After a slender win courtesy of Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s solo strike against relegation-fodder Hannover, Borussia Dortmund turn their attention to European football as they entertain FC Porto in the first-leg of Europa League’s round of 32 on Thursday – in a tournament every Dortmund fan has a trophy in sight.
If BVB’s somewhat bumpy group stage road is anything to go by, even after their generous seeding, they understand how difficult it is to play relatively unknown underdogs from every corner of the continent. Moreover, for further incentive, UEFA decided to pile more money and a place in the succeeding Champions League season for the winners in hopes of adding more spice to the usually-overlooked Europa League.
Finishing 2nd in their group left Dortmund with a tricky tie against José Peseiro’s FC Porto side with the Portuguese hosting the all important second-leg a week later. However, Porto doesn’t have the best of memories for their last visit to Germany, as Bayern Munchen knocked them out in last season’s Champions League quarter-final.
However, it was a night to remember during Porto’s last Europa League meeting with a German side, when the Portuguese side traveled to Eintracht Frankfurt in the round of 16. The clash was all you could ever ask for from a memorable European encounter.
For some context, Eintracht Frankfurt had already quite a name for themselves in European competitions. In their European debut, they participated in what many deem the best European Cup final in history when they defeated by Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás’s Real Madrid in a goals galore 1959-60 football extravaganza. Additionally, twenty years later, in a season when all the UEFA Cup semi-finalists were from Germany, Frankfurt lift the trophy beating Borussia Monchengladbach in the two-legged final.
Westward on the continent, FC Porto aren’t shy to European glory either, as they won the most coveted trophy twice in their history. They are mostly remembered for Rabah Madjer’s back-heel strike against Bayern in the 1986-87 final and for Jose Mourinho’s introduction in 2003-04. There are also two champion trophies from the now-Europa League in their cabinet, most recently in 2010-11 under Mourinho’s former assistant André Villas-Boas.
Porto entered the Eintracht encounter after being “relegated” from the Champions League in group including Austria Vienna, FC Zenit Saint Petersburg, and eventual finalists Atlético Madrid.
Meanwhile, Eintracht Frankfurt had finished atop their respective Europa League group, as they returned to continental football for the first time since their latest promotion to the Bundesliga. But it was Eintracht’s fans who made the headlines around Europe when they outnumbered the host side’s Bordeaux supporters when Frankfurt secured a place with a narrow win in France.
Their European adventure continued as 7,000 Eintracht fans made the trip to Portugal for the first-leg tie at Porto. A customary Ricardo Quaresma curler in the stroke of half-time and a tap-in finish from Silvestre Varela looked certain to ruin the party for the mammoth visiting crowd before Joselu’s long range drive and an own goal from Alex Sandro leveled matters before the return-leg in Frankfurt in a week’s time.
Line up-wise, Frankfurt replaced Marco Russ and Bayern-bound Sebastian Rode for more attacking prospects with Stefan Aigner and Tranquillo Barnetta, while Carlos Eduardo replaced Josué in Porto’s only change from the first-leg lineup.
In the weekend preceding the crunching tie, Porto collapsed against Estoril – their only league defeat at home the whole season – and Frankfurt were held goalless by Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga.
The match had a frantic start, and it was Frankfurt who saw the first sight of the opponent’s goal when Alex Meier’s shot was nicked off by Eliaquim Mangala following a swift move down the left flank from the Eagles. It took about five minutes for Porto to settle, as they dominated the proceedings afterwards.
But it took 25 minutes for the first real chance to appear, as Johannes Flum blazed wide a close range volley after Mangala’s header narrowly missed the target from Quaresma’s free-kick delivery. The next chance also lacks precision, as the unmarked Hector Herrera somehow couldn’t manage to connect with Danilo’s delightful cross.
The hosts broke the deadlock ten minutes before the break with five players involved in deft one-touch football. Skipper Pirmin Schwegler, Tranquillo Barnetta and Sebastian Jung combined brilliantly before a pin-point delivery from the latter flicked on by Alex Meier to the path of Stefan Aigner, whose cheeky contact put the ball beyond Hilton’s reach. Kevin Trapp’s only action of the half came when he parried away Danilo’s attempt before Hilton’s reflex tested by Barnetta’s low drive.
The second half started with the same vein, and once again Eintracht drew the first blood with Joselu’s effort goes inches wide. Again Porto took some time to get into the tempo, and when they finally did neither Quaresma’s ambitious shots from distance nor Martinez’s lack of sharpness upfront was the answer. Instead it was Frankfurt who doubled their lead when Carlos Zambrano’s tempting long ball beat the offside trap for Alex Meier to provide the simplest of finishes thanks to Barnetta’s unselfish play.
