As the football world laps up the prospect of a first-ever all Portuguese final, two more exciting ties are all set to take place in Europa League semis. Porto has all but qualified for the final after toying with Villarreal in first leg while the tie between Braga and Benfica remains tantalisingly poised.
Villarreal v FC Porto (First Leg: Porto 5-1 Villarreal)
When both teams went into the dressing room of Estadio Dragao last week it seemed as if Villas Boas’ FC Porto side had finally met its match. Garrido’s Yellow Submarine had dominated much of the game in first half – something the home crowd was not used to see this season. Porto came into this match on a 12 match winning streak but was taken aback by Villarreal’s enterprising display in initial stages. Nilmar and Rossi came close to scoring a goal for the away team while Hulk hit the cross-piece once. Villarreal broke the dead lock before half time with a well deserved goal. Nilmar’s cross was turned in by Cani – at that point it seemed like Villarreal would end the match with a clear advantage.
In second half, Villas Boas’ team unleashed one of the most ruthless and clinical displays seen in recent times. Falcao started Porto’s comeback when he converted a spot kick minutes after the second half kicked off. Guarin made it 2-1 for Porto when he latched on to a rebound around the hour mark. As Villarreal gradually tired, Porto became more and more dominant with their attacking surges. Hulk set up Falcao’s second goal after exploiting Villarreal’s weakness at left-back. Garrido’s decision to include Jose Catala instead of Joan Capdevilla as left back back-fired horribly. The Portuguese champions continued their unstoppable show as Falcao grabbed two more goals to seal a thumping 5-1 win. Porto has now scored 15 goals in last 3 Europa League matches while Falcao has put a fair distance between himself and rest for race of top scorer. Last week he equaled Jurgen Klinsmann’s record of scoring 15 goals in one edition of UEFA Cup/Europa League.
Villarreal’s domestic campaign is guaranteed a relatively happy ending as they have an eight point lead over 5th placed Sevilla with four matches left. One win out of these three matches will ensure they play in UCL qualifiers next season. The Spanish team is likely to make a final surge for overturn their first leg deficit. Villarreal’s performance in first half showed flaws in Villas Boas’ team which can be exploited further. Chances are slim but the Yellow Submarine will take heart from fellow Spanish side Deportivo La Coruna’s incredible 4-0 victory over AC Milan in 2003/04 season. The last team to overturn a four goal deficit in a European knock out game was Real Madrid against Borussia Monchengladbach in 1985/86 season. Porto’s high backline was vulnerable against Rossi’s pace and Nilmar’s trickery. However, it is unlikely that the two time European champions will try out a similar tactic in an away game. Villarreal will be wary of Porto’s impressive away record in Europe this season – they have won seven out of seven away games.
Prediction – Villarreal 1-2 Porto
SC Braga v Benfica (First Leg: Benfica 2-1 Braga)
Benfica edged past Braga at Estadio de Luz with a 2-1 scoreline. The away team out up another typically gritty performance – the type of performance that has seen Braga come unscathed from Liverpool and Kiev. Coach Domingos Paciencia hailed the ‘warrior like spirit’ of his team after their narrow defeat in first leg. In Lisbon Benfica dominated the proceedings from start and created several chances. Oscar Cardozo had one goal chalked off for offside and hit the post once. On the 51st minute Jardel gave Benfica a well deserved lead. Braga came back strongly to grab an invaluable away goal when Vandinho headed in from a Hugo Viana free-kick. Fittingly, it was Cardozo best player on the night, who grabbed the winner. His inch perfect free kick gave no chance to Artur giving Benfica a well deserved victory. Jardel will miss the return leg after picking up a yellow card in last match.
Eusebio’s former club will not have an easy task at the Quarry. Braga has turned its home ground into a fortress this season – keeping an incredible eight clean sheets in nine European games.
The two teams have met each other twice in league this season with both winning once. Benfica clinched the home tie with a 73rd minute goal from Carlos Martins while Braga exacted revenge at the Quarry with a 2-1 win with goals from Viana and Mossoro. The interlinking play between Alan and Lima has proved extremely effective for the Arsenalistas this season and will be one of the biggest threats to Benfica defense. Benfica will be looking towards Paraguayan hit-man Cardozo for another master-class. The 2009/10 Portuguese top-scorer was unstoppable in first leg and will need to play a big part for Benfica to breach Braga’s taut defense.
Prediction – Braga 1-1 Benfica