Porto, Sporting and Benfica back in Champions League action
The Champions League is back with some mouth-watering clashes this week involving Portugal’s trio of participants in the tournament.
The big one is Sporting-Barcelona in Lisbon on Wednesday night, with Jorge Jesus’s Lions, unbeaten in 11 games this season, welcoming the rampant La Liga leaders. Before that, on Tuesday night Porto attempt to get their campaign back on track as they travel to Monaco, where old boys João Moutinho and Radamel Falcao will come up against the team they shined so brightly for. Like Porto, Benfica will try and recover from a home defeat on Matchday One as they take on Basel in Switzerland.
With the help of experts on football in their respective countries, PortuGOAL brings you the lowdown on the French and Swiss champions and the Catalan giants.
Monaco v Porto (26/09/2017)
French football expert James Eastham (twitter @james_eastham) gives us the lowdown on Leonardo Jardim’s team and updates us on how Monaco’s Portuguese pair of João Moutinho and Rony Lopes are getting on.
Current form. How have Monaco looked in the new season so far and how much have the big-name departures weakened the team?
Monaco have done a bit better than most people expected. It was generally felt that their period of transition after losing over the summer four first-choice players – left-back Benjamin Mendy, central midfielder Tiemoue Bakayoko, right winger Bernardo Silva and striker Kylian Mbappe – from their ideal starting line-up of last season would be longer and more painful. But other than one major setback – their 4-0 defeat at neighbours Nice earlier in the month – they’ve been excellent, with highlights including their 6-1 win over Marseille last month and a 4-0 victory at Lille last Friday night.
Ones to watch - Who are Monaco’s star players?
Falcao has started the season in stunning form: in Ligue 1 the Colombia striker has scored 11 goals in seven appearances at a rate of a goal every 51 minutes. Kamel Glik is an underrated centre-back and hugely reassuring presence in defence, while Fabinho is now unequivocally the main man in midfield following Bakayoko’s departure. Those three give the side a terrific spine.
Strong points/weak points – what must Porto beware of and what can they exploit?
Falcao’s form, movement and European experience make him the major threat. He’ll need closely watching. France international Thomas Lemar was excellent in the competition last season and returned from injury in the 4-0 win over Lille at the weekend. He’s a technically excellent, clever player that starts on the left wing but has licence to move infield.
The full-back positions are a potential weakness: Monaco are less effective on the left flank following the summer sale of Mendy to Manchester City, with replacement Jorge (signed from Flamengo last January) yet to flourish. On the right flank France international Djibril Sidibe is excellent going forward but can be found wanting defensively. Latest reports say that no.1 goalkeeper Subasic will miss the game through injury. This is another potential weakness. Benaglio joined Monaco over the summer so has little experience of playing in front of this back four
Formation and playing style – what system do Monaco usually play? Would you describe them generically as an attacking or a defensive team?
Monaco are definitely an attacking side, as their scoring stats since the start of the 2016-17 season bear out. They scored 107 goals in 38 Ligue 1 games en route to being crowned champions last season, netting a further 29 goals in 16 Champions League games. Add those two sets of figures together and Monaco averaged 2.52 goals a game. In nine games in all competitions this season to date, Monaco are averaging a 2.56 goals a game, proving the philosophy hasn’t changed despite the departures of Silva and Mbappe. They use a 4-4-2 in virtually every game as the system served them so well last season. The midfield generally plays quite narrowly: wide men Lemar (left wing) and Rony Lopes (right wing) cut infield, leaving space for the full-backs to make overlapping runs.
What are the French press saying about this Champions League draw? Do they expect Monaco to progress from the group?
Having seen Monaco make it all the way to the semi-finals last season the French press confidently expect Monaco to make it to the knockout phase. They see this as a tough group, however – the media are well aware of FC Porto’s terrific European pedigree, and RB Leipzig are a club the French press have closely tracked in recent months because the Bundesliga outfit have targeted French players in the transfer market (they’ve signed Jean-Kevin Augustin from PSG, Ibrahima Konate from Sochaux and also have Dayot Upamecano on their books).
