Sunday 26 March 2017

Why the Europa League final is worth watching

You have a chance to see the new Mourinho, there’s a striker called Hulk and with a 63-goal forward partnership in action it’s unlikely to be a bore draw

Porto striker Hulk takes a breather during training ahead of tonight's Europa League final against Braga at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Getty Images
Porto striker Hulk takes a breather during training ahead of tonight's Europa League final against Braga at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

For many Dubliners, the memories of the road to tonight's Europa League final will start with the visit of one Old Lady, and conclude with the visit of another.

Ten months after Juventus came to Tallaght to take on Shamrock Rovers in the third qualifying round, the showdown between Porto and Braga is staged in a city where normal service has been disturbed by the queen's visit.

You have to wonder how the Aviva Stadium encounter would have passed off if the protagonists had brought greater numbers than the Portuguese duo who will battle it out for the trophy in Dublin 4.

Porto handed back 2,000 tickets on Monday night, reducing their travelling contingent to 10,000 fans. Braga are expected to bring in the region of 3,000 supporters. Organisers are unsure how many of the 7,000 international lottery winners who applied before the finalists were known will actually turn up.

The customary invasion of UEFA suits will bring up the travelling numbers, yet the organising committee estimate that 80pc of visitors won't be staying for a night. Therefore, it means that the boost to the Dublin economy will be nothing like what was originally envisaged.

But that's the luck of the draw. And, even if the fixture may lack a certain mass appeal, there are still enough elements to make it an intriguing contest.

1 Andre Villas-Boas

In years to come, we may reflect on this night as a landmark in one of the great managerial careers.

Certainly, 33-year-old Villas-Boas is on the right path. He will become the youngest coach ever to win a major European trophy if hot favourites Porto justify their odds after an incredible debut season in the hot-seat.

Villas-Boas is frequently described as the next Jose Mourinho, given the obvious parallels. Villas-Boas had no playing career of note. He got his break into football by living in the same apartment block as Bobby Robson when the Englishman was Porto manager.

The studious teenager, who admitted yesterday that his aim at that point was a career in journalism, wrote to Robson explaining that he was making a mistake leaving striker Domingos Paciencia -- coincidentally, the current manager of Braga -- on the bench. Robson asked the youngster to supply data to back up his argument.

So impressive was the response, that an invitation was extended to provide assistance to the youth team. From there, Villas-Boas progressed through the ranks and became a valued scout to Mourinho, another protege of Robson.

He followed the self-styled 'Special One' to Chelsea and Inter Milan before breaking out on his own two years ago to save Portuguese strugglers Academica from relegation. Porto took a punt last summer, and haven't looked back.

"Without him (Robson), it would be impossible for me to be in the presence of you, except perhaps on the other side of the barricade," said Villas-Boas at last night's pre-match press conference.

However, he is wary of making the kind of narcissistic statements that have shaped Mourinho's reputation. Earlier this season, Villas-Boas pointed out that with a few poor results, he could quickly become known as 'The S**t One.' "I'm not a one man show," he added upon his arrival here.

2 Falcao and Hulk

Porto also boast one of the hottest striking partnerships on the continent.

Colombian front man Falcao (25) and Brazilian star Hulk (24) have struck 63 goals between them this term. Falcao has scored 16 times in the Europa League alone, already beating a competition record set by Jurgen Klinsmann in the competition's former UEFA Cup guise.

Falcao is an all-round goalscorer who is highly regarded for his excellent movement and surprisingly good heading ability.

The tremendously named Hulk has become a more polished performer since moving to Portugal from Japan, where he was known for the odd bout of temper in the early stages of his career.

Both have attracted interest from Europe's major powers. Falcao was previously a target of Alex Ferguson, while Hulk's physicality has attracted English clubs. But, it would take a serious war-chest to lure him away.

He now has a buyout clause valued at €100m, although explaining the nature of that is a story in itself. Porto last week bought another 40pc of his rights from Uruguayan second division club Atletico Rentistas.

Hulk never played for them, but the ownership of players in South America is a murky area.

3 Hugo Viana

For those who like a Premier League reference point, the name of Braga midfielder Hugo Viana should ring a bell. The late Robson is also part of his story. Robson paid £12m to bring one of Europe's hottest talents from Sporting Lisbon to Newcastle in 2002.

However, he struggled to live up to the price tag, and his stint in the English north-east was short-lived. After a loan period back at Sporting Lisbon, a switch to Valencia was the next step, but he spent part of his five years there on temporary assignments elsewhere.

That eventually led to a switch to Braga where, at the age of 28, he has enjoyed something of a renaissance. His contribution will be vital to the outcome.

4 David v Goliath element

Sure, this is a local derby, with Porto and Braga based just 30 miles apart. The distance in the Portuguese league table is greater, though, such is the extent of Porto's dominance under Villas-Boas.

A massive 38 points separated the title winners and fourth-placed Braga when the season ended last weekend.

Porto went through the league campaign unbeaten, winning 27 out of their 30 games. A run of 16 successive wins was the highlight.

Meanwhile, Braga lost a third of their league outings. The city of Braga has an urban population of just 175,000 and, unsurprisingly, this is their first European final. After eliminating Liverpool, Dynamo Kiev and Benfica, a win here would complete one of the great giant-killing runs.

5 Novelty Value

This is genuinely a historic occasion, the first major European final to take place in Dublin.

It will be watched by a global audience, with camera crews from all corners of the world descending on the renovated Lansdowne Road. In yesterday's pre-match press conferences, reporters from Sudan, Finland, Japan and Colombia were among those to ask questions. So, this game will be broadcast to a diverse audience.

With the Portuguese turnout falling below expectations, plenty more Irish people have got the opportunity to get their hands on tickets. Okay, so it may not be the final they would have wanted but, nevertheless, it is a noteworthy occasion.

After all, it could be worse. We could be hosting the Eurovision.

Porto v Braga,

Live, TV3/C5, 7.45

Irish Independent

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