Radamel Falcao scored the winning goal in last year’s Europa League final. Now, he’s in Madrid. (Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images).
If the only way to fight fire is with fire, then Porto has a chance of at least ruffling Barcelona’s feathers in the European Super Cup final, the glitzy curtain-raiser to the continent’s season, held in its regular home of Monaco’s Stade Louis II.
Both the Champions League and Europa League winners swept to their respective trophies with an imperious swagger in the last campaign, which is what makes this match up of Iberian cousins such a mouthwatering one. While Pep Guardiola’s men may seem near invincible at present, particularly with the high-caliber additions of Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas, the similarly small-but-significant changes at the Estadio do Dragao should not mask Porto’s retention of most of its key elements.
It would be incorrect to describe the sudden exit of iconic head coach Andre Villas-Boas as anything other than a huge shock. The media in northern Portugal didn’t want to believe it. Jose Mourinho’s departure was mapped, and on the back of a possible career apex. But this? Villas-Boas had promised to stay, lead his hometown club into the Champions League, and continue the good times, but his ambition got the better of him when Chelsea came calling.
What is clear is that president Pinto da Costa has no intention of tolerating a similar succession shambles to the one that followed Mourinho leaving in 2004. A year after the crowning glory of Champions League victory in Gelsenkirchen, the club was looking for its third successor to Mourinho after a good, but hardly exceptional, Benfica side wrested back the title for only the second time since 1994.
Pinto da Costa nipped the situation in the bud at once this time. Having banked the €15 million ($21.5 million) from Villas-Boas’ release clause, he appointed the erstwhile coach’s assistant Vitor Pereira on the same day (with his own release of €18 million, $25 million). He retained most of the backroom staff, who stood behind him in a wall of solidarity during the press presentation. The message was clear: Business as usual.
There have been squad changes. Porto has spent more this summer than it has in any other transfer window, with €43 million ($62 million) spent on nine incoming players, but made €45 million ($64.8 million) back at a stroke in selling Radamel Falcao and Ruben Micael to Atletico Madrid last week. It may well be that lauded Uruguay left-back Alvaro Pereira follows Villas-Boas to Stamford Bridge, but Porto is negotiating from a position of strength. The amusing headline in Wednesday’s O Jogo said, “Chelsea tried Alvaro, but got the numbers wrong,” after the Londoners had a €20 million ($28.8 million) offer rejected.
Conversely, relatively little has changed. The appointment of Pereira was to achieve continuity and keep the magic created by Villas-Boas – both on and off the pitch – going. The record spend is part of the same plan. Ten of the XI that beat Gil Vicente last Friday were at the club, the one exception being Kleber, signed in the summer as Falcao’s replacement for a paltry €2.5 million ($3.6 million). The idea is to assimilate the promising Brazilian full-backs Danilo and Alex Sandro in gradually. Equally, Steven Defour appears to have been handpicked to cover an eventual loss of midfield dynamo Joao Moutinho.
It seems to be working. The win over Gil Vicente extended Porto’s unbeaten run in the league to 41 matches, stretching back to March 2010. One of the main inspirations behind that run, Hulk, has been able to remain, thanks at least in part to the cash generated by the sale of Falcao. The Brazilian’s cannon of a left foot is still in fine fettle, as his second strike to wrap up victory last weekend, a rocket from outside the box, amply showed.
So Porto is gasping for this challenge. If the key element of Barca’s success is that amorphous front three – whether it is Alexis Sanchez or Pedro that starts wide on the right – then that is the aspect of the Catalan plan that Porto has most successfully adopted. The Portuguese champion attacks with great intensity, with Hulk on the right, Silvestre Varela on the left and now Kleber in the center. All three are genuine forwards, with the ability to score goals and crucially, to swap positions.
The shape matches Barca and so, in many ways, does Porto’s outlook now. Villas-Boas didn’t change the 4-3-3 shape of his predecessor, the experienced Jesualdo Ferreira, but he got the whole team facing towards the front, coaxing a best-ever goals haul from Colombia’s Fredy Guarin and even encouraging the defensive pivot Fernando beyond the halfway line now and then. The latter – short of fitness and form – has recently been replaced by fellow Brazilian Souza; in the same way that Guarin nabbed the excellent Fermando Belluschi’s place in the closing months of last season.
Make no mistake; Porto intends to win this. Coach Pereira has been preparing meticulously for Monaco, ordering a batch of the special edition balls that will be used in the final and staging an extensive session of shooting practice on Tuesday, using all four of the squad’s goalkeepers: first choice Helton, Bracali, Beto and Kadu. It may be early days for the coach, but he has a fearless, hungry team at his disposal. With any luck, this match could be a classic.