Every year in European football, the spotlight always falls on teams like Barcelona, Manchester United, Arsenal, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Chelsea. One team that has not been getting enough attention is FC Porto.
Last week, the Dragões clinched the domestic league title by defeating their nemesis SL Benfica.
This is their seventh title in the past eleven years. While the Portuguese league is not rated as highly as the EPL or La Liga, this league has produced teams like Porto, Benfica, Sporting Lisbon and Sporting de Braga who are strong competitors in European competition.
Currently in the Europa League, there are three Portuguese teams in the quarterfinals (Porto, Braga, and Benfica) and all three will most likely advance to the semi finals.
This season, Porto has been on a very impressive run. Domestically, they are currently unbeaten, as they have won 26 games and have only drawn twice as of April 10.
In the Europa League, they cruised through the group stage with Beşiktaş giving them their lone draw. In the first knockout round, Porto faced Sevilla who actually defeated Porto 1-0 in the second leg, but it was not enough as Porto won 2-1 in the first phase which allowed them to advance based on aggregate goals.
The following two rounds have been a much smoother ride as they defeated CSKA Moscow and crushed Spartak Moscow 5-1 in the first leg of the quarter-finals. Assuming Porto does not have a melt-down in the second leg, they will most likely face Villareal in the semi-finals which will be arguably the matchup of the tournament.
So the big question is, how has Porto been able to be such a good team over the years, this year especially? Three key words can answer that, "Under the Radar."
Key players for Porto this year include the following: Hulk, Fernando, Fernando Belluschi, Álvaro Pereira, Jorge Fucile, Helton, Maicon (not the Inter Milan version), Cristian Rodríguez, Nicolás Otamendi and Mariano Gonzales.
The one thing all these players have in common, they all are South American stars from Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil that are great players, but do not have the price tags that Fernando Torres, Kun Agüero, Mario Balotelli, Andy Carroll and many other high priced players have.
Porto's ability to put together a team of journeymen, as well as up-and-comers from smaller clubs, has made their model one that the top flight teams should use instead of overpaying by millions for big names. All of these players play vital roles that complement one another, making every player equally important.
Three other important players to Porto this season are the Colombian trio of Radamel Falcao, Guarín and James Rodríguez.
Of the trio, James is the new kid on the block. The 19-year wunderkind, has progressed much quicker than anyone probably anticipated. The winger/playmaker quickly worked his way to the first team since joining the squad in January from Banfield in Argentina. Porto signed the teenager for just 5 million Euros. While Silvestre Varela is the regular starter at the left wing, James has been able to come off the bench and start on occasion which has been able to keep Varela fresh in this long season.
Eventually, James will be the regular starter and will be more integral to Porto's success. With five games remaining in the domestic league, and the league title already secured, James will probably get more playing time as a way to keep other players fresh and as a way to gain experience. By the time he is 21 or 22 he will be worth at least 25 million Euros.
Up front, Radamel Falcao has been a scoring menace at both the domestic and European level.
Over the past two seasons, he has tallied 60 goals in 77 matches. Currently, he is the top scorer in the Europa league with 10 goals.
Should Porto get past Villareal and win the Europa league, Falcao may be in line to get player of the tournament.
If that happens, Falcao's price tag after this season will easily soar above 25 million Euros where a team like Real Madrid will spend whatever is necessary to obtain a striker that will help them move past Barcelona. Not bad for a player who was purchased for 5 million euros.
Even before coming to Porto, Falcao was a seasoned veteran at River Plate in Argentina (former teammate of Belluschi) and had several caps for Colombia by the time he arrived in Portugal. Talk about a great investment that will yield great returns in a year or two.
The x-factor, and arguably the MVP for Porto this second half of the season, has been Fredy Guarín.
The Colombian came to Porto from St. Etienne in France in 2008. After two seasons of injuries and coming off the bench occasionally, it seemed Guarín's days were numbered in a midfield that was already full of quality depth.
After adding a few pounds of muscle, the injuries stopped and the form shortly followed. Guarín quickly started to score critical goals off the bench and added a new dimension to Porto's style of play. Guarín has shown on many occasions that he can score from outside the 18 with his powerful shot.
Between Fernando, Rúben Micael, João Moutinho, Fernando Belluschi, and now Guarín, Porto's midfield has a strong mix of ball winners and playmakers which can adapt to any opponent they face.
In addition to the South Americans that have made Porto a powerhouse, there are a few players that have worked their way through the ranks in Portugal. Moutinho, Varela, Micael and Rolando have all had an important role in Porto's success.
Of the four, Moutinho was the most mainstream of the bunch, but Varela, Micael and Rolando have become such valuable players while at Porto that they have all become integrated into Portugal's national team as a reward for their performances at the club level. Even Moutinho has regained a regular role with Portugal after redeeming himself in all competitions for the top Portuguese side.
With such a well rounded squad, Porto is well on their way to replicating the success that was accomplished under José Mourinho between 2002-4.
After this season, players like Falcao, Guarín, Hulk, Varela, Rolando and many others will no longer be under the radar, but will become household names amongst the football community.
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