2011 was a fantastic year for Portuguese football.
While the league wasn’t competitive enough in the fight for the title to be considered interesting by a lot of people – Villas Boas’s Porto dominated the league, leaving Benfica in 2nd with a massive 21 point gap – the results in the European competitions brought enviable notoriety for the country. Despite the lack of success in the Champions League (with both Benfica and Braga finishing in third of their respective groups), the Portuguese teams took over the second most important UEFA competition, the Europa League. The season ended with an unprecedented European final between two teams from the small western European country, where so many football starts grew.
Out of the two teams who played that final, in this article we’re focusing on the runners-up. While Porto’s win was relatively predictable with their fantastic team at the time, Braga had an outstanding season that was deservedly exalted and praised. Reaching a European final for the first time in the club’s history all while finishing just two points behind Sporting in the race for third place is a notable achievement. While the performances in Europe couldn’t really keep up with this one in the years following, Braga managed to finish the league in 3rd and 4th respectively in 2011/12 and 2012/13.
After mediocre performances in the season that preceded the World Cup, the team from the north of the country got back on track and had a solid season last year even getting to the final of the national cup. But with the start of a new year, massive changes were made to try and get the club to fight for a minimum of the 4th spot in the league, all while putting in good European performances. And I truly believed that the revolution made to the team’s roster and technical staff was incredibly beneficial and they’ll start it proving that soon.
Starting with what was from my point of view the first really solid decision of Braga’s board this summer: the swap of coaches, with Sérgio Conceição heading out for Paulo Fonseca to come in. And with this I have no intention of saying that Conceição isn’t a good manager or didn’t do a good job because he legitimately did. It’s simply about moments, timing. Sérgio was exactly what Braga needed after a poor, 9th place finish, season: a strong-minded, unyielding coach, who had been through difficult times as a player to bring the team back to life, changing it’s attitude and mindset for the better. Now after a solid season, it’s time for the “Bracarenses” to step up and start playing Paulo Fonseca’s attractive, offensive style of football, while keeping Conceição’s “fight for every play like it’s the last” attitude.
And this mindset is assured to be there, with the team proving it again this weekend by managing to stay stable after seeing two of their defenders coming off in the first half due to injury in the derby. Fonseca’s side managed maintain its focus and hold down the 0-0 for a long time, playing an uncharacteristic low possession game. Waiting until the 74’, when Rafa gave scored the winner in one of their few chances.
After his second successful stint at Paços de Ferreira (interrupted by a brief disappointing period at FC Porto), Braga’s new manager has now got the chance to prove himself in a team with high aspirations without making such an overwhelming jump as he did with his move to Porto. Often compared to Jorge Jesus, Fonseca tends to display his teams in a highly offensively dynamic 442 and the team was adjusted according to it in the transfer window. And what a busy transfer summer it was for it was for the Braga staff and board: lots of departures (with many starting players heading out) and a plethora of new faces coming into the squad, completely revolutionising Braga’s roster.
During the team’s rearrangement one thing that was always kept in mind was something that tends to be the Portuguese teams’s Achilles Heel in Europe: Squad depth. Normally only the big teams in the country have the financial capabilities to have a big enough squad to withstand a long season with European competitions in between the national ones.
But with the sales of players such as Zé Luís (Spartak Moscow), Éder (Swansea) and Ruben Micael (Shijiazhuang Yongchang) and the loans of players such as Pardo (Olympiakos), Danilo (Valencia) and Sasso (Sheffield Wednesday) Braga made a total of around 20 million €. The portion of this that was spent on players was done so wisely and left Braga with a good young roster, with enough depth on every position to make a solid run in Europe.Two quality young goalkeepers fight for a place in the starting eleven, with Kritciuk being the first choice in the league so far. Matheus played the first EL game, proving his quality once again after doing the same in the league last year. As wing-backs Djavan and Baiano are clear starters, who bring pace and offensive presence on the wings. André Pinto who was such a competent partner to Aderlan Santos (now at Valencia) last year, is now the leader of the defence and has beside him either Ricardo Ferreira (who came into the club from Paços with Paulo Fonseca) or the ex-Auxerre Willy Bolly. Either of the two need to grow considerably to form a good partnership with André but I do believe that Ricardo Ferreira will eventually solidify himself as the starter central back. Goiano is a squad player that can play in either defensive side, making him useful throughout the year.
In front of the defence, Mauro and Vukcevic have been the starters. With the young Montenegrin being quite impressive, scoring twice in the league already and having played in the Euro qualifiers for his national team. Mauro is the most defensive out of the two, but despite the good performances he has a ratio of a yellow card per match which can be problematic. On the lookout for their places are the experienced Luiz Carlos, the Brazilian youngster Alef (who was bought after reaching the U20 World Cup final besides Danilo) and the talented Felipe Augusto, who after a failed loan spell at Valencia has a really solid opportunity to put his career back on track. Fonseca was eager to bring in Augusto so it’s a known fact that he will eventually (if he keeps progressing back to his form) break into the starting eleven, but with Vukcevic in a good form it will be interesting to see who drops to the bench. Especially when a midfield composed by Felipe Augusto and the Montenegrin doesn’t seem to have enough bulk to take on certain matches.
On the wings Rafa and Alan are the complete stars of the team. Albeit his age, Alan plays and does it well – drifting inside often to create plays and to be the third midfielder. Rafa also tends to break inside but to conclude plays more than to create them – as shown this weekend in the game that gave Braga the win over Guimarães, with a goal from the Portuguese international. The experienced ex-Sporting winger Wilson Eduardo, the Culé youngster Joan Román and Pottker, the Hulk-esc talent that has been creating buzz in the B team, were all brought in as options for the wings. With the always proficient Pedro Santos also on the race.
Up front, both Crislan and Rodrigo Pinho came from Brazil labelled as goalscorers and the same goes for Stojiljkovic but from Serbia. Hassan finally stepped up and moved from Rio Ave after 4 seasons of good performances in the league. And to finish up, Rio Fonte (on loan from Benfica) will be incredibly useful as soon as he manages to keep himself injury-free.
With all of that said, I believe that the team has enough depth and quality to put in good performances and obtain good results in every competition. Not only that, but I legitimately think that from the 3 teams in EL group stages Braga is the one with the highest probabilities of making a deep run into the competition. Even more so with Sporting’s bad start in a tough group and being more focused on the league, and with Belenenses obviously not having the same capacity has the others. Braga has Marseille in their group but is far superior to the other two sides.
And after the group stages, a well organized, resolute and tenacious Braga can create problems to any team in the competition.
The road is long and the final’s distant but… it’s starting with small steps that big things are conquered.