Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Atlético Madrid 2-0 FC Porto: Predictable exit for Dragons

Starting elevens

FC Porto followed Benfica's lead from Tuesday and bowed out of the Champions League, but forgot to observe the Eagles' example and at least win the match, particularly after Zenit did their part and made things harder for themselves.

It seems unfair to blame a team that hit the woodwork three times, had a deflected shot against a post and missed a penalty. Paulo Fonseca will most likely be heard complimenting his team's play and pinpointing bad luck as the chief reason for the side's premature exit from Europe's top competition.

However, PortuGOAL alerted to some of the key aspects that were changing under the former Paços de Ferreira coach and this reporter went as far as saying that the groups draw had been far from fortunate for FC Porto, given how Fonseca had been moulding his team. As it were, a paltry record of no home wins (for the first time in the club's history) and just one victory in six matches was hardly unpredictable, given the abandonment with each the team attacked.

Yesterday was a bit different, but not by much. Atlético Madrid coach Diego Simeone chose to rest some of his players, but still fielded an XI that had Raúl Garcia, Gabi, Miranda and the gem that is Óliver Torres. Simeone stayed true to his beliefs and his team were deployed in an expectant (not to be mistaken for passive) 4x1x4x1 while defending, sitting compact in front of their 18-yard box.

The Dragons were more expeditious in attack and could in fact have scored with just 7 minutes gone, Jackson Martínez connecting with Danilo's left-footed cross only to see the shot rebound off the crossbar. Seven minutes later, Atlético Madrid would score through Raúl Garcia from an impossible angle. While Helton could certainly have done better, the whole defensive positioning in a simple throw-in left a lot to be desired as well.

Lucho González was asked to contribute more in midfield during the build-up phase, but there was not much going on in central areas, an issue proven by Fernando's need to try to provide airborne through-balls or even a shot from way out. 

As a result, FC Porto kept looking to the wings to create danger, and it was from there that Varela headed against the crossbar 7 minutes after Atlético Madrid's first goal. Despite the apparent good signs, the fact that both these good opportunities came from individual approaches spoke volumes about the team's approach for the season.

Adding insult to injury, Josué missed his first penalty in an FC Porto kit, after Jackson Martínez had single-handedly won a foul from Aranzubia, Atlético Madrid's 'keeper. In Fonseca's words, luck was having nothing with his side.

  • Irony on the wings
For a team that keeps insisting on playing down the flanks, the reason why there is so little support to the player that receives the pass on the wing is hardly fathomable. The team clearly resents the lack of a central creator and invariably gets the ball out wide, but no player apart from the full-back and the winger (at best) ever seems inclined to get close to those positions. Not only does the team struggle to get past opponents, but they also suffer from the distance between the ball and the position of central midfielders (in this case, Defour and Fernando).

With that approach, opposing defenders have time and space after winning the ball back to pick their pass, which in turn allows the forward (in this case, Diego Costa for the most part) to receive the ball and turn to goal. 

The defensive transition is clearly the (main) Achilles' tendon of this FC Porto side. Atlético Madrid's second goal proved just that, when Jackson Martínez' deflected shot met the post. The subsequent corner was typical of this season, when a potential attacking opportunity quickly turned into a wide avenue for Diego Costa to round off Helton and expertly bury the ball in the back of the net.

The departure for the Europa League may not necessarily be the worst scenario for FC Porto, but Paulo Fonseca's position as the team leader is fast approaching untenable levels, with just 2 wins in their latest 9 matches. The adjustments Fonseca had talked about in the past seem not to have been implemented and the dip in the team's confidence will not help the least bit, in all likelihood.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

FC Porto grab crucial 2-0 win

Starting elevens

After Benfica's draw against last-placed Arouca the night before, FC Porto had yet another reason to get a much-needed win against Braga, something Paulo Fonseca's team eventually did.

There are always (at least) two ways to look at something. Case in point, the increasing difficulties both FC Porto and Benfica are having to get past opponents. On one hand, one could argue it's the big two that have been playing below par. On the other hand, one could say that the remaining teams are becoming stronger (at least domestically). The bottom line is that this season's Liga Zon Sagres has been getting more and more interesting, with Sporting playing dead and discreetly climbing their way back up the national ladder once more.

Last night's match between FC Porto and Braga was hardly one of those matches to go down in history, but it was entertaining nonetheless. With a mere win over the past 6 matches, Paulo Fonseca was heard claiming the team were playing well and the only thing missing were goals, and surprisingly demanded "more attitude from his men", which hardly looked to be the issue at hand, since the most pressing problem seems to be the side's lack of ideas while attacking.

For someone that has kept insisting over the past few weeks that he believes in his abilities and that he won't be changing his mind, Paulo Fonseca threw a half-surprise by shuffling the line-up once again, with Josué deployed on the wing (left for most of the match) and Defour and Herrera in the centre. Jesualdo Ferreira, in turn, stayed true to the XI he has been naming over the past weeks, with the exception of Ruben Micael. Alan was interestingly introduced to the middle of Braga's 4x3x3, with Pardo on the right.

During the first half-hour, the match was everything that was expected - a trembling FC Porto and an expectant Braga. In fact, the initial 30 minutes might even be described as textbook Jesualdo Ferreira: A team calm and collected while defending and waiting for their opportunity on the break. Braga's goalkeeper Eduardo was hardly ever forced to blemish his white kit during that initial period, with the Dragons always looking vulnerable to any balls given away and unwilling to shift the ball around (often insisting on the direct, and often misplaced, pass). Braga were definitely throwing a spanner in FC Porto's works, but the home team were being their own worst enemy, as so often has been the case so far.

35 minutes into the match, Josué forced a huge save from Eduardo with a close-range shot. Despite FC Porto's lackadaisical efforts, Braga were now less and less able to play on the counter and the home supporters eventually found a way to get behind the team. Half-time came and went with not much to register.

Paulo Fonseca decided to change things immediately and boldly replaced captain Lucho González with Carlos Eduardo. The time to assess said change was not enough, as the Dragons scored shortly afterwards through Jackson Martínez's deflected shot into Eduardo's top corner. The ill-concealed anxiety from home supporters finally had given way to long due celebrations and the team responded in kind, playing more fluidly and making Eduardo work a bit more.

As for Braga, if the initial 30 minutes had been textbook Jesualdo Ferreira, what happened next was too - as so many FC Porto supporters will remember -, with a disturbing lack of attacking intent or a plan B, something that happened frequently during his time at FC Porto against bigger teams. Therefore, it was hardly surprising that FC Porto enjoyed the best chances during the second half, with Braga offering nothing but timid displays of intent to get a better result.

In conclusion, while it may be tempting to have this pinned as the moment when FC Porto came back from the ashes, the team's display was still miles away from their dominant displays from last season (for instance) or the first two matches of the current season. It was undoubtedly a crucial win for Paulo Fonseca in particular, as the noose around his neck was getting tighter and tighter, but there is clearly still a lot of work to be done if the champions are to retain their title. Cue Sporting tomorrow.