However, the team led by the Dragons’ former glory Sérgio Conceição had other ideas and wasn’t willing to roll over, particularly because Sporting’s defeat last Sunday at the Dragão meant that Braga were in touching distance of a much sought-after Champions League berth.
- Guerreiros stifle Dragons from first whistle
As the only team that had beaten Benfica twice this season, Braga certainly did not need any more letters of recommendation and, with their own agenda in mind, came out strong from the get-go. Ruben Micael and Zé Luís allowed both Maicon and Marcano time on the ball, but effectively closed the easy, obvious passing lanes to Casemiro, thus forcing several long balls out of FC Porto’s centre-backs. With the excellent Pedro Tiba and Danilo sticking close to their direct opponents, Lopetegui’s men had no choice but to play outside Braga’s block, forcing crosses upon crosses.
In fact, that was perhaps the most interesting aspect of the match, as Danilo and Tiba were virtually marking Herrera and Evandro out of the match (Evandro would later improve his performance), the same happening practically everywhere on the pitch, almost resembling a series of individual battles - with little movement from FC Porto to burst past the man-marking approach.
FC Porto were once again showing their vulnerabilities, since the team kept lacking collective answers to bypass teams who are adept at patrolling the area in front of their penalty box and that, unlike Sporting, don’t allow acres of space to exploit behind the back four. All of that meant that it was up to the most skilled players to make the difference, i.e. Jackson Martínez and Brahimi. Indeed, the Dragons only showed some of their potential either when Jackson dropped back to link up play (but with no one taking in his place in the penalty box for the eventual crossing that is the side’s most frequent solution) or Brahimi got past his man, particularly after moving to his more natural left wing 15 minutes into the match.
- FC Porto gradually improve
Despite their cohesive defending and the dangerous-looking transitions, Braga actually struggled to create clear-cut chances, with the exception of the 5th minute set-piece that had Fabiano once again fumbling for the ball. As the match wore on, though, FC Porto became more proactive when they lost the ball and the energy of Braga’s front four slowly subsided.
Ironically, FC Porto always looked more dangerous when Braga committed men forward on their breakaways, with the ball often travelling down the wings - Lopetegui’s insistence on ignoring the centre means that their charges never invade the most dangerous areas of the pitch, thus needing numerous attacking situations to create a clear chance, usually after yet another cross.
The end of the first half brought a bit more danger as Tello started finding more space to run into and, on the other hand, Evandro started making himself more available to receive bisecting passes from the centre-backs (but was eventually replaced not long into the second half).
- FC Porto repeat winning formula
Similarly to what had happened against Sporting, FC Porto looked willing to be more intense when they came back from the dressing room. With Braga gradually tiring out, the Dragons started finding more space to exploit, even though (half) chances kept coming far and between. Despite Evandro’s improvement, the midfielder was replaced with Ricardo Quaresma, meaning the Dragons were now playing a 4x2x3x1 of sorts, with Brahimi off Aboubakar (who had taken the injured Jackson Martínez’s place).
In what turned out to be a slow-burning second half (and match overall), it became clearer and clearer how FC Porto had an Óliver Torres-shaped hole in the middle, without anyone able to pick apart opposing defences with passes, movements or dummies and this forcing opponents out of their comfort zone. With Braga fading more and more out of the contest as the match wore on, the Dragons got tighter to Sérgio Conceição’s men and, in one of those situations, Aboubakar left Tello one on one against Matheus and the Spaniard replicated what he had done so well against Sporting.
All in all, it was a very cagey match from two of the best teams in the Portuguese league that promised a bit more, but the fact that both teams needed the three points might help explain both sides’ fearfulness. On the other hand, it was hard not to feel disappointed by how both teams looked most comfortable when the other side lost the ball and thus paved away for quick breaks, rather than showing good skills as far as attacking organisation is concerned.
FC Porto may have won the match – and in hindsight may have in fact been the team more willing to chase the goal – but the end result seems to be less of a collective effort than a consequence of a much stronger squad individually. Victories will always offer some shade, but FC Porto’s process has yet to persuade.