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Nov 6, 2012

No more Mr Nice Guy

Even before a Wednesday date with Manchester United, Braga had no intention of taking it easy at the weekend. After Hugo Viana sealed their win over Gil Vicente on Saturday with a rare header late in the match, he immediately knew whom he wished to share the moment with. The midfielder turned to opposition counterpart Cesar Peixoto, put his index finger to his lips, and was seen on camera mouthing: "That's for you."

The two had been digging at each other throughout the encounter, and Peixoto was cutting in his post-match riposte. "There are some pseudo-world-class players that exist in Portuguese football," the former Braga man said. "They talk more than they play." The city of Braga and Gil Vicente's base in Barcelos are only 20 minutes apart by road, but the real rivalry in this part of the world is between the Arsenalistas and Vitoria de Guimaraes.

What this little spat demonstrated is that Braga have changed. Patronised and admired in equal measure for their efforts in the Champions League and, later in the season, reaching the Europa League final in 2010-11, they are no longer loveable little novices shooting in the dark. An edge has emerged to a side that, as director Rui Casaca told the media on Monday, "enters every competition to win".

That desire has been instilled throughout the squad. Ze Luis, who opened the scoring on a rare start on Saturday and then won the penalty from which captain Alan later restored the lead, told Sport TV in the immediate aftermath of the match that there was "nothing sentimental" about scoring against his old club.

The lexicon of playing to win, rather than just to compete, comes from the top. When talking about Braga's Champions League prospects last week, head coach Jose Peseiro was unequivocal. "We have the ability, the quality and the ambition," he said.

Contrast this with the patter of Domingos Paciencia, who led the side to history-making heights in 2010-11. "It's difficult to go into the Champions League and compete," he told ESPN in an interview two years this month. Domingos' approach was one of hope, rather than expectation, as he previewed the last visit of an English side in the Champions League with an aim of trying to "be able to get towards Arsenal's level".

For those that expected Braga to fade politely into history's underdogs, satisfied with a laudable cameo, this may come as a surprise. Those who saw them tread fearlessly into the first match with United - much in the manner of Benfica last year, prior to the departures of Javi Garcia and Axel Witsel - may have sensed more of a sea change. After the match at Old Trafford 15 days ago, Peseiro and goalscorer Alan talked of "disappointment" and "a missed opportunity".

Whereas the aim of Braga's Champions League virgins two years ago was, in the words of Domingos, to make "a few chances on the counter", here was a side that was prepared to make things happen rather than wait and see, just as they had in their surprise win at Galatasaray in the second match of the group stage.

Peseiro is key to this. An experienced coach with a mixed reputation, he is mainly defined in Portugal by his time at Sporting, where an entertaining tenure ended with a spectacular choke in 2005 with the Liga, UEFA Cup and (later) a Champions League place in sight. The 52-year-old has finally returned home after spells in Greece, Romania and the Middle East, including a time at the helm of the Saudi Arabian national team, but he doesn't seem to have changed his spots.

His signings have helped make Braga more aggressive, with the towering Eder leading the line and Ruben Micael primed to burst forward and provide goals from midfield. That willingness to force the issue has been apparent in both Champions League away games so far. Eder, who has broken into Portugal's national squad on the back of an outstanding opening to the season, is the flagbearer for this new attitude.

It seemed like a tall order to replace the outgoing Lima - sold to Benfica on transfer deadline day in August - but has actually suited Braga down to the ground. Lima's remit was to press, run the channels as well as the centre and feed off the scraps, which he did very successfully last term, scoring 26 times in all competitions. Eder's emergence coincides nicely with this stealthy evolution under Peseiro, with the new centre-forward an aerial target, with the ability to dominate defenders and no little skill, as he demonstrated so well against Jonny Evans in the first game.

This slight change of tack is especially relevant with United coming to town. In their previous campaign in the Champions League, Braga were of course learning on the job, but their wait-and-see tactics presented them with a bit of a quandary at home, where they were expected to make the running more.

This transition has not been without its challenges, as evidenced in the opening match of the group stage against Romanian champions Cluj. Braga had 30 shots compared to the visitors' three, but were beaten 2-0, denied by an inspired display by their former goalkeeper Mario Felgueiras and hit with lightening breakouts. Braga were well and truly Braga-ed, if you like.

This set of players have the tools to learn quickly; it's sometimes overlooked that this an experienced side, with Viana partnered by Custodio at the base of midfield and skipper Alan the veteran of 57 European matches (Viana has played 70). The accompanying sangfroid allowed Braga to get through a nail-biting penalty shootout in the qualifier against Udinese.

Braga are moving in the right direction financially, with president Antonio Salvador last month announcing an operating profit for the third successive financial year. Now the progress on the pitch will have to continue, and the next stage of the facelift is to deliver at home, where Braga haven't won in Europe since last November, when they beat Birmingham City in the Europa League group stage. The mighty United would be the ultimate opponent against which to deliver.

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