On the surface of it, Villarreal has a very tough task ahead next Thursday in Portugal. Porto is the Team of the Moment in European football, apart from Barca and Real Madrid. They haven't lost a game in the Liga Sagres all season, they're in the final of the Portuguese Cup (blasting three goals past Benfica in Lisbon last night to get there).
Their young coach Villas Boas, a protege of Robson and Mourinho, is being tipped as The Next Big Thing in the European coaching ranks. And when the quarterfinal pairings came out, the bookies made them the favorites to lift the EL trophy in Dublin on May 18.
Some have suggested Porto is Champions League material and should easily win the Europa League (the Euro Club Index has them fourth in Europe, behind only Barca, Real Madrid, and Man Utd!)
That may be so. But, it's hard to tell how good Porto really is, because they haven't really been tested that much in European competition-- not as much as the other semifinalists. In part that's because they didn't qualify for the Champions League, only the Europa League group stage, and Group L was a very unbalanced group.
Porto and Besiktas easily qualified from their group stage (Besiktas went out 8-1 to Dinamo Kiev in the round of 32, the heaviest defeat at that point of the competition this year), then Porto defeated La Liga's Sevilla on away goals in the round of 32 before putting out two Russian teams, CSKA Moscow and Spartak Moscow.
I always have a hard time assessing the quality of Russian teams, as the knockout rounds in the European competitions coincide with the beginning of their domestic league season. Spartak did defeat Ajax easily enough, but on the whole the four Russian sides went out without much fanfare in the EL this time.
And given that the Submarine handily dispatched Twente, who put out two of those Russian sides, I'd say Villarreal's path has been tougher, as they've had to defeat top teams from Serie A, the Bundesliga, and the Eredivisie in the knockout stages.
The only opponent Villarreal and Porto will have in common is Sevilla. Villarreal defeated them at home in the league, play them away in the league this weekend, and in the Copa del Rey drew 3-3 at home (throwing away a 3-1 lead in the last 20 minutes) and lost 3-0 in Seville, basically conceding defeat and playing a second team.
Porto defeated Sevilla in the round of 32, losing in Portugal 1-0 but coming back to take the honors in Spain 2-1 on an 85th minute goal to progress on away goals. That's been the strongest test they've faced so far. So while it's always dangerous to extrapolate from limited data, the closeness of that tie against a La Liga club below Villarreal in the table suggests Porto may find Villarreal tougher opposition than some imagine.
And let's not forget that not only is La Liga a stronger league than the Portuguese one, it's also larger--meaning that Villarreal will have played six more league games than Porto by the time they meet on April 28. Is that a positive for the more battle-tested Yellow Submarine, or a good omen for the fresher, more rested Dragons?
Interesting questions to consider, and we only have a week to wait until the first leg of this tie, when we will begin to find out some answers.
In case you missed it, our review of Villarreal's Europa League experience this year is here. We'll have a review of Villarreal's past experience in European semifinals shortly, and next week will have our usual previews "by the numbers" and a more detailed analysis of Porto prior to the tie itself.
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