Porto confident of upsetting the odds
Ever since the Champions League quarter-final draw paired FC Porto and Bayern Munich, all other football in Portugal has served only as a mild distraction ahead of such a keenly anticipated tie.
PortuGOAL brings you the definitive preview of what all Portistas are hoping will be a historic night at the Estádio do Dragão on Wednesday.
Tom Kundert sets the scene, Vasco Mota Pereira does the tactics and an audio preview is also included.
When the two clubs were thrown together at UEFA headquarters in Nyon on 20 March, an almost audible collective groan could be heard reverberating over northern Portugal. Porto, the only unbeaten side left in this year’s Champions League, had taken full advantage of a kind draw in the last-16 stage, and after Julen Lopetegui’s side had demolished Basel there was real hope that should they avoid the superheavyweights again, a place in the semi-finals was a real possibility.
Then the name Bayern Munich came out of the pot.
Initial shock soon gave way to a call to arms from everyone connected to the Porto nation. Club legend Vítor Baía was quick off the mark reminding people that possibly the club’s greatest ever moment – the first time they were crowned European Champions in 1987 – came precisely against the German giants. At the time it was a similar David versus Goliath scenario, but Madjer’s moment of genius toppled the Bavarian side and put Porto on the football map.
In the weeks since the draw a wave of injuries has afflicted Pep Guardiola’s team, which together with some uncharacteristically less than dominant performances from the Bundesliga champions, have fuelled Porto’s hopes. David Alaba, Mehdi Benatia, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Javi Martínez. No, it’s not a list of invited footballers to an all-star match, but rather the Bayern players who are out or doubtful for the match.
“The situation is critical, really critical,” said Pep Guardiola last week. “At the moment I only have 14 fit players. I have no alternatives and we are tired, but I hope our minds can control our legs.”
Unfortunately, Porto themselves are not at full strength. Injuries have deprived them of Spanish winger Cristian Tello just when he was finding his stride, while star striker Jackson Martínez hasn’t kicked a ball in anger for a month and remains a big doubt. On the flip side of those two absentees, replacements Ricardo Quaresma is playing some of the best football of his career, and Cameroonian centre-forward Vincent Aboubakar has deputised admirably for Jackson.
“I have two things to say about this match,” said coach Julen Lopetegui after the weekend victory at Rio Ave. "We have our dream and our ambition.”
Porto have reason to be optimistic. That 1987 triumph proved the launch pad for building a pedigree as a side to be feared throughout the continent. The ultimate prize in club football was won again in 2004, not to mention two victories in UEFA’s second-tier club competition, in 2003 and 2011. It has been a wonderful three decades for the Blue and Whites, at home and abroad, so it is high praise when club president Pinto da Costa recently said: “I believe the current squad is our strongest in 30 years.”
Some indifferent performances throughout the season and the fact the northerners trail Benfica in the standings means few agree with the historical leader. But when Porto have been good in 2014/15 they have been very good, especially since the turn of the year. Porto have scored three of more goals in 10 of their 20 games in 2015. Should they hit top gear on Wednesday, Pinto da Costa’s claim may gain credence.
Probable Porto starting line-up:
Fabiano, Danilo, Maicon, Martins Indi, Alex Sandro, Casemiro, Herrera, Óliver Torres, Brahimi, Aboubakar, Ricardo Quaresma
The clash between FC Porto and Bayern Munich will be interesting for numerous reasons and it’s fair to assume that even fans of other Portuguese teams will be glued to their TV sets come next Wednesday, whether it be to see their rivals annihilated, to watch a Portuguese team play their preferred underdog role or just to watch a very entertaining football match on a warm spring evening - after all, that’s what the Champions League is all about.
In line with our usual format, after Tom Kundert set the scene, I invite you to join me, Vasco Mota Pereira, in the geek corner and delve a bit deeper into the tactical side of things.
To be or not to be
Julen Lopetegui started working on what the Portuguese call modelo de jogo - your tactical blueprint, if you will - early last July. He spent the first weeks of the season implementing the core of his ideas and took advantage of the Champions League break to do something more than just have his team play and recover for the next match.
His ball-hogging ideas are well known to everyone, with all its flaws and virtues. This is where the game against Bayern Munich poses a huge dilemma: the Germans are one of the worst teams at the moment to try to play possession-based football against and it has been proven that Bayern Munich are most vulnerable when opponents choose to sit back (without parking the bus), close down the middle and hit on the break. Wolfsburg did so expertly at the end of January and were duly rewarded with an impressive 4-1 win.
Herein lies the conundrum: do you stay true to your ideas even though this might be the only couple of games where it might prove costly to do so, or do you radically change the tack and risk instilling doubt on your players’ minds even before the ball has been kicked for the first time? The answer will certainly be one of the most interesting aspects of the match.
Chinks in the armour
If I were a gambling man, I would bet that Lopetegui will remain faithful to the tenets he’s been trying to pass on to his charges. Let’s assume for a moment that’s the case and dwell for a moment on FC Porto’s potential vulnerabilities.
The first one has necessarily to do with the first phase of build-up play. The Dragons like to come out with ball from the back but they have often been found wanting doing it against stronger opposition, with the centre-backs and goalkeeper Fabiano the main culprits. In the previous knock-out stage against Basel, for instance, even though the Swiss eventually faded away, FC Porto found it hard to get the ball out from the back in decent conditions throughout the first 15 minutes, and were forced to resort to long punts up the pitch to bypass the pressure.
