Thursday, March 20, 2014

Napoli 2-2 FC Porto: Dragons march on, despite initial struggles

Despite the 1-0 lead brought from the Dragão a week ago, FC Porto did not manage to avoid their fair share of suffering, but were still able to follow Benfica's lead and knock Napoli out of the Europa League, thus offering a precious contribution to Portugal's reputation in this competition and a crucial breath of fresh air for the Northern club.

It is usually said that Rome wasn't built in a day, which often applies to football teams as well. FC Porto's new manager, Luís Castro, has tried his best to reverse some of the bad habits instilled by his predecessor Paulo Fonseca, but a few weeks in such a crucial stage of the season are hardly the required time to radically change a team's overall approach.

With Helton Maicon, Abdoulaye and Alex Sandro all unavailable, Castro faced an uphill battle and was forced to reshuffle his defence heavily. With Fabiano in goal, Reyes and Mangala formed an all-new centre-back partnership, with Danilo on the right and the right-winger Ricardo deputising as left-back.

As for Napoli, Rafa Benítez chose to play a strong team (despite benching Callejón and Hamsik), with Pandev off Higuaín, and with the bustling Mertens and Insigne on the wings, shielded by Behrami and Inler in midfield.

  • FC Porto struggle, Napoli thrive

The match's plot seemed bound to be rather one-sided and constant. With a midfield redesigned in a 4x3x3 formation under Castro, Fernando is now back to his favourite sole holding midfielder position. However, he's been at times oddly lethargic, allowing opposing teams to penetrate FC Porto's lines. Furthermore, both Defour and Carlos Eduardo replicated their behaviour at the Alvalade last Sunday and seemed oblivious to their defensive duties.

The (still) Portuguese champions looked unsure about what to do when the ball was in Napoli's possession: They didn't look interested in pressing up front but they still chose to play a rather high defensive line. Without pressing the man on the ball, FC Porto defenders did not step back and were therefore unable to control the team's depth and were vulnerable to balls over the top throughout the match.

To make matters worse, FC Porto defensive unit (not necessarily just defenders) keep being unbelievably lured into man-marking duties, leaving gaping holes all over the place for opposing teams to exploit (Danilo had a nightmare in that respect). The Portuguese side had a Bermuda Triangle on the left: Ricardo's inclusion at left-back (a player who has rarely been on the bench, let alone playing actual matches) was bound to be a liability in itself, but the fact that he was playing on the side of Carlos Eduardo (hardly the most defensively aware player) and Quaresma did not help matters much.

Napoli eventually scored the first goal on 20 minutes through Goran Pandev in a play that encapsulated the match almost to perfection. FC Porto were attacking themselves, near Napoli's penalty box, and gave the ball away for the umpteenth time. As they had so often done previously (and would keep on doing), the players got closer to the ball and didn't press, but their high positioning. A few seconds later, Higuaín had all the necessary time to turn and pick his pass, in front of a stationary defence.

Despite the difficulties when building up play out from the back, FC Porto – admiringly – kept their cool and tried to follow the new coach's instructions, keeping possession and failing to resort to the direct, pointless brand of football that had become so common over this season. However, the Dragons' initiatives yielded nothing more than a dangerous shot on 32 minutes, from a corner kick. The first half drew to an end with little hope of a more favourable scenario looming.

  • Decisive changes from the bench

The second period started out in similar fashion, with Napoli often wreaking havoc less through their own merit than FC Porto's struggles with building up play and less than adept defending. The coup de théâtre started taking shape when Luís Castro replaced Varela with Ghilas and Carlos Eduardo with Josué in almost consecutive minutes. The Portuguese side immediately looked sharper and more dynamic, particularly given Josué's higher work rate and greater willingness to make himself available for his team-mates.

Nevertheless, it would be Ghilas to make the greatest impact by levelling the score on 69 minutes. Jackson Martínez's dropped back to pick up the ball and played it into Fernando's path, decisively unbalancing Napoli (perhaps for the first time). The holding midfielder provided a wonderful assist for Ghilas' left-footed clinical finishing and lit things up for the Portuguese team.

Napoli instantly became more anxious and disorganised, which – together with Josué and Ghilas' greater sense of urgency – allowed FC Porto to enjoy a spell of domination that culminated with Quaresma's wonder of a goal on 76 minutes, after some neat passing between Defour and Josué, something that was hardly ever seen during the first half.

The runners-up in last season's Italian league were not able to turn things around and only managed to avoid defeat on the 92nd minute, through Zapata, at a time when everyone had already accepted the result.

  • Conclusion

Despite the impressive result over one of Europe's strongest teams (lest we forget Napoli were only eliminated by goal difference in a Champions League group that included Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund) led by a coach that thrives on European competition, it would not be wise to believe all's well as far as FC Porto are concerned. There remain a few important issues to address – namely in terms of midfield movement while building up play and of the defensive behaviours – particularly since the hardest, merciless part of the season is fast approaching, with another vital match against Benfica in less than a week's time.

Still, the signs of improvement are all too clear to deny and it seems Luís Castro's more level-headed approach is coming to fruition – yielding good results but, most importantly, more solid displays. If that is enough for the Dragons to reach their (secondary) goals remains to be seen.

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