Manchester United v. Porto
First Leg: 7 April 2009, Old Trafford, England.
Second Leg: 15 April 2009, Estadio do Dragao, Portugal
After a much ballyhooed showdown with Inter Milan and The Special One in the previous round, Manchester United breathed a sigh of relief once Porto’s name came up in the Quarterfinal Draw.
Sure, Porto have knocked Manchester United out of the Champions League before, and with the way Manchester United have been playing recently, they might not be able to beat their own reserve team. However, out of all the teams left in the competition, Porto is definitely the least-fancied of them all. Conventional wisdom would dictate that United should easily advance and start making plans to face either Arsenal or Villarreal in the Semi-Finals.
Not so fast…
It’s strange that a former European Champion and proven giant-killer like Porto could be so overlooked, but that’s what happens when you’re in a field with the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Liverpool. Even one that’s riding an unbeaten league and European competition streak that stretches all the way back to November 1 like Porto. During their Round-of-16 tie with Atletico Madrid, Porto were dominant at the Vicente Calderon Stadium, and were unfortunate not to have come away with an impressive victory on the road. Instead, they secured two crucial away goals and were able to stymie Atletico’s explosive offense in the second leg to secure passage into the Quarterfinals.
Additionally, the personnel on this Porto team would seem to indicate that Manchester United’s passage into the Semifinals is far from a sure thing. Lisandro Lopez has scored six goals in European competition this season, tying him for second place with Barcelona’s Leo Messi and leaving him only one goal behind Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard and Bayern Munich’s Miroslav Klose for the lead. Porto have also gotten timely contributions from forwards Hulk (8 goals in the Portuguese Liga) and Cristian Rodriguez (6 goals in the Liga), and midfielder Lucho Gonzalez (11 goals overall, 2 in the Champions League). Unlike Manchester United, they have been taking care of business in their domestic league, having gone unbeaten since a November 1 loss to Naval 1º Maio (as of the international break). They’ve won 11 out of their last 15 in the league during that streak and are coming off resounding wins against Leixoes (4-1) and the aforementioned Naval (2-0).
As for Manchester United, there’s no denying their talent and depth, and only a fool would write them off, despite their recent struggles. Talk of the Quintuple has died down after resounding losses to Liverpool and Fulham, however, as we’ve seen with Liverpool, all it takes is a couple of good results before everyone starts believing again. And it’s not like United are on the verge of a Newcastle-esque meltdown. After all, they still boast an enviable wealth of attacking talent in Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov, and Carlos Tevez, as well as a European swagger as a result of their 21 match unbeaten streak in the competition.
Their fortunes could very well rest in the hands of their depleted defense. With Gary Neville just recovering from an injury, and Wes Brown and Rafael out with long-term knocks, the John O’Shea/Rio Ferdinand/Nemanja Vidic/Patrice Evra bloc has looked decidedly mediocre lately. Additionally, Manchester United should have a very difficult and tense matchup with Aston Villa a mere two days before their encounter with Porto, a match that they more-or-less have to win in order to protect their Premiership Title chances. As such, Man United’s still-fragile psyche could make them ripe for the picking when Porto come to town, especially if they fail to beat Villa. Of course, if United play the way that they’re capable of playing, then all this talk about their dip in form could be much ado about nothing.
Will Porto end Manchester United’s European dream once again? Or will United rise about their recent turmoil and get back on track?
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