FC Barcelona and Real Madrid – the two Spanish giants in European football – have ascertained a date to set the stage ablaze in an all Spanish semi-final clash. But in a lesser continental competition, it is Portugal stealing the show as both FC Porto and Benfica have almost sealed a place in the semi final strengthening the prospect of an all Portuguese final. Both the sides managed to grab an indomitable lead during the first legs of their ties and are now the runaway favorites to progress. SC Braga, the third Portuguese side alive in the competition, travelled to Ukraine the other day to lock horns with Dynamo Kyiv in the first leg and are returning Portugal with a decisive away goal advantage. A goalless stalemate could be more than enough for them to ensure a place in the last four. Villarreal – the only Spanish flag-bearers in the last eight – too, much like Porto and Benfica, have put one foot in the next round with an astounding victory at home.
Among those who faced the wrong edge of the sword during the first legs, only Dynamo Kyiv nurture some hope of advancing to the next round by registering a win of any margin in Portugal. However, the likes of FC Twente, PSV Eindhoven and Spartak Moscow face an almost certain elimination threat over their heads. As the reverse legs of the four fixtures take place over the midweek, TheHardTackle previews each of the contests.
1. Spartak Moscow (Russia) Vs. FC Porto (Portugal):
First leg result: Porto 5-1 Spartak
Having already won the domestic title with five more rounds to play in the league, the Portuguese giants are arguably treading through their best season ever and one should hardly be surprised if they run away with another European title after winning the erstwhile UEFA Cup in 2003 followed by the elusive Champions League trophy the next year under the tutelage of Jose Mourinho.
The domestic champions showed no mercy to the Russian outfit Spartak Moscow chopping their hopes into pieces with a demolishing 5-1 win in the first leg of the contest. The remaining 90 minutes of the tie are to be played in a different country, under climatic conditions and nature of pitch that vastly differ to that of the usual venues in Europe.
Though Spartak have hardly any balls left in their court, they have nothing to lose at this point and may take the game to Porto giving them a run for their money. Valery Karpin’s men will have to run out of their skins to stop the attacking duo of Hulk and Falcao from furthering the wounds of the home team.
Porto manager Andre Villas Boas is in the making of another Jose Mourinho and a European title at this tender age will do a world of good to his managerial credentials.
The Moscow unit has had a disastrous start to the latest edition of the domestic season and are currently sitting into the relegation zone having managed only four points from as many games. An inspiring performance against the Portuguese champions may not earn them a qualification in the semis but should definitely help them steady the sinking ship.
Prediction: Spartak 1-2 Porto
2. PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands) Vs. SL Benfica (Portugal):
First leg result: Benfica 4-1 PSV
A defeat at home to domestic rivals Porto, put the Lisbon side even mathematically out of contention to win the league title and hence the prospect to face Porto in the final may provide them with a chance to exact the revenge. For that to transpire however, they still require to put the final nail in the coffin on their travel to the city of Eindhoven in Netherlands.
Building upon a glorious three goal lead acquired during the home leg, Benfica may maintain the dominance in front of the away crowd too. With two titles still in reach, the Eagles have still plenty to play for in the season. Both Javier Saviola and Oscar Cardozo have let their goal scoring foot do the talking throughout the season and they are highly likely to continue the torment on the PSV defence.
The Dutch team have lately lost their pole position in the league table to rivals FC Twente who are still alive in the Europa League too. PSV trail Twente by two points and with four more rounds to play in the league, the race to the title may well go down to the wire. In this scenario, where a domestic title appears very much in the reach, an exit at the hands of Benfica from Europe may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
Prediction: PSV 2-2 Benfica
3. FC Twente (Netherlands) Vs. Villarreal CF (Spain):
First leg result: Villarreal 5-1 Twente
FC Barcelona have showed an apparent interest in signing Giuseppe Rossi at the beginning of the next season. The American born Italian prodigy has therefore got a point to prove that his height or may be the lack of it is not the only factor for the Catalans’ inclination towards him; And what better way to prove it than winning his team a European title, nevermind not the most coveted one.
But in their quest to add titles to the kitty, Villarreal first need to overpass the reigning Dutch champions FC Twente who were reduced to the knock-out round in the competition after their failure to qualify past the group stages in the Champions League. They have recently reclaimed the top spot in the Eredivise superseding PSV Eindhoven and with only four more matchdays to go, they would not exactly mind embracing the elimination from this stage.
The four goal lead in the Yellow Submarines’ bag could prove to be more than handy and a convincing away victory should help them heal the wounds of the 5-0 humiliation at the hands of Valencia over the weekend. Currently they are sitting pretty at fourth position in La Liga which should comfortably earn them a place in the play-off round for the Champions League and hence they can afford to divert their attention towards the European competition without the fear of slipping deep in the league table.
Prediction: Twente 1-1 Villarreal
4. SC Braga (Portugal) Vs. Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine):
First leg result: Dynamo 1-1 Braga
Andriy Shevchenko – an unmatched legend in European football – could well be for one last time playing at the knock-out stages in a European competition but serving a suspension, he cannot take the field against Braga – The Portuguese newbies in the European scene. With age unquestionably catching up with the former Rossoneri superstar and the Dynamo squad’s own shortcomings, he may not get another chance to feature at this level.
With this in mind and the domestic league title being fairly out of scope, there could not have been a bigger source of motivation for Yuri Semin’s boys to let Sheva have a chance to touch another European trophy before hanging up his boots once and for all.
Braga, on the other hand, have had a dramatic season to say the least. They have won five straight league games coming into this knock-out fixture. Hardly does that matter as Porto have already put the title race to rest making it impossible for any of the teams to even match them remotely close, let alone go past them.
That makes Braga’s task cut out and they know just about exactly what they are required to do. Having scored a priceless away goal in Ukraine, they can afford to field more number of players in the midfield who focus on denying the possession to the opposition rather than providing the creative spark to the attack. Dynamo Kyiv must score to remain into the hunt for a semi-final berth. Given the ascendancy with which Braga managed to hold on to English giants Liverpool, a threefold of Portuguese teams in the last four is pretty much on the cards.
Prediction: Braga 0-0 Dynamo