This might be the only tie of the Champions League Round of 16 where the team hosting the first leg—the team that came in second in their bracket during the Group Stage—went into the knockout section of the tournament favoured to progress to the last eight.
Porto, who finished runners-up to Paris Saint-Germain in Group A, certainly played like favourites on Tuesday, smothering a Málaga side that had gone unbeaten against Anderlecht, Zenit St. Petersburg and AC Milan. The Spanish side could only muster a single attempt at goal throughout the game.
And yet, Málaga won’t be all that disappointed with their 1-0 defeat at Estádio do Dragão. For while they were easily second-best on the night, the final scoreline remained gracious. Because of Porto’s inability to find another goal or two, Málaga will return to La Rosaleda with their heads held high and the tie remaining very much on.
That is not to say Porto don’t have the advantage after 90 minutes.
Not only do the Portuguese champions lead by a goal at the midway mark of the series, but they also managed to stifle any hint of a threat out of their guests on Tuesday. Anything even resembling a repeat performance will surely see them go into the pot for the March 15 draw.
Joaquin, who buzzed about early in the match, was quickly dealt with by Porto left-back Alex Sandro, whose Brazilian compatriot on the opposite flank—Danilo—kept the usually spirited Isco in his back pocket the entire night.
But to say Málaga’s offense sputtered would be to do Porto a great disservice.
Jérémy Toulalan and Manuel Iturra were absolutely overrun in the middle of the park by João Moutinho, Fernando and Lucho Gonzalez. Moreover, had his name not been on the teamsheet, it would have been easy to forget that Roque Santa Cruz was even playing—so isolated was the Paraguayan during the match.
And still, Porto just couldn’t turn all their possession—61 percent of it according to UEFA—into an insurance marker. Marat Izmaylov, who frequently lent a hand in the midfield battle as well, scuffed what looked to be a decent attempt not long after the restart, and substitute James Rodriguez lashed his shot just wide after scampering past his marker shortly after coming on.
Despite 21 attempts Porto rarely troubled Málaga goalkeeper Willy Caballero—he of the best save percentage among goalkeepers in both the Champions League and La Liga—and for that, the Málaga backline must be given credit.
Central defenders Martin Demichelis and Weligton held firm in front of Caballero much of the night, not even falling for Jackson Martinez’s tricks when the Porto attacker would try to float in behind them. But for his failure to get a boot on Alex Sandro’s sublime pass to Moutinho in the run-up to the only goal of the match, right-back Sergio Sanchez was impressive as well, especially since he had to deal with the marauding Brazilian.
There was, however, that one moment in the 56th minute that proved the difference in the first leg and will have Porto defending a lead on March 13.
But it is a slender lead—one that, on the balance of play, should be considerably larger.
Porto were easily the better of the two sides on Tuesday, but it may be the combination of their own wastefulness in the goalmouth and the sturdiness of Málaga’s defense that they will rue when all is said and done.