Monday, April 8, 2013

FC Porto-Braga: Comfortable margin fails to paper over the cracks

Starting elevens

Last night's match was quite important for both teams. On one hand, FC Porto were desperately in need of a win to put the difference to Benfica back on four points. On the other hand, Braga were just three points adrift from the much sought-after Champions League (playoff) berth and were looking to throw a spanner in the works.

Furthermore, both sides were facing varying degrees of injury trouble. FC Porto were without Varela (injured) and Izmailov (suspended), with the Minho Warriors only able to play a patchy side, without long-time absentees Éder, Paulo Vinicus, Sasso or Douglão.

  • Braga go 4x3x3 against wingless FC Porto

Braga coach sprung a surprise on everyone by playing a defensive-minded 4x3x3 with Mauro in midfield alongside Hugo Viana and Custódio as this system's typical holding midfielder. After the team's lacklustre defensive performance down the left flank against Sporting, Alan's work rate and consistency were summoned upon on that side to prevent Danilo's forays and help Elderson to deal with James. João Pedro was stationed on the right (taking up the place of the disappointing Hélder Barbosa) and Mossoró was deployed in the centre as the furthest forward.

All this tinkering meant that Braga were actually defending in a quite compact 4x5x1, willing to invite pressure onto them. However, Nuno André Coelho's presence kept Peseiro's from droppikng back too much, with the former FC Porto and Sporting centre-back a commanding presence throughout.

Without Varela, Izmailov and Atsu (only fit for the bench), James Rodríguez and Defour played (more or less nominally) on the wings, with the Colombian starlet tending to drift inside and the Belgian jack of all trades apparently instructed to stay out as wide as possible. Nevertheless, FC Porto were too slow shifting the ball from side to side, which played right into Braga's hands, allowing them to shuffle across accordingly.

Braga only needed 4 minutes to show their game plan, quickly breaking down the right - João Pedro would subsequently miss a golden opportunity after some shoddy defending from Otamendi. FC Porto would allow their opposing centre-backs time on the ball, only to pounce as soon as the ball got to Braga's midfielders. However, FC Porto's centre-halves were not their usual reliable selves and the timing of their tackles and interceptions was marginally off throughout.

During the first half, James would come inside and Lucho would provide (or at least attempt to) the width. Additionally, Vítor Pereira's men would try to circumvent Braga's well-positioned defence by playing a more direct style towards Jackson Martínez. 15 minutes into the match, FC Porto hadn't done much and Defour drifted inside as well, leaving the wing to Alex Sandro.

Braga's goal followed a couple of dangerous-looking counter-attacks, with João Pedro redeeming himself with a delightful first-touch pass to Alan, who buried a wonderful curling shot past Helton. Once again FC Porto were displaying worrying signs of lack of defensive concentration. In the meantime, things didn't look better in attack either, with Braga presenting a tough, compact and narrow unit - and FC Porto unable to offer the penetrating runs to threaten Quim's goal, much like Barcelona against Milan in the first leg.

James Rodríguez eventually found a way through and leveled the score from one of his favourite spots, capping Lucho González's decisive (although largely unnoticed) move off the ball, near the end of a nervy first half.

  • FC Porto slowly discover width while Braga fade away

The second half brought a couple of slight differences, with James definitely stationed on the left and Defour on the right - but most importantly Lucho González playing just off Jackson Martínez (similarly to what he did when Marc Janko was around) and effectively making FC Porto look like a 4x2x3x1.

After 63 minutes, Defour made way for Christian Atsu, who immediately made an impact down the left wing, stretching the play and forcing Braga defenders to cover a lot more ground, something that would prove decisive further down the road. With Braga looking more and more tired, Vítor Pereira chose Kelvin (another winger, implicitly acknowledging the lack of width) to replace Lucho González.

Not only were Peseiro's men creating nothing offensively, they were also showing signs of difficulties dealing with FC Porto's mounting pressure. With Atsu constantly forcing one-on-ones out wide and Kelvin doing the same thing on the other wing, Custódio and Mauro often found themselves overwhelmed. Kelvin, often labeled as an inconsistent player, would eventually find a way through with two goals in a matter of minutes and keep FC Porto afloat.

  • Conclusion

FC Porto did nothing to squash the notion that they are currently playing under par, finding it quite hard to bypass Braga's tenacious backline (the two shots that hit the crossbar notwithstanding). With both James and Jackson looking a bit off their pace, Moutinho and Lucho haven't been able to provide the creative spark. As for Braga, this was the end of a particularly hard week that saw them shipping six goals against FC Porto and Sporting. Despite his obvious change of hearts as far as his approach is concerned, last night's display will hardly have done José Peseiro's popularity with the fans any favours.

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