Mood in the camp – judging by player/coach quotes regarding this game, do you think Monaco come into the match in a confident frame of mind?
The mood’s great thanks to their strong start to the 2017-18 season and 4-0 win at Lille last Friday night. After the Lille game Jardim said: “Now’s the time to turn our attention to the FC Porto match. Our next fixture’s always the most important one. We’ve come through the Lille game with no new injury worries, which is great.” On Lemar, however, Jardim admitted: “It’s too soon to say whether he’ll be fit enough to start against Porto. But he’s an important player for us.”
Monaco's Portuguese players: give us a brief report on how Moutinho and Rony Lopes are doing.
Moutinho and Rony Lopes are two of the major beneficiaries of Monaco’s decision to sell off some of their better players over the summer. Moutinho is now battling it out with summer signing Youri Tielemans (who arrived from Anderlecht) for the midfield berth vacated by Bakayoko, while Rony Lopes has replaced compatriot Bernardo Silva as the first-choice right winger in Monaco’s 4-4-2 formation. The stats make clear that the pair are more important than last season: Moutinho has played 77 minutes a game in Ligue 1 this season as opposed to only 47 minutes a game last season.
Rony Lopes has started all seven of Monaco’s Ligue 1 matches this season, although he’s been taken off five times. Latest reports say that Rony Lopes isn't a guaranteed starter, however. Algeria international Ghezzal has been in good form recently, and will challenge the Portugal international for a place in the starting line-up if Lemar's fit enough to start.
You told us some time ago that you thought Leonardo Jardim didn't get the praise he deserved in France. Given the amazing season he oversaw last year has this changed? Is he now considered the best manager in Ligue 1?
Jardim’s status has definitely changed over the past 12 months. He achieved something last season that many people thought was impossible – i.e. breaking PSG’s stranglehold on the Ligue 1 title. By doing that and guiding Monaco to the last four of the Champions League in the same season the French now rightly regarded him as not only Ligue 1’s foremost coach but also one of the top managers working on the continent right now.
What do you think the result of the match will be?
Monaco 3-2 FC Porto
Sporting v Barcelona (27/09/2017)
Spanish football journalist David Cartlidge (twitter account @davidjaca) gives us the lowdown on Barcelona and the progress of Barça’s Portuguese duo Nélson Semedo and André Gomes.
Current form. How have Barcelona looked in the new season so far?
Barcelona’s started well, and it’s even more impressive given the absolute chaos that the summer was at the club. Seven games and seven wins in all competitions, six out of six in La Liga alone. Across those seven games they’ve scored 23 and conceded just the two goals. Sometimes games can seem a struggle but there is a resilience and determination there that has stood out.
Neymar/Messi. In your opinion has the loss of Neymar significantly weakened Barça? Has Messi actually benefited from his departure or is he just being his usual incredible self?
Messi is in a role now that allows him to be closer to the goal, and dictate things in the final third how he sees fit – as well as get in more scoring positions in the penalty area. His movement is more of an attacker now as opposed to a reduced, second striker of sorts. Even a creative midfielder. Neymar’s loss has its positives and negatives really. The team has perhaps united more, and look to spread the responsibility. On the negative, it’s undeniable Neymar’s a world-class player, so you’ll obviously miss his presence on the field.
Strong points/weak points – what must Sporting beware of and what can they exploit?
Strong point is an obvious one and that’s Messi. He looks refreshed this season, like he has many new things to achieve. His new role is benefitting him too. He was man marked to excellent effect over the weekend in the win over Girona, and while not every team can do it a similar approach could work. I’d say something to exploit is Barcelona’s transition, and their current state of still discovering themselves under Valverde. Evidence is this is still a work in progress and time will be needed to get everyone up to speed. Sporting CP can pounce on this indecision of sorts, and make life difficult, test Barça.
Local press/mood in the camp. Judging by player/coach quotes and media report, do Barcelona see Sporting as any sort of threat in the Group?
