isco, who looks set to be the prize in a bidding war among some of Europe's top clubs in the summer.

Moutinho, just like when he dons a Portugal shirt, is seen as part of the supporting cast. He will rarely hog the headlines in the same manner as Ronaldo or Nani when playing for the national team, or Rodriguez or Martinez at the club level, but he is more important in ensuring his team plays with the right balance and cohesion. Moutinho's majestic performances at Euro 2012 emphasised just that point. In the games against Holland and the Czech Republic, praise was rightly lavished on Ronaldo for his goal-scoring exploits, yet the faultless positioning, probing and passing by the Algarve-born Moutinho in those two games was equally worthy of the highest eulogies -- which were never written.

Nevertheless, Moutinho was hot property coming out of Euro 2012. Tottenham Hotspur were keen on reuniting the midfielder with his ex-coach, Andre Villas-Boas. The deal broke down at the eleventh hour because of third-party ownership or Moutinho's wage demands, depending on which paper you read. Another more prosaic explanation is that Moutinho simply knows he is good enough to aim higher. Two similarly pint-sized Barcelona midfielders are getting no younger, and Moutinho would appear to be a perfect fit to replace Andres Iniesta or Xavi. The fact that Porto recently splashed out 3.3 million euros to buy back the 15% stake in Moutinho they had sold to an investment agency suggests a move this summer is in the offing.

Should he maintain the quality of performance he showed tonight, he is likely to have no shortage of suitors. A big fish in a small pond in Portugal, the Champions League is the ideal stage to showcase his football. Moutinho, as usual, was everywhere tonight, snapping at opposition players, making interceptions, distributing the ball accurately to teammates near and far and completely outshining Isco.

As if that wasn't enough, his newfound affinity for goals came to the fore with a beautiful first-time right-footed finish after making a darting run into the box. Television replays showed Moutinho was marginally offside when Alex Sandro's cross came in, but such was the dominance of Porto's display that few can argue with the justice of the result, and such was the mastery of Moutinho's performance that it was fitting he should be the one to give the Portuguese side a tangible reward on the night and a potentially telling advantage in the tie.

"We controlled the game from start to finish, and could have scored more, but it was a good victory," said Moutinho, moments after the final whistle. Asked whether Porto may rue having such a slim advantage to take to Spain, Moutinho responded: "The important thing was to win without conceding goals. Now we're going to work hard in Malaga to get through to the next round."

With Rodriguez likely to be back to full fitness by then, Porto will indeed go into the second leg with a great deal of confidence. The return match is only on 13 March and no doubt Martinez will have added to his goal tally by then. Rodriguez and Martinez will be talked up. Moutinho will just play his normal game. Consummately.

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