FC Porto: Liverpool must be wary of Dragon’s roar
The in-form Portuguese league leaders cannot be underestimated in the knockout stages of this season’s Champions League.
The draw for the Round of 16 stage of the Champions League now feels like a lifetime ago with Liverpool and Porto playing a combined 28 matches in the nine weeks since the draw in Nyon.
The general consensus among the aftermath of the draw was that it was favourable to Jurgen Klopp’s side.
Os Dragoes (The Dragons) stunned European football when Jose Mourinho guided them to the Champions League title in 2004, but they have only progressed into the competition’s last eight on two occasions since and never to the semi-finals.
European football’s elite have soaked up further resources in the 14 seasons since Porto’s finest hour, with the northern Portuguese club earning a reputation instead for their slick economic model and vast profits made on players.
The golden era
The club’s golden era started the season before their Champions League triumph, with the first of nine league titles in 11 seasons coming alongside a UEFA Cup final win over Celtic. However, they are now without a league title in five seasons as the domestic power balance shifted south towards Benfica.
In June of last year, the Dragons moved to appoint former player and Portugal international Sergio Conceicao – a member of Mourinho’s 2004 squad – to replace the outgoing Nuno Espirito Santo.
Possessing a reputable track record – Conceicao led Braga to a cup final in 2015 and performed strongly at Nantes in Ligue 1 – he immediately set about stamping a strong style of play upon his side.
The Portuguese problem
The conundrum for all managers of leading Portuguese clubs is adopting a formula of play which can control domestic matches against inferior opposition yet be able to adapt to the rigours of European football.
Conceicao’s side are primarily an attacking one – they have already racked up an impressive 90 goals this season, but interestingly this hasn’t just been reserved for Portuguese matches. They hit 15 group stage goals including eight past Monaco – last season’s semi-finalists.
Their progression in Europe was understated due to their group containing no established European giant, but with the French champions, Besiktas and RB Leipzig, it was arguably this year’s most competitive group.
An opening day defeat at home to the Turkish side was the only blight on a solid group stage campaign, with two pulsating home wins complemented by a fine 3-0 win in France and draw in Istanbul.
In the league
Porto have triumphed in 24 of their 30 domestic games to date and are unbeaten in open play against any side in their last 24 matches – stretching back to their 3-2 defeat at RB Leipzig on 17 October. Their only low-point since has been defeat to Sporting CP on penalties in the Taca da Liga last month.
Their style of play is based predominantly on quick counter-attacks and the use of width – with full-backs Alex Telles and Ricardo Pereira – a converted winger – regularly encouraged to push forward.
An African attacking trident of the wonderfully creative Yacine Brahimi, energetic Moussa Marega and deadly Vincent Aboubakar – who has 24 goals this season and five in Europe – provide opponents with plenty of defensive headaches.
Threats across the board
The Cameroonian Aboubakar is a main aerial threat, with Porto well-drilled both defensively and offensively at set-pieces.
Telles provides an excellent delivery, with central defender Ivan Marcano and Felipe (suspended for the first leg against Liverpool, with Diego Reyes set to deputise) both goal threats.
Felipe isn’t the only absentee for the first leg, with Portuguese international midfielder Danilo Pereira also unavailable due to injury.
Another threat from set-pieces, Danilo will most likely be deputised by the fleet-footed Andre Andre while seasoned midfielder general Hector Herrera provides a pivot role.
This is a side who are used to winning and one who are tactically flexible. Their English opponents have had problems with sides who are defensively-disciplined and can break quickly, while also coming up short against set-piece threats.
Conceicao will have worked relentlessly on formulas to combat Klopp’s high-energy team, with a fascinating duel across two legs certain.
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