Barcelona’s not lost a game in Portugal in 30 years so history is undoubtedly on their side. I think Barça are a potential finalist so they will be confident wherever they go. Sporting will be a danger on the counter without a doubt, but if Barça play their usual game they can see this one out quite easily. Sporting’s not a particularly special side, though better than their Pot 4 placing suggests. The press, and Barça camp, have come across fairly confident though aware of not taking Sporting too lightly. Your usual cliché, footballer talk pretty much.
Barça’s Portuguese players. Give us a quick update on Nelson Semedo’s progress and tell us if you think there’s a future for André Gomes at the Camp Nou.
Nelson Semedo has looked really, really good. Finally it seems Barça landed the full-back they needed to replace Dani Alves with. While Semedo is different in style you can see he’s a natural in the role from all of his actions. Ability to support the attack is vital in this Barça team and Semedo’s understood this from day one. He’s also been aware defensively and continues to grow game by game. Generally, he’s been very impressive.
André Gomes is being handed a fresh start like most players at Barça, but life still looks difficult for him at the club. Unless there is a drastic turnaround in fortunes it’s highly likely he will have to leave. He’s a good player still, and people forget that. Wherever he goes next must be a move chosen carefully, and if he does make the right decision he will return to being the brilliant star we saw at Valencia.
What do you think the result of the match will be?
I am saying 0-2 to Barcelona.
Basel v Benfica (27/09/2017)
Swiss football expert Craig, who runs the excellent SwissFootball twitter account (@FootballSwiss), tells us what Benfica can expect from their trip to St. Jacob-Park.
Current form. How have Basel looked in the new season so far?
In all honesty, not very good. I’ve been watching Basel consistently since 2011 and the performances are the worst I’ve seen since then. I’ve no doubt that in history Basel have been worse and had more troubling times than this, but for the first time in a long time domestically they are not infallible. They sit in fourth in the table and are already six points behind Young Boys.
We are only at Round 10 so it’s not yet a disaster but when you consider Basel have already lost more games than they did last season, it tells you a lot. The performances are just very uninspiring. After the opening defeat to YB, they responded well with wins over Luzern, Thun and Grasshoppers, scoring three times in each but were then held to a draw at home by Lugano and beaten at home by Lausanne for the first time since 2000. LS hadn’t won a game yet at that point either.
They laboured to a cup victory over second-tier Chiasso, were brushed aside far too easily by St. Gallen but managed to win 1-0 over rivals Zurich at the weekend. It was a controversial goal, and by all accounts, another average performance but it was a massive victory. It may just be a turning point because this Basel side is good enough to do better, domestically at least. It is still good enough to win the league title and not be dropping home points to Lugano and Lausanne or even folding in the manner they did vs. FCSG.
Ones to watch - Who are Basel’s star players?
Tomas Vaclik is always a comfort to have between the sticks. He is a good, pretty consistent player and I think will continue to be pivotal this season for Basel. Defensively, I like Manuel Akanji, he is getting better all the time while Michael Lang provides a great attacking threat from right back too. He has been consistently good for a couple of seasons now and attracting interest from other sides in Europe.
Elyounoussi has really came onto a game since a slow start at Basel. He too is attracting interest although his start to the season has been a little underwhelming, as have most though to be honest. He too can provide many problems for any team. Renato Steffen is similar in that regard.
Ricky van Wolfswinkel is the main goal threat. He is scoring almost in every game this season for Basel although I’m not convinced he can do it in Europe. He is pretty much the only goal threat too. Kevin Bua has been installed as his partner although he doesn’t get many goals while Cedric Itten has just returned to the club and Dimitri Oberlin is usually used from the bench. With Janko and Doumbia last season, Basel were definitely more potent and better equipped for the European stage.
Strong points/weak points – what must Benfica beware of and what can they exploit?
Basel have plenty of natural attacking threat with the likes of Lang, Steffen, Elyounoussi, Zuffi and then van Wolfswinkel up front. These players are always going to be able to provide an edge and something to be wary about but they simply haven’t been effective too much this season. That said, Basel usually seem to score. Only Manchester United and Young Boys have kept them out so far this season, both away from home and they did create one or two chances at Old Trafford on MD1. Basel also haven’t failed to score at St. Jakob-Park since a 0-0 draw with Sevilla in March 2016.
