Sunday 17 December 2017

Dublin shines in spotlight

A general view of the Aviva Stadium last night as Braga faced Porto in the Europa League final. Photo: Brian Lawless / Sportsfile
A general view of the Aviva Stadium last night as Braga faced Porto in the Europa League final. Photo: Brian Lawless / Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

On a day when the Portuguese unemployment rate inched closer to Irish levels, over 45,000 people descended on Dublin 4 in search of a historic distraction.

Events elsewhere had already dictated that whatever happened, in a welcome break from the recent norm, the IMF were actually having a worse week than the two recession-hit nations who provided the vast majority of that number.

All things considered, this was a genuine good news story. Sure, the game wasn't a classic; few finals are. Nevertheless, in the bigger picture, the superior team won, the plucky outsiders gave it their best shot, and a healthy crowd presented a positive image of Dublin around the world. Now, if only there was a way of giving Ireland matches the same ambience...

That's a different story, though. The hosts scrubbed up well for the first major European final to take place on Irish soil, a game that -- with all due respect to rugby fans -- has a global reach that leaves the Heineken Cup decider in the ha'penny place.

Youngest

What will it be remembered for? In hindsight, the narrative is likely to be Andre Villas-Boas entering the record books as the youngest manager ever to win a European trophy. And there could be more. After all, this is a Porto team that is only really at the beginning of their journey. If they carry this year's form into next term's Champions League, then the legacy of this achievement might be enhanced.

For the local organising committee and volunteers, the memories will be different. This night was the culmination of several years of hard graft, with the logistics complicated by a well-documented State visit which was taking place at the very same time.

Nothing was left to chance.

From 7.0, there was life around the match venue -- known as the Dublin Arena, the Aviva Stadium or Lansdowne Road depending on who is paying the bills. This was TV3's big day, and 'Ireland AM' was broadcast live from the stadium, with security and production crews already gearing up for a long shift.

The buzz steadily built up throughout the day as the crowds from the charter planes, mostly containing Porto fans, made their way into the city centre.

Enterprising locals sought to make a quick buck. You just hope that the group of blue and white-shirted followers, spotted making slow progress around the Liberties in a packed carriage led by a horse which had seen better days, actually made it to the game. They were being overtaken by pedestrians on their prolonged journey.

Around Ballsbridge, those who made it by more conventional means were in good humour. Indeed, the Irish tradition of liberal time-keeping was adopted, with the attendance building closer to kick-off. All the latecomers missed was a pre-match build-up that was cheer-led by an English and Portuguese team of MCs -- attempts to get a local voice on the mic were unsuccessful -- which was followed by one of those opening ceremonies which the more artistic types will, presumably, have understood.

The turnout of 45,391 was short of the full house that John Delaney had so confidently predicted but it was close, helped in no small part by a distribution of tickets from the FAI to schoolboy clubs and other affiliates.

This wasn't their gig, though, with UEFA ultimately calling the shots on ticket prices, with their manual setting out the guidelines for the day. They managed to dress the venue up nicely, with a 'Respect' banner making what looks like an unfinished end to the renovated Lansdowne seem that little bit more complete. The FAI and the IRFU could take note for future reference.

Certainly, with a few adjustments here and there, the already impressive venue had an extra sheen.

Alas, a clash that promised to be attractive was largely unappealing. Porto's masses may have controlled the jukebox but, on the park, the Braga plan was to disturb the rhythm of Villas-Boas' side. The runaway Portuguese champions had gone through the domestic league unbeaten and averaged almost three goals a game on their march to the Europa League decider.

Braga set out to nullify their main threats. Brazilian striker Hulk, one part of their prolific attack, was the target for some over-zealous early challenges. Silvio, the Braga left-back with a reputation for getting forward, was lucky to escape with just a yellow for a cynical scythe.

The Porto soundtrack briefly veered from a hybrid version of the Communards to a series of shrill, frustrated whistles. Seconds before the interval, the mood was lifted by Falcao -- the other member of the aforementioned goal-happy strikeforce -- delivering a majestic header to break the deadlock.

With the favourites in the ascendancy, swathes of the Irish neutrals appeared to get behind the underdog. Certainly, the decibel levels rose when half-time substitute Mossoro was presented with a one-on-one opportunity with almost his first touch. There were groans of disappointment when veteran Porto 'keeper Helton prevented an equaliser.

After that, it went a little bit flat. Braga are better suited to maintaining a lead rather than chasing it. Porto didn't quite bring their A-game to the table. Villarreal and Spartak Moscow had been torn apart on the way to the final; one goal would have to do here.

They were, understandably, on the defensive in time added on, with a huge roar as Braga netminder Artur ventured into the opposition penalty area. He got a touch on a hopeful punt which trickled to safety and it was game over.

It may have been a final of firsts, but the glory went to a club who have tasted this kind of stage before.

Irish Independent

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