As Portugal's sole representative in the Champions League, FC Porto were trying to successfully negotiate their way into the competition's quarter-finals stage for the fifth time, thus cementing their place as the country's leading force in Europe (second-best Benfica only managing to achieve it twice since the inception of the Champions League).
Without captain Jackson Martínez, recently injured against Braga, and Óliver Torres only fit for the bench, there were some questions marks about the Dragons' ability to beat a side that both Real Madrid and Liverpool had found to be tricky. As it turns out, Julen Lopetegui's charges put in the performance of the season so far and will have certainly put some of their names on the radar of bigger European teams.
The unstoppable force from Cameroon
Vincent Aboubakar was brought in at the beginning of the season both to provide cover for Jackson Martínez and give him the opportunity to slowly learn the ropes in order to take the Colombian striker's place when he eventually moves away to greener pastures. Even though his goals per minute ratio was certainly impressive, the Cameronian hadn't played that much this season and there were some question marks here about whether he would be able to find his stride in such a lofty environment.
Aboubakar was indeed fundamental to the night's outcome, and he proved as much right from the start. With FC Basel seemingly willing to press from the front - their 4x2x3x1 fitted perfectly into FC Porto's 4x3x3 - FC Porto's centre-backs were forced to resort several times to long balls and the striker did not disappoint, effectively linking up play with his team-mates. The 47 passes he received throughout the match painted the perfect picture.
As has often been the case, for all their ball possession FC Porto actually looked more dangerous on the counterpressing - i.e. when they won the ball immediately after giving it away. The first goal, on 14 minutes, was the perfect example as Casemiro made a well-timed tackle and then played a probing pass into Cristian Tello, who ended up being fouled. Brahimi's expertly taken free kick was the first of four delightful goals.
Solid improvements across the board
FC Porto had been looking better over the past few weeks and the wins against Sporting and Braga certainly didn't hurt matters, but there remained a few doubts about the team's ability whenever the going got tougher. Given how the team had struggled to create many chance against Basel and that a 1-1 first-leg outcome was a tricky scoreline, both teams' approach was something of a mystery. Basel's initial attempt at pressing high up quickly fizzled out, but FC Porto consolidated all the marginal gains from the past weeks.
There were two things in particular that made a significant difference. On the one hand, both Evandro and Herrera were much more willing to penetrate enemy lines and drag their direct markers out of position, thus creating confusion about which Basel player should be marking whom. This had the knock-on effect of putting more FC Porto players near the ball when it was given away and consequently allowing the Dragons to exert greater control over the match, which has not always been the case.
On the other hand, both Tello and Brahimi - for all their attacking forays - were willing to track back, unlike what has often happened this season, preventing Basel from hitting the wings, particularly on the break. All of this compounded Basel's misery and stopped them in their tracks as the Swiss side were never able to find their groove and, as time went on, started subsiding.
Dragons discover central virtue
A 1-0 scoreline was good, but it was not exactly an insurance policy, since a goal from Basel would level things up. As it were, Brahimi made another one of his darting runs down the left (which had already brought him a few bruises during the first half) and slid the ball to Herrera, who had no trouble dispatching the ball into Vaclík's far corner. Whatever doubts remained were quickly and surely disappearing.
However, perhaps the most important point to take from this match is FC Porto's change of tack as far as the attacking approach is concerned. Unlike what happened against Braga and Sporting, for instance, today there were virtually no aimless crosses thrown into the box, despite Aboubakar's physical presence.
In fact, the chances created from open play throughout the match spoke for themselves and showed the pattern to exhaustion: Initiate attacks down the wings to attract the opponents there and then find the pockets of space in the middle. This time around, there were even midfielders supporting those runs, with the rest of the players close by just in case.
In the end, Casemiro and Aboubakar would score another two gems, the Brazilian midfielder with a piledriver from 30 yards out and the Cameronian striker with a fine solo run that made for possibly the goal of the evening. However, the most impressive aspect of tonight was certainly FC Porto's ability to leave their indelible mark on what will certainly be remembered as one of the club's magical nights in the Champions League. A fifth presence in the competition's quarter-finals (in the modern Champions League format) was guaranteed and the display that led to it will certainly have supporters gagging for what's to come against Europe's stronger sides.
By Vasco Mota Pereira, at the Estádio do Dragão
After the match PortuGOAL went with the rest of the local and international press to the post-match conference and asked each coach a question (Note: for technical reasons (no voice recorder!) the following are paraphrased responses).
PortuGOAL: FC Porto were today less inclined to play down the wings and cross the ball incessantly into the penalty box, as so often is the case. Was it a specific strategy for this match or just the natural development of the match?
Lopetegui: "We have to address the challenges offered by opposing teams and try to find where the vacant spaces are - sometimes it's outside their lines, sometimes it's between those lines. We have to make the right decisions. If we can't find the space, we need to create them. I think we still played a bit down the wings, but we had less depth due to Danilo's absence on the right. The team has to find solutions and alternatives and they did just that. Basel are a team that want the ball, that want to attack, which is not always the case. We must be able to interpret and solve those situations."
PortuGOAL: Basel have shown an extremely well-drilled tactical blueprint, one that relies on ball possession and heavy pressing from the front, something the team seemed to try to do during the first 10 minutes of this match. Did the team drop back on purpose for strategic reasons or was it acknowledgment of FC Porto's individual and collective superiority?
Paulo Sousa: "It was that acknowledgment and our inability to have the ball because FC Porto robbed us of the space and time for it, to breathe and recover our energies. FC Porto's intense pressure didn't allow us to have the necessary time to play our preferred short-passing game, to recover and then exert our very own pressure. It was an acknowledgement of the huge gap in terms of the players' individual skills."
Porto coach Lopetegui: "This was a last-16 Champions League match. We have to congratulate ourselves on the display against a tough team. I'm very happy and proud of my players. We attacked well and defended well, always trying to maintain possession of the ball. We played a great game. I dedicate the win to Danilo and to the Porto fans."
Porto centre-back Marcano: "We were missing some important players but you didn't notice because the replacements played very well. We're very happy. We began by having to knock out Lille to qualify, and match by match we have played a great competition. Now whoever comes next we will try to win. It's going to be a great rival for sure, because there are only eight teams left. Was I shaken by the Danilo incident? Yes because it happened close to me and it was an ugly clash, but at half time we were told he was okay."
Porto midfielder Evandro: "It was a very special night for FC Porto and I believe I played my part. It was a great exhibition. In the last three important games we've had this month the players have responded well. The players that have come in to replace the injured ones have done well and not let our level drop, which shows the club's signings have been well managed. This is FC Porto. I believe we can go even further in the competition. We are ambitious and confident. Now we're in the quarter-finals, the target is to get through to the next round."
Porto winger Cristian Tello: "I don't believe there are teams we want to avoid in the next round. Porto have the ability to take on any team. We are at a level that allows us to aspire to the maximum in this competition. We're not content just to reach the quarter-finals - we're going to try and reach the semis."
Porto midfielder Brahimi: "The most important thing was to get the victory and qualify for the quarter-finals. We want to do something special in the Champions League and we have enormous ambition. We are in a great moment, but now it's time to focus on the Liga, because that's also a competition that we'll be fighting for until the end."
Porto winger Quaresma: "It was a perfect night. Unfortunately Danilo had that bad moment, but he's okay and we dedicate the victory to him. Jackson is a very important player for FC Porto but in this squad there are players who are waiting for their opportunity and Aboubakar gave a good response by playing great."