Even though Bayern Munich are not as ruthless now as they were, for example, when they trounced Roma at the Olimpico last autumn, Pep Guardiola will surely have picked up on that and might just revolve his strategy around repeatedly ramming against FC Porto’s defence at first in order to try to score a goal and remain in the driver’s seat throughout the two matches.
On the other hand, while it’s certainly true that Lopetegui managed to improve his side’s reaction to the moment the ball was given away, the team still looks shaky when forced to defend deep in numbers, with Casemiro not always able to make the best decisions and both Óliver and Herrera sometimes taking way too much time to adopt covering positions, especially for a team of Bayern Munich’s stature.
Considering that the Germans will most likely play with Robert Lewandowski up front with Mario Götze and Thomas Müller effectively acting as inside forwards, the pockets of space in front of FC Porto’s defence and especially around Casemiro will be paramount.
Bayern Munich’s approach
In spite of how he sometimes comes across in at least some of the press, Guardiola is anything but a dogmatic figure. He has claimed to abhor tiki-taka (a turn of phrase coined by Javier Clemente to describe the mind-numbing, incessant, pointless passing) as an end in itself and at Bayern Munich he has proven to be a lot more pragmatic than he was previously given credit for.
Last season, for example, he threw Javi Martínez - who usually plays at centre-back in Guardiola’s sides - on to the pitch as a second forward to circumvent Borussia Dortmund’s pressing up front and hoof the ball up towards a clear mark. Just last weekend, against the same opposition, the Catalan chose not to be as diligent with ball possession and had no qualms in playing with his lines further back. Last Wednesday against Bayer Leverkusen, Guardiola opted for a mixed approach, privileging possession but with much less risk than usual.
With all this in mind, there therefore remain some doubts as to what approach Bayern Munich’s coach will be using, never mind the tinkered formation - particularly given Mehdi Benatia’s recent injury.
Using the same reasoning as in FC Porto’s case, I would be inclined to believe the German champions will come to Porto trying to elucidate the competition’s last undefeated team that they’re now playing against the big boys, rather than showing them too much respect. An early goal would allow Guardiola’s men a chance to rest with the ball and some more much-needed time for the injured players to come back in less of a hurry.
Where it will be won and lost
The final section deals with advantage points of both teams and will start off with hosts FC Porto. The Dragons were dealt a huge blow when Jackson Martínez limped off in the victory at Braga and Cristian Tello got injured last week ahead of the match against Estoril. In fact, the Colombian striker would be extremely useful to link up play up front and act as a nuisance to Bayern’s centre-backs, while Tello would be just the right man to take advantage of the acres of space Bayern often leave whenever they can’t smother the opposing team immediately after giving the ball away.
Still, Vincent Aboubakar has shown some promising signs and his physically imposing presence and attributes are not usually Dante or Jérôme Boateng’s cup of tea. The Cameroonian’s vigour will certainly be needed if FC Porto are to withstand the impending German pressure.
On the other hand, this might be the night where Óliver Torres stands up and shows an attentive European audience just what he’s capable of. The Spanish wizard will be the key man when FC Porto win the ball back, since Bayern Munich are almost irresistible in the immediate seconds after giving the ball away. Óliver has to consistently provide the out-ball so the Dragons have time to breathe and a chance to connect their play. He will find joy - and most likely the talents of Yacine Brahimi, whose ability to get out of mazes will be needed more than ever - if he drifts to the side of Xabi Alonso’s or Phillip Lahm’s position.
As for Bayern Munich, despite their recent injury wave, it is clear how much of a threat they pose. Lewandowski is adept at playing with his back to goal and playing in his team-mates - and the team-mates that will be played in are none other than the menacing Mario Götze and the self-titled “interpreter of space” Thomas Mülller. While none of them possess the dribbling abilities of Arjen Robben or Franck Ribéry that have left Bayern Munich a bit more blunt, they excel at finding the tiniest of margins into which they can get and score.
Xabi Alonso is the maestro of the team and a key cog in the German machine. The Spaniard is the master of probing passes and is essential to the free-flowing brand of Bayern’s football. Boateng, in turn, is probably enjoying the best season of his career so far and has dramatically improved his passing skills and range, which can now split an opposing team in two with a simple delivery - something FC Porto’s midfielders have to pay attention to.
However, the German champions’ strongest asset is the collective they represent, the communal idea of how the game is meant to be played under their coach and the ability to interpret and change between different formations in the blink of an eye. Their rhythm might be a bit off at the moment, but there is still a common thread to it all - and their ruthlessness still allows them to smell blood and go for the kill.
FC Porto have a habit of stepping up to the plate when the stakes are high, and this match is as high as they get. However, the Dragons have also displayed a tendency to flounder whenever their opposition is deemed to be below their strongest, which is the case of Bayern Munich at the moment.
If the Dragons truly have the ambition to qualify and defeat this monster of a team, they will have to envision Robben, Ribéry, Schweinsteiger, Badstuber, Benatia, Javi Martínez and all of Bayern’s best players on the field when they take to the Dragão’s impeccably trimmed pitch. Anything less will most likely result in catastrophe. As for Bayern, they will certainly have been warned about FC Porto’s potential threat and will want to mark their presence in Europe and avenge the inescapable only time a Portuguese team has ever defeated Bayern Munich – 27 May 1987, Rabat Madjer’s night.
by Tom Kundert & Vasco Mota Pereira
PortuGOAL Podcast 94: Porto-Bayern preview