Overshadowed by the more glamorous continental tournament, the Europa League struggles to garner ample interest from the fans of the beautiful game across the globe. To make matters worse, even the second-tier clubs plying their trade in the more famous leagues in Europe, have lately been observed to be pretty languid in their approach while playing in the lesser intra-continental championship. On one hand, the fact that three Portuguese sides have reached till the penultimate round of the competition is a sign of things to come in the future – though not indicative enough to signal a shift in power – but at the same time an amalgam of rationality and cynicism would strongly confirm the disinterested gesture held by the teams of bigger leagues towards the tournament. The manner in which clubs like Juventus, Liverpool and Manchester City exited from the earlier rounds could not have made it clearer.
Amidst all sorts of convolutions, where the very purpose of tournament’s existence is being questioned, the current edition of Europa League reaches the first leg of the semi-final round. Spanish flag bearers Villarreal are the only ones adding variety to what has otherwise been reduced to a Portugal-dominated affair. The ‘Yellow Submarines’ face FC Porto, who have almost raised a renaissance in the Iberian Peninsula during the course of the current season. The contest, by all means, prospects to be the match of equals and one may find the element of vigour that has been complained of being missed from this tournament.
The other semi-final to be played between Benfica and Braga ascertains a Portuguese presence in the final to be played on May 18 in Ireland. Between the two, this match is certainly a clash of lesser proportions but both the teams fancy a chance here to add to the trophy cabinet after being completely outclassed by Porto in the domestic league. Both teams have succeeded in eliminating some of the bigger names in continental football in the previous rounds of the tournament and hence both post a serious threat not only to put a foot in Dublin but also of lifting the trophy on the big day.
TheHardTackle takes a dig at what both the matches may have to offer during the first leg of the tie. Almost all the matches from the Quarter Finals were all but decided during the first leg itself and one wonders if the trend would maintain in the semis as well.
FC Porto (Portugal) Vs. Villarreal CF (Spain)
Jose Mourinho may be a self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ but it isn’t for nothing that Andres Villas Boas is bestowed upon with the title of ‘The Special Two’. Having assisted the discerning compatriot of his for some years, Boas is all set to exactly replicate the wonders Mourinho produced with Porto during the last decade in Europe.
Post the triumph in the 2002-03 edition of the erstwhile UEFA Cup, the Portuguese side have failed to reach the final of this competition and presently they find themselves on the verge of a place in the final. Boas’s men have never come as close to a European glory post the emphatic Champions League success under Mourinho in 2004.
Building on the sumptuous form in the domestic circuit, Porto have managed to translate the same quality of football in Europe too and have so far emerged as the most gorgeous unit in the Europa League.
Boas is expected to field his customary 4-3-3 design which has worked wonders for him throughout the season. As the Uruguayan full-back Jorge Fucile’s unavailability for rest of the season is confirmed, Romanian defender Cristian Sapunaru is going to be the most likely replacement on the right. Otamendi, Rolando and Alvaro Pereira should complete the back-line. Moutinho and Fernando would claim their places in the midfield whereas the return of Guarin would strengthen the squad. The three-man attack would be formed by in-form strikers Hulk and Falcao accompanied by Cristian Rodriguez trading behind them.
The Spanish opponents would not mind coming out of this fixture unscathed even if they are not able to wreck any havoc on the home side. The visitors are coming off a defeat to domestic rivals Sevilla in the weekend fixture in the league and would prefer to leave the wounds behind. With the fourth European spot pretty much sealed, they may afford to gather their entire attention on this critical two-leg tie that may ultimately decide the shape of their season. The Europa League remains to be the only plausible piece of silverware they are still in contention and Juan Carlos Garrido must be able to extract the best out of his men at this juncture.
For major portion of their productive season, Villarreal have followed the traditional 4-4-2 formation and in all likelihood, they may follow the suit. After missing the QF second leg serving a suspension, Brazilian forward Nilmar is back to add potency to the attack of the Spanish. Giuseppe Rossi, the joker in the pack for Garrido’s men will be the vital cog in the wheel and Villarreal’s chances to further their road into this competition heavily rely on his personal form. Carlos Marchena with all his experience should assume the role in the defensive line after serving a brief period in the midfield, whereas the midfield maestro Marcos Senna, though travelling with the team, is hardly expected to start.
Villarreal have had only one semi-final berth in Europe back in 2006 in the Champions League. With an added motive to grab the first European title in long time, the clash with the Portuguese team is going to be nothing short of dramatic. With the form both Nilmar and Rossi are in, they may fancy their chances to score enough away goals for Porto to come under all sorts of troubles before making a trip to Spain next week.
TheHardTackle’s PREDICTION: Porto 2-1 Villarreal.
SL Benfica (Portugal) Vs. SC Braga (Portugal)
The lesser fancied of the two semi-finals is the all Portuguese affair as Braga make a trip to the city of Lisbon to meet Benfica. The gulf between the two teams in terms of European glory could not have been vaster. While Benfica have had an illustrious history to boast of in European football with couple of European Cup titles and multiple appearances in the finals at the same level, Braga have had virtually no presence in the continental scene till date.
However, football is a game where history remains confined to those discussion forums and a team is only as good as its last match. Both the teams – having finished first and second respectively in the Portuguese Liga in the previous season – received the privilege to feature into the highest level club competition in Europe but were both undone in the group stage itself.
Both have since assured industrious performances in the knock-out rounds of the Europa League and with the domestic league title having already been clinched by Porto, the European title – though of lesser significance – remains to be the only piece of silverware they are fighting for. Moreover, both the sides may relish at the prospect of facing Porto in the final of the competition for it being their only chance in the season to exact revenge over Andres Villas-Boas’ men for the beatings they received in the league.
Jorge Jesus has, of late, been experimenting with both, the personnel and the formation with the teams he has deployed in the games against PSV and in the league. However, ahead of a crucial home encounter, he is expected to field an attacking 4-4-2 to ensure the forwards make their presence felt in the opponents half and show the intent to settle the tie in the first leg itself.
Fabio Coentaro and Maxi Pereira, at the wide defensive positions, love to make advanced runs and provide width to the attack led by Javier Saviola and Oscar Cardozo. The four-man midfield would be manned by Garcia, Martins, Aimar and Airton. Of the two, ‘The Eagles’ will be the more attacking team and given the advantage of the home conditions they are expected to score aplenty.
The visitors need to look no far then their recent triumph over English giants Arsenal to find the right quotient of motivation ahead of their trip to Lisbon. They trail Benfica by 14 points in the league currently and have not enjoyed a rich vein of form lately in the domestic scene. They did just enough in the previous round against Dynamo Kyiv holding the Ukrainians for a goalless stalemate at home.
Domingos Paciencia usually applies many alterations to the formation rather than sticking onto one. His ideas majorly emphasis on playing attacking football and his 4-4-2 is often switched to 4-3-3. However, with Paulo Cesar serving a suspension, Paciencia should stick to 4-3-3 with Lima and Alan up front, allied by Meyong Ze. In the absence of Portuguese shot-stopper Quim, his Brazilian replacement Artur will be placed between the posts. Vinicius would be a major absentee in the midfield owing to an injury.
Benfica are favourites to maintain an upper hand in the home leg but Braga have upstaged quite a few surprises this season and they may present another one here.
TheHardTackle’s PREDICTION: Benfica 2-0 Sporting Braga