Never the twain shall meet
If the old axiom that it's easier to destroy than to create holds good at the Arena AufSchalke on Wednesday night, there can only be one winner of this season's UEFA Champions League. FC Porto have more than demonstrated their prowess when it comes to subduing and stifling en route to Gelsenkirchen. It would be naive to think that a tactical volte-face is on the cards against their free-scoring opponents from Europe's most famous cliff-top principality.
Monaco are undeniably the neutral's choice this time and how could it realistically be otherwise? Their commitment to cavalier football at the apparent expense of keeping the door shut at the other end has come as a welcome breath of fresh air. Not since the swashbuckling Ajax side of the mid-nineties has a participant in the Champions League final looked so at ease with its unwavering commitment to attack.
Against both Real Madrid and Chelsea in the last eight and last four respectively, Monaco found themselves overrun for significant spells, yet never stopped believing in the simple principle that they could create and finish better than the opposition. Luckily for them, Madrid and Chelsea took a similar view of their own abilities and were made to pay the price of elimination.
Porto represent an entirely different propositon, as a technically competent side that nevertheless knows how to play the percentages on the park. You don't reach two European finals in as many seasons without a strong grasp of football's tactical realities.
As Deportivo La Coruna can testify, the Portuguese champions are well trained in the art of assessing and nullifying the strengths of the other team. It's a statistical fact that Porto foul far more than any other team in the Champions League and disruption of Monaco's natural rhythm will likely feature high on Jose Mourinho's list of priorities.
The core of Mourinho's team picks itself with Vitor Baia in goal and a back four composed of Paulo Ferreira, Jorge Costa, Ricardo Carvalho and Nuno Valente, all reliable and resourceful. Three of the midfielders, Costinha, Maniche and probably Pedro Mendes can provide an additional shield when Porto find themselves on the back foot. Such sturdy cover gives the talented Deco freedom to prompt and create in his own inimitable way. Derlei, the hero of last season's UEFA Cup final will surely play from the start with perhaps his fellow Brazilian Carlos Alberto by his side.
Monaco coach Didier Deschamps likewise has few selection headaches. Italian keeper Flavio Roma has appeared by and large unflappable throughout the campaign and in Gael Givet, Sebastian Squillaci and Julien Rodriguez, he has three generally dependable defenders. Patrice Evra, a converted midfielder at left back offers a bit more adventure and that allied with the formidable presence of Jerome Rothen on the same flank will make the left hand side a popular attacking route for Monaco. A case can be made for the diminutive and skilful Ludovic Giuly to operate cutting in from the right with the combative Lucas Bernardi and Edouard Cisse playing supporting midfield roles. That would leave the prolific Fernando Morientes and Dado Prso together up front.
Mourinho will know the importance of neutralising the blond-haired Rothen, whose educated left foot bamboozled Chelsea's Mario Melchiot in the semi-final. Luckily for Porto, they have the ideal man to snap at his heels. Paulo Ferreira was recently voted Europe's best right back and if he's on his game, the suspicion is it could be a more vexing evening for Rothen than usual. Porto simply must limit Monaco's deliveries from the left and the diligent Pedro Mendes will have a role to play in ensuring that Evra's up tempo sorties in support of Rothen are restricted.
The Porto boss will no doubt deduce that the impressive Ricardo Carvalho has the credentials to do battle with Morientes. Able in the air and calm on the ground, the Portuguese centre-half has shone like a beacon in this competition. Morientes for his part is a classy striker who can never be counted out of a game. This head-to-head confrontation promises to be one of Wednesday night's most intriguing.
The battle for control of the match in midfield could also go a long way towards deciding the outcome. There, my money would be on Porto to take the game by the scruff of the neck, thanks in no small measure to the indefatigable Costinha. His counterpart Bernardi must outwork him if Monaco are to win the midfield scrap.
Deschamps will likely elect not to man mark Deco but rather to have two men deployed close to him irrespective of where he's operating (and Deco does like to roam). The inherent danger in this is, of course, that it will open up space for the likes of Maniche, the long-range drive specialist. Many of Maniche's thunderbolts come right out of the blue when defensive attention is focused on Deco.
Up front Derlei is highly opportunistic and one would perhaps give him a pre-match advantage looking ahead to the confrontations with Squillaci and Rodriguez that await. That's assuming Deco, Maniche and Carlos Alberto can give the prolific Brazilian marksman a decent supply of the ball.
While Monaco can bury any team beneath an avalanche of goals, I'm not banking on it happening at the Arena AufSchalke. Porto might not always be pleasing on the eye, but their combination of gritty resolve and superior tactical organisation represents the antithesis of that which the Monegasques faced in the past two rounds of the Champions League.
For me it's Porto to prevail but don't be surprised if we go beyond the ninety minute mark, before the issue is ultimately settled.