The Europa League has been the subject of heavy, and often unfair, criticism, but it certainly knows how to throw up a surprise or two. That Braga are ending their maiden season of Champions League action on the brink of a European semi-final is one such turn up.
A competition that can't seem to do right for doing wrong has stumbled into another unfortunate jam in quarter-final second leg week. Due to the scintillating attacking performances of Porto, Villarreal and Benfica in the opening matches, three of the four ties are already practically spent, at a time when the Europa League should be plying us with drama. This means it's left to Braga's tie with Dynamo Kiev to draw us to the edge of our seats, following the teams' 1-1 draw in Ukraine last week. If the Portuguese side are true to form, we are unlikely to be disappointed.
The incorporation of third-placed teams in Champions League groups into the second half of the Europa League has been used as a stick with which to beat the latter tournament, citing a reward for failure. One could argue, in fact, that it limits the amount of dead rubbers in the senior competition, while rewarding the less experienced and moneyed competitors making the step up for their efforts.
This is certainly the case with Braga; runners-up in their domestic league thanks to the best season in their history, they battled their way through frequently entertaining qualifying ties with the more mature Celtic and Sevilla, before providing plenty of value in the group stages themselves. Having since disposed of Lech Poznan, Liverpool and returned unbeaten from Kiev, few would begrudge them this opportunity to play for a place in the Europa League's final four.
Braga's European season has been a steep learning curve for them, but they adapted remarkably after early beatings by Arsenal and eventual quarter-finalists Shakhtar Donetsk. Liverpool were the second Premier League side to succumb at the Estadio Municipal de Braga this campaign, after Domingos Paciencia's men recorded a splendid 2-0 win over Arsenal in November.
The victory over Arsenal was the moment where Braga proved they had truly arrived in Europe. Sure, they were never truly likely to progress to the knockout stages of the Champions League even after this - though when Partizan Belgrade equalised 52 minutes into Matchday 6 at the Emirates, the Portuguese were one goal at Shakhtar away from doing so - but they had shown they belonged at this level. Braga had left their nervy follies of their stuttering debut stanza in the competition behind them. "The release of pressure, and lowering of expectation, lifted a burden from the squad's shoulders," Domingos told ESPNsoccernet back in November.
Fast forward four months and everything has changed again. After just about keeping together his squad last summer, the coach had to cope with significant player turnover in winter, as some stars of the campaign (not unreasonably) took the opportunity to cash in on the back of their autumn success. Influential centre-back Moises departed for Al-Rayyan, and Matheus, scorer of the excellent brace that downed Arsenal, was tempted away by the offer of a big contract at Juande Ramos' Dnipro in the Ukraine. Experienced midfield pair Andres Madrid and Luis Aguiar also moved on.
Half of Moises' €1.5 million fee went to his old club Cruzeiro, and with Matheus' contract entering its final six months Dnipro paid just €1 million. But despite the relatively small funds generated, Braga have regrouped admirably. Former Roma back-up goalkeeper Artur has been superb since previous No. 1 Felipe went back to Brazil, while crafty playmaker Mossoro has recovered his best form after serious injury and striker Albert Meyong has reintegrated after being left off the Champions League squad.
The way Braga brushed aside Guimaraes in Monday's Minho derby was impressive, especially when you consider the starting XI. At least four of the coach's likely starters against Dynamo started the match on the bench. Despite having compiled his personnel on a relative shoestring, Domingos has a whole squad of players he can feel safe investing his trust in.
Of the rested regulars, Alan came on at half-time to make an important contribution, stretching play and scoring the third goal himself with a deft far-post header from a Mossoro corner. The former Porto man has been a key figure this season and though he is not the most extravagant winger you'll ever see, along with Hugo Viana he was the only player in the group to have played in the Champions League before this season. The 31-year-old's influence has been plain as he has brought his experience to bear.
Alan, along with his coach, is sure to advise that plenty of work is yet to do. Going into the home tie with an away goal in the bag should be perfect for Braga, a side built for swift counter-attacks, with Yuri Semin's Dynamo having to score in northern Portugal to have any hope of progress. Yet Dynamo have genuine quality in the final third, with nimble pair Andriy Yarmolenko and Artem Milevskiy making up for the loss of the suspended Andriy Shevchenko. After dominating the first half in the home game against Shakhtar before losing 3-0, Braga have already been burnt by Ukrainian visitors this season.
One of the former stars, now their man on the inside of the Ukrainian game, certainly believes in them. "I've bet with all my team-mates that Braga will go through to the semi-finals," said Matheus recently. "I'm confident because I know the value of this team, and the personality and composure that they show in big games."
Domingos himself is highly likely to leave the Estadio Municipal in the summer, with an agreement to coach Sporting Lisbon widely thought to have been struck with the capital club's new president, Luis Godinho Lopes. He deserves his chance on a bigger stage, having built an impressive CV without the help of major resources. A trip to Dublin for the Europa League final on May 18 would be the ultimate end to an enthralling story.