In his attempt to produce a spark for Porto, Paulo Fonseca replaced central midfielder Herrera with the speedster Nabil Ghilas, and they scored a minute after the Algerian’s introduction. Mangala’s header from Quaresma’s precise cross was misjudged by Trapp in the near post.
The momentum swung to Porto with over half an hour left on the clock.
Still, it was Frankfurt who missed a glorious chance to restore the two goals advantage when Varela, of all people, made a vital clearance from the goal line to block Jung’s back-heel before the SGE’s right fullback inadvertently get in the way of a Barnetta’s rebound shot.
Tempers flared in both camps. Ghilas and Zambrano entered the referee’s notebook, leaving the vociferous Frankfurt fans collectively holding their breath. But when the pressure seemed to cool off, Porto leveled the score against the run of play. Again Quaresma, who appeared too pretentious for Frankfurt fans’ liking, was the architect.
When everyone expected him to try his luck from a free-kick, he squared the ball to Fernando, whose neat cross met by Mangala’s timely header. The Frenchmen was the culprit in weekend’s league defeat, but his only brace of professional football thus far arrived at the crunching time.
The homeside was left frustrated by the turn of events, not least with the silly manner they threw away their advantage, as the otherwise grounded Alex Meier even saw caution for a rough challenge.
However, der Fussballgot was not done scoring, as he finished off yet another brilliant sequence of passing football from Frankfurt. All they had to do is keep Porto at bay for the final minutes, but defending was not Frankfurt’s thing with their attacking falir under Armin Veh a season earlier.
With the away goal rule haunting them, Frankfurt couldn’t fashion any scoring opportunities in the remaining ten minutes – including stoppage time – as Porto’s “proper” use of time wasted distressed the overwhelmed Eagles.
Eintracht’s Bundesliga rough patch straightened out once the league was the only competition they had left, and they even afford to not worry a bit for collecting a mere point from the last five matches partly due to the poor showings of the relegated sides that season. Armin Veh departed in the summer, and on his return to managerial dugout, his replacement Thomas Schaff took Frankfurt’s attacking exploits to another level in an action-filled Hinrunde.
Forget about the decades at Werder Bremen, Schaff wouldn’t even stay for more than a year at Frankfurt, although Armin Veh returned to the helm this season. The side who had a legitimate shout for a place in Europa League’s round of 16 a couple of seasons ago was dismantled, as only Bastian Oczipka, Stefan Aigner and Alex Meier remain fixtures at Eintracht. The future of Marco Russ, who was suspended for the second-leg against Porto, hangs in balance, as his contract expires this summer.
As a team, Frankfurt are closer to the relegation zone instead of the European places, despite Alex Meier – who even finished top of the scoring chart last term – proving that he deserved his glorious nickname time and time again.
Porto are far from their pre-season goals too, as they trail Lisbon clubs Sporting CP (6) and S.L. Benfica (3) even after a come from behind win at the latter ground in the O Clássico this past weekend.
After nine of eleven Primeira Liga titles won by Porto, Benfica have returned to the summit with back-to-back championships, and it was Sporting who are leading the pack this season (trivia: these three Portuguese football giants never missed a single season since the league’s introduction in 1934). Unsurprisingly, Porto’s managerial position became a hot seat these days, and José Peseiro – whose appointment didn’t get the fans blessing in his previous post at Ali Ahly – is at the helm since late January.
Hilton, Herrera and Varela – the former lost his starting berth to Iker Casillas whereas the latter returning back from a dreadful loan deal at Parma (who, by the way, are an undefeated league leaders in Serie D (!) this season) – are the only ones who will made the trip to Germany from the 2013-14 season.
The heros of that night in Frankfurt, Mangala and Fernando, are now plying their trade at Manchester City, whereas a loan deal saw defensive stalwart Maicon heads back to his native country Brazil. Quaresma’s deft touches takes their turn to Turkish side Beşiktaş J.K., while after impressive showings last term, Alex Sandro and Danilo earned big money transfers to Juventus and Real Madrid, respectively. Speaking of huge transfer sums, Atlético Madrid somehow managed to profit from their signing of Colombian international Jackson Martinez from Porto, who were anonymous at Frankfurt, when they offload the striker who finds the net for a grand total of three times in a half season, despite finishing top scorer in Portugal for three years in a row, to GZ Evergrande.
But Porto never fail to make up for their losses, as the match winner at Benefica Vincent Aboubakar leading the frontline alongside Yacine Brahimi and Silvester Varela. All things considered, Dortmund will fancy their chances to take the tie as a starting place to reach the finals in Basel next May. Even though the current Porto side regarded as one of the weakest in years, Thomas Tuchel and co. should be aware of the fact that only a final matchday defeat at Mourinho’s Chelsea denied them a place in the Champions League knockout stage.
You can watch a replay of the thrilling Eintracht-Porto match here with elegant Spanish commentary.
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