In-form Braga set to play key role in title race
For FC Porto fans things are almost back to normal. The Dragons overpowered Sporting with ease last weekend, they are Portugal's last remaining representatives in Europe and a number of their players are being linked with multi-million euro transfers to Europe's richest clubs.
Almost. One thing has to change for the northerners to reassume their mantle as Portugal's dominant team, a position Portistas have considered a God-given right for most of the last three decades. They need to rein in current leaders of the Primeira Liga, Benfica.
And the immediate obstacle in that task has the makings of a particularly troublesome one. Julen Lopetegui's team travel to Braga on Friday night with the Arsenalistas in the midst of a purple patch.
Sérgio Conceição's side are on a six-match winning run and have a formidable W9 D1 L1 record at their AXA stadium in the league this season. Moreover, Braga are now just one point behind Sporting in 3rd place - the coveted final Champions League qualifying position - so the hosts will be desperately keen to keep their good run going.
Nevertheless, Porto will draw confidence from their recent form. Tricky fixtures away at Moreirense and Boavista, and at home against Vitória Guimarães and Sporting have been safely negotiated to keep the gap to Benfica down to four points.
Individually, the players, led by the irrepressible Jackson Martínez, are in fine shape, and although some may say it has taken him too long, Lopetegui appears to have moulded an immensely talented squad into a well-oiled team capable of hitting considerable heights. "Porto can be considered a dark horse in the Champions League," said former boss José Mourinho only last week.
Thoughts will turn to Europe in a few days' time, but for now Porto know they must be fully focused on getting the three points from the Quarry. The Blue and Whites are still playing catch-up after some poor results in the opening half of the season coupled with the defeat at the Dragão to Benfica left them trailing their bitter rivals from the capital practically from day one of the campaign.
The two sides meet on 26 April in what could be a championship showdown, but for that to be the case Porto must realistically win all their games until then, or hope for some help along the way.
Help which could come precisely from tomorrow's opponents. Benfica have lost only 3 out of 30 domestic games all season, and two of those three defeats were against Braga. After hosting Porto, the Guerreiros do Minho go to Lisbon next weekend hoping to make it a historic hat-trick. In short, Braga could well play a key role in deciding who shall be crowned 2014/2015 champions of Portugal.
Braga coach Sérgio Conceição: “FC Porto are favourites without a doubt, because of their history, their squad, the difference in budgets and ambitions. I agree with the Porto president when he says Porto have one of their best squads in the last 30 years.
“But Braga can and will fight for the three points. Our ambition is always at the maximum level, and some confuse this with over-aggressiveness, but we are a team that fights to exhaustion for the three points.”
Porto coach Julen Lopetegui: “It’s going to be a game of maximum difficulty against a good team who are on a great run and who have a fantastic home record. Braga are a complete team in all aspects – in tactical and in individual aspects, with good players. They will force us to play a great game and give our best to fight for the three points.
“Braga like to attack and are an ambitious team. We have to be prepared to respond accordingly. The fixture list is what it is. We have to face Braga now and there’s no use thinking whether or not we’d prefer to meet them at another time.”
by Tom Kundert
Follow Braga v Porto (8.30 pm kick-off, Friday 6 March) via our man at the Estádio AXA Vasco Mota Pereira on twitter.