Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Once in a lifetime
This is a Europa League final of firsts - the first time the final has been played in Ireland, the first time the two finalists have been so geographically close (the cities of Porto and Braga are less than 50km apart), and the first time that SC Braga have ever appeared in a European final. As befits the nature of Portuguese domestic football, it will also be a final in the truest sense of the word.
• Preview: Porto v Benfica
That this is the case for Braga is a certainty, with coach Domingos Paciencia last week confirming the worst-kept secret in the country and admitting the Dublin showpiece will be his final duty as head coach. He is likely to be followed out of the front door at the Estadio Municipal by a string of his most influential players. Goalkeeper Artur was spotted at Lisbon airport this weekend, unconvincingly garbling that he was visiting friends rather than discussing a move to Benfica. Portugal international full-back Silvio is widely believed to have already tied up a switch to Atletico Madrid.
Major finals are transient moments that come and go in the blink of an eye, and Braga's status as underdogs is at least partially cancelled out by their clear ability to seize the moment. They have proved it throughout a long and arduous campaign, with their European adventure having begun with a debut involvement in the Champions League qualifiers against Celtic just under ten months ago.
Domingos' men have recovered from a series of setbacks that would have finished lesser mortals: the 6-0 defeat at Arsenal on the occasion of their first Champions League group game, the departure of key players in January (such as Matheus, who scored the brace which gave Braga sweet revenge over the Gunners in the return leg) and a decimated defence for the quarter-final return against Dynamo Kiev (which nevertheless kept a clean sheet).
New Sporting Lisbon coach-elect Domingos is an admirable and dignified man, who resisted president Antonio Salvador's attempts to publicly put him on the spot about his future in recent months, before the club had negotiated the Europa League's latter stages. That ability to disassociate himself from outside clutter has clearly been transmitted to his team - one in which only Alan and Hugo Viana, of the players who were in the Champions League squad, had experience the highest echelon of European competition.
The second leg of the semi-final against Benfica was a case in point; Braga blocked out Europe's clamour for a Porto-Benfica final, forgot about recent bad-tempered clashes with Jorge Jesus' side in the league, and played their normal game, clinching victory with their oft-favoured one-two of a set-piece goal and heroic defending.
Even if Porto have never hidden their pleasure that Benfica failed to make it to Dublin - as was clear from the on-pitch celebrations at El Madrigal after the semi-final - there is a lingering sense of wistfulness at their eternal rivals' absence. Benfica president Luis Felipe Vieira always has a reference to the Apito Dourado ('Golden Whistle') affair to hand when asked about Porto's achievements, and even with Vieira nowhere to be seen, his Porto counterpart Jose Nuno Pinto da Costa couldn't resist having a pop back.
"It's clear that we're in a (European) final for the fifth time without cheating, without having scored a goal with a hand, but all with the feet or the head," he told journalists as the group prepared to depart Francisco Sa Carneiro airport for Dublin on Monday, referring to Vata's handball goal which saw Benfica to the 1990 European Cup final at the expense of Marseille.
Having treated himself to a moment of fun, Pinto da Costa returned to matters of his own club, and how he might seek to prolong these golden moments into next season, when Porto make their return to the Champions League. If nothing can be taken for granted as regards the result of the Dublin final itself, most would concede that these are two clubs going in very different directions, with Braga accepting this as an apex and contemplating a rebuild, while Porto try to hold onto their own winning formula and take it further.
That formula includes the retention of their record-breaking coach Andre Villas-Boas and of star forwards Falcao and Hulk. The former, having already broken the record for goals scored in a season in this tournament (16), told media back in his native Colombia this weekend that he is negotiating a contract extension at the Dragao.
Meanwhile Pinto da Costa - becoming increasingly exasperated at having to repeat that Villas-Boas will still be at the club next season on a weekly basis - insisted the weekend's announcement that Porto spent €13.5 million on 40% more of Hulk's registration (bringing Porto's total interest in the player to 85%) was not in preparation to sell the Brazilian on, "but to keep him".
Villas-Boas deserves credit for creating such a happy camp that his star players are pledging their futures to Porto at a time when Europe's finest are jostling for position for their signatures. The comparisons with his mentor may be overcooked, but one trait that Villas-Boas does share with Jose Mourinho is the ability to make all of his the group feel part of something special. While the Real Madrid boss may appear to more deliberately foster a cult of personality, it was notable - and amusing - to see Porto's players dressed in regulation Villas-Boas black raincoats over their suits in their airport waiting for departure, a fleet of Mini-Mes.
Though it is often said that a cup final is the chance of a lifetime, this one is even more so. The first (and who knows, maybe last) all-Portuguese European final is between one side that knows that this is their club's one and only chance for glory, and another whose desire is so keenly developed that they took 84 from a possible 90 points in an unbeaten league season while maintaining a push for domestic and continental cups. If ever a final promises to be fought to the end, it is this one.