Europa: The Final Countdown
Braga 0-1 Porto (18:05:11)
Arsenal fan and aspiring football writer Josh Pedley in Dublin's fair city......
While Wembley may be playing host to the Champions League final this year, the mouth-watering, bed-wetting prospect of Barcelona, who if being more than just a club wasn’t enough are also champions of Spain for the third year running, and Manchester United, self titled ‘Biggest Club in the World’ and champions of England for the third time in four years, the actual real final, the Final’s final if you like, was taking place across the Irish Sea in Dublin.
Yes that’s right, Sporting Braga v FC Porto. Two teams from the same country, split by a mighty 30-odd miles, being made to travel all the way to Ireland to play the final of a competition that has about as much relevance nowadays as a mini-disc player.
Well, that’s the impression you get living in England. A country where the top teams spend the first 6 months of the season giving the maximum 110% effort to try and qualify for the Champions League only to realise in March that its an impossible dream and then simply spend the remaining two months planning their summer breaks in Miami, while hoping desperately that their lack of interest means they will miss out on the opportunity of appearing in a primetime slot on Channel 5 on a Thursday night next season.
Yet the attitude on the continent could not be different. This is still a prestigious Trophy to win and is a place for clubs to put themselves on the map and ultimately for players to grab the attention of the bigger clubs who compete in the Champions League each year.
In this respect, Dublin was the perfect city to host Uefa Europa League Final, albeit despite its obviously crap name.
While there was never a chance of an Irish team making the final here, in the Aviva Stadium they have a top class venue for the occasion.Yet landing on O’Connell Street in the centre of the city at 5pm on Wednesday afternoon with just a handful of Porto fans hanging around and I was starting to worry if this may turn into the non-event it was built up to be. Where were the thousands of boozed up supporters, drunk on optimism and 5euro pints of Guinness?
After walking around the streets for 10 minutes or so and finding pretty much all the pubs empty I began to dream of how different the scene would be if, for example, PSV prevailed to get this far.
If this was what was happening on the streets, then what about on the pitch? These maybe two teams from the same league but that’s where the similarities end.
After all, Porto are giants of Portuguese football and have just completed the league season with a not too shabby record of played 30, won 27 and drawn 3. Their coach André Villas-Boas is considered the most talented young manager since Jose Mourinho and in Falcao and Hulk they have two of the most sought-after forwards in Europe.
Meanwhile Braga have just finished 4th in the Primeira Liga and a massive 38 points behind their opponents. Yet they are arguably going through the finest period in the clubs history. After finishing second last season, Braga overcame Celtic and Sevilla to qualify for the group stage of the Champions League.
So my spirits were lifted considerably after jumping in a taxi and heading to the ground. With the Aviva Stadium being located a good 15 minute walk from the centre of the city, the streets were lined with both sets of supporters making there way to the game in harmony, singing together and drinking together with no animosity.
However there was never a chance of any trouble, mainly because the Porto fans outnumbered the Braga contingent by three to one. The streets and pubs around the ground were a sea of blue and white shirts and the chants of “Pooooorrrrtooooo, Poooooorrrrttttooooo…” were all that could be heard.
Once in the ground it also became apparent that it would be far from a sell out, a fact confirmed later with the attendance hitting 45,000, 6,000 short of capacity. With the ground starting to fill as the surprisingly impressive opening ceremony got under way the Porto fans began to find their voice and continued to sing through the whole 90 minutes. It was a shame though that the Braga supporters were in such low numbers that they were only heard briefly for 10 minutes during the first half. Which, unfortunately, was kind of like the performance of their team.
Braga made their intentions clear early on by sitting deep and soaking up the pressure. They also made it clear who they were threatened by most, as at least 3 players took their turn to see if Hulk, Porto’s powerhouse forward, could do it on a cold May Wednesday night in Dublin.
A rhythm soon settled with Porto playing he ball across the defence, linking with the impressive Fernando in midfield and looking at any opportunity to slip the Columbian Falcao in on goal.
To be fair to Braga they managed to keep Porto to long distance efforts and it was a mis- placed pass just before half time which allowed Porto to break and then cross for Falcao to deftly nod home the only goal of the game, and also what was Porto’s only shot on target.
Despite a brief spell of desperate pressure towards the end of the second half from Braga, complete with goalie up for corners, Porto were never in trouble and deservedly won their first European trophy since winning the Champions League in 2004.
While the game wasn’t the greatest and the atmosphere was slightly ruined by the number of empty seats, Dublin is a great city and a perfect host for occasions like this. The beer is great and the pubs were made for pre and post match drinking. It’s a shame they don’t have a football team worthy of competing at this level or higher on a regular basis.