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Going horribly wrong

The first leg of last week's UEFA Champions League semi-final involving FC Porto and Deportivo at the futuristic Stadio do Dragao possessed all the makings of an engrossing evening.

After all, how could you possibly go wrong with two trend-bucking Iberian teams three hours driving distance apart, finally crossing swords in a competitive match for the first time on such an elevated stage?

Alas, this was a match that from the neutral perspective at least, did go horribly wrong. All week, I had looked forward to what in Champions League terms could justifiably be described as a local derby. Then for some reason upon glancing at the team sheet on Wednesday night, I became overcome by an eerie sense of foreboding. Suddenly, all I could see was the potential for a stultifying stalemate.

Visions of Deco being comprehensively cancelled out by Mauro Silva and Sergio dominated the imagination. Trying to shrug off such negative thoughts, I visualized Juan Carlos Valeron silkily flummoxing Costinha and spraying an inch-perfect pass into the stride of the onrushing Luque. It was no use! The head was ruling the heart.

My worst fears were realised within minutes of kick-off. Porto appeared nervous and twitchy, lacking the brazen confidence which had helped them eliminate Manchester United and Olympique Lyonnais.

Deportivo, a highly gifted but somewhat schizophrenic outfit, were revealing the more obdurate side of their personality, defending doggedly. This was a far cry from the team that had stylishly sent last season's winners Milan packing.

That the first half had virtually nothing to say for itself was due as much to the palpable tension of the occasion, as it was to the shortcomings of the two teams. Persistent, niggling fouls disrupted what little decent football either side had produced. Most of the traffic was directed towards the Depor keeper Molina but to limited effect.

The visitors, while rock solid at the back, visibly lacked ambition going forward and on the rare occasions when promising positions were obtained, their crossing (particularly by Victor) was distinctly below par.

Things threatened to look up in the second half with Jose Mourinho's immediate introduction of the towering Lithuanian Edgaras Jankauskas at the expense of Russian midfielder Dmitri Alenitchev, who had struggled to get to grips with the game's erratic tempo.

Sensing that the presence of Jankauskas had the capacity to unsettle the Deportivo rearguard, the Portuguese champions elect began to make intelligent use of his aerial ability. Right back Paulo Ferreira delivered one telling cross that the big man would likely have headed home had it not been for Molina's timely intervention.

Maniche could afford to count himself unlucky with a long-range shot that smacked off the underside of the bar and Deco set up a powerful Jankauskas header that almost shaved the post. Yet Deportivo's rearguard action remained consistently staunch with Nourredine Naybet virtually unbeatable and the former Porto defender Jorge Andrade excelling on his return to the banks of the Douro.

How ironic then that Andrade should ruin his flawless evening by getting himself sent off in the waning minutes for foolishly kicking at at Deco as he lay on the ground after a tussle involving the pair of them.

Deco is one of his best friends and a Portuguese international team-mate. It might have appeared innocuous and Andrade claimed it was a friendly gesture but in my view, German referee Markus Merk got it spot on.

I also happen to think Kaiserslautern's most famous dentist correctly waved away Porto's appeals for a last-ditch spot kick and was totally justified in cautioning Porto substitute Marco Ferreira for his late penalty area theatrics. Sometimes your reputation catches up with you.

Where Dr Merk slipped up was in missing an ill-timed challenge by Depor's Enrique Romero on Jankauskas as the substitute raced towards the area. We saw neither free-kick nor card and a cogent argument could have been made in support of at the very least, a booking for the Spanish international full back. On another night, Romero could easily have been given his marching orders for illegally denying a clear goalscoring opportunity.

In fairness to the German whistler however, this choppy match punctuated by numerous needless fouls amounted to a referee's worst nightmare. Merk rightly ranks in the higher echelons of European officials but the game's jarring, staccato rhythm assured him of an awkward ninety minutes.

Looking ahead to next week's return leg in La Coruna, it's clear Deportivo hold all the aces even minus the suspended Mauro Silva and Jorge Andrade. Javier Irureta has ready-made deputies in Aldo Duscher and Cesar.

Club captain Fran might also come into consideration to fill one of the holding roles but we can safely dismiss the fanciful notion that the effervescent Djalminha might play from the start beside Valeron. To field two luxury players together would go against the grain of Irureta's cautious thinking.

Porto's problem is one of having to go where no Champions League team has gone this season, since Deportivo have yet to concede a goal at the Riazor in the entire competition. Yet last year's UEFA Cup winners were sufficiently resourceful to secure scoring draws at Old Trafford and the Stade Gerland and a similar result is all they need at the Riazor. Deco's ability to break the considerable shackles of Sergio and Duscher will surely make or break the chances of a team by no means bereft of technical quality.

I have a nagging suspicion that if Porto score at all in Spain, they'll go through. Can the Portuguese succeed where Rosenborg, PSV Eindhoven, AEK Athens, Monaco, Juventus and Milan have all failed? Stay tuned!


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