Defensively, I’m still not all that convinced. I like Akanji at CB, Suchy is a constant alongside him. I’m not convinced with Riveros at left-back. I think the stats speak for themselves. Everyone seems to be scoring against Basel. Thun, Chiasso and Zurich are the only sides Basel have kept out this season so I think Benfica, who are a strong attacking side, can definitely score and perhaps more than once at St. Jakob-Park.
Formation and playing style – what system do Basel usually play? Would you describe them generically as an attacking or a defensive team?
Raphael Wicky, the new man in charge, has been very flexible with his formations. A lot of rotation and experimenting and perhaps that may be a reason for the abysmal start to the season.
4-2-3-1 has been deployed three times, in defeat to YB and in a draw with Sion and loss to Lausanne. 3-1-4-2 has been used the most times and is the most successful tactic for him. He won three matches in a row in the league with this formation but dropped it again after a late draw with Lugano, using it most recently vs. Zurich at the weekend to engineer a 1-0 victory. 4-4-2 was used once in the defeat to St. Gallen and was one of the most underwhelming performances of the season while he lined up 5-4-1 at Old Trafford which was perhaps to be expected.
It’s hard to say how he will line up vs. Benfica. I’d expect more positivity than in the first game vs. Manchester United, I think most people would. At home vs. one of the sides you may expect to challenge for second place, the fans expect more and the team is capable of more. I’d describe Basel as an attacking team just naturally by the players they possess.
What are the Swiss press saying about this Champions League draw? Do they expect Basel to progress from the group?
I don’t think progression is really on the mind for Basel. Back in 2011 and in the years that followed, this sort of group was one that Basel could really give a good go at and try and progress. That expectation isn’t quite there now. Benfica are not a million miles better than Basel but I think it is understood that Basel are in a different period now, there is a new philosophy in place, a new coach and some of the key players such as Delgado have departed.
A real go at qualifying for the Europa League is expected though. There is no expectation from within Basel itself, but with CSKA in there, who weren’t particularly impressive in the qualifiers vs. Young Boys, Basel should really be hoping to pip them to third. Their win in Lisbon changed things a little though and from my point of view, that is a result that probably ends Basel’s chances, even though there are five matches to play.
Mood in the camp – judging by player/coach quotes regarding this game, do you think Basel come into the match in a confident frame of mind?
The team will be feeling pretty good heading into this one. The victory over Zurich, while not pretty, was massive psychologically. Wicky was pretty reserved after the United defeat. He said you need a perfect day to beat United and that the matchday was proof that CSKA was the best Pot 4 side that they could’ve been drawn with. The manager and team will believe they can get something against Benfica, especially at home and hopefully the Zurich result is a turning point.
As you know, Seferovic made an explosive start to his Benfica career. Are his exploits getting media coverage there, and how highly is he rated in Switzerland?
I think Seferovic’s form is earning both praise and surprise in equal measure. It is a welcome surprise though because I don’t think he’s ever really been rated highly. I personally have never been his biggest fan, I don’t think he offers much but he has scored some important goals, most notably, the late winner vs. Ecuador in the 2014 World Cup. That being said, I think he’ll fizzle out in Portugal, unfortunately. He has never been prolific and I definitely don’t think he is the right man to lead Benfica to the title. Sorry, Benfica fans!
What do you think the result of the match will be?
Basel and Portuguese teams don’t get on very well it seems. 14 games vs. Portuguese opposition and just three wins (over Sporting, Belenenses and Guimarães) and even then, Belenenses won at St. Jakob-Park. Out of Sporting, Benfica, Porto, Belenenses and Guimarães, only Vitória have failed to win.
I think given current form, and I understand Benfica aren’t quite free-flowing yet, that Benfica will edge out the victory. I’ll go for 2-1 to the visitors but I hope I’m wrong.