FC Porto v Manchester City
The very first two balls picked out of the pots in the Europa Cup last 32 draw led to sharp intakes of breath the length and breadth of Portugal and threw up surely the tie of the round: a fascinating match-up between perennial overachievers on the European stage, FC Porto, and Manchester City, sitting pretty atop the Premier League, and with greedy designs on continental domination in the short to medium term.
|Vitor Pereira: Skoda|
In any but the most recent of seasons over the last two decades the Dragons would have started this battle as hot favourites. Not so nowadays. Porto will have to produce two performances markedly improved from anything they have managed thus far in 2011/12 to overcome the Citizens. So what can Manchester City fans expect?
Although with largely the same personnel as the all-conquering side that André Villas-Boas expertly coached to four trophies last season, Porto are a much less daunting proposition for opponents this year. The two major parts missing from the set-up behind that wonderfully attack-minded team of 2010/11 that steamrollered all-comers at home and abroad are the coach, AVB, lured away by the bright lights of London and the deep pockets of Roman Abramovich, and deadly Colombian striker Falcao.
Kléber is no Falcao
But it is precisely the holes those two protagonists left behind that can be identified as the root causes behind many of Porto’s less than stellar performances this season. As is their wont, Porto turned to South American talent in an attempt to replace Falcao, purchasing young Brazilian striker Kléber, who had impressed over two seasons at Marítimo. Six months on and Kléber still looks like a new kid at school trying too hard to make new friends. Unsure of himself, the marksman has looked distinctly ordinary, arguably even regressing from the form shown for the Madeira-based team, both in terms of his finishing and his link-up play. The clever overhead kick which was the “two” in an ingenious “one-two” with João Moutinho in Porto’s second goal against Vitória Guimarães recently was a rare moment of chemistry with his team-mates.
Pereira is no AVB
Likewise, coach Vítor Pereira has wasted little time in engendering among Porto fans a sense of yearning for his predecessor. The two right-backs who had played not inconsiderable roles in Porto’s considerable recent successes - Sapunaru and Fucile - were inexplicably jettisoned and replaced with centre-back Maicon, a man mountain of a defender but one who looks every inch a central defender. Constant tinkering, especially from midfield forwards, has eroded what was a well-oiled attacking unit to such an extent that Porto’s players have rarely looked on the same wavelength this season. And Pereira’s press conferences have at times bordered on the paranoiac, only adding to the feeling that he is a Skoda driver who has been tossed the keys to a Ferrari.
|Álvaro Pereira: useful down the flank|
However, if Manchester City think they are in for an easy ride, there is a good chance they will be punished. While Porto have struggled to click this season, the squad is packed with outstanding individuals. In what was supposed to be a serious tilt at a 3rd Champions League triumph, president Pinto da Costa kept the core of last season’s side together and added to it in what is the highest budget ever lavished on the team - some €90 million euros. Hulk and João Moutinho have been linked to moves to Barcelona, no less, while left-back Álvaro Pereira and young Colombian prodigy James Rodríguez would also not look out of place in such exalted company.
Returing hero Lucho González, who arrived shortly before the winter transfer deadline window slammed shut adds style and guile in midfield.
New Brazilian Danilo, who cost the club 13 million euros, at last made his debut at the weekend and the right-sided defender/midfielder is likely to add another dimension to the team. For all Pereira’s lack of a clear vision, the most recent displays suggest that Porto may just be about to click.
In what looks like the most exciting Europa League since the tournament was revamped, Porto could be running into form at just the right time. The club’s natural habitat is in the Champions League. Only twice have Porto started the season in Europe’s second-tier competition in the last decade. On both occasions they won it.
Possible line-up versus City: Helton; Danilo, Rolando, Otamendi, Álvaro Pereira; Fernando, Moutinho, Lucho; James Rodriguez, Kléber, Hulk
Read more from Tom on FC Porto and Portuguese football in general at the essential Portugoaldot.net here