Portuguese hopes high for Europa League
Portuguese hopes of UEFA Europa League glory this season are riding high ahead of Thursday's quarter-finals with three of the country's representatives still involved.
Both Benfica and Porto once ruled the roost in Europe, Benfica's glory days coming in the 1960s in the era of former star man Eusebio. Porto, meanwhile tasted UEFA Champions League glory as recently as 2004 under then coach Jose Mourinho, who a year earlier had led the "dragoes" (dragons) to success in the old UEFA Cup, precursor of the Europa League.
Now, with Spain, Italy and England dominating Europe's premier club competition the focus is on the second tier event - although one of Thursday's encounters will evoke memories of grander times as Benfica host PSV Eindhoven in a repeat of the 1988 European Cup final. The Dutch won the trophy on that occasion but since then neither side has hit the heights.
Portuguese league leaders Porto have been drawn in their first leg at home to Spartak Moscow while Sporting Braga will meet Dynamo Kiev, who will be missing Serbian international midfielder Milos Ninkovic with a knee injury. The fourth quarter-final sees Spanish side Villarreal hosting Dutch league leaders FC Twente.
Spartak aim for undefeated Porto
Porto, with Brazilian striker Hulk averaging almost a goal a game, have been going great guns in their league, having yet to taste defeat after 25 matches to leave Benfica trailing by 16 and Braga by a barely credible 31 points. Despite Porto's excellent form Spartak's Brazilian striker Welliton says he believes the Russians can go through over the two legs. "We will play it cautiously - but we are the favourites," said the striker.
One player who will ensure his side have done their homework beforehand is Spartak's Brazilian midfielder Ibson, who spent four seasons with Porto - though barely two as a regular - before joining the Russians in 2009 after a loan spell with Flamengo. "It's going to be a great game," Ibson told A Bola sports magazine on arrival in Porto.
And he made the Portuguese the favourites at least for the home leg. "They are at home and the atmosphere will be tough for their opponents. But I know Spartak can get a good result - a draw would set us up to win the tie back at our place."
Spartak coach Valeri Karpin is already on record as making Porto favourites to win the event. Porto have yet to lose in six meetings with Russian clubs - but they will not underestimate a side which has put out the likes of Ajax and Basel, even if their Russian league form is poor after two defeats in three games to date.
Benfica take on PSV after knocking out Paris St Germain, while the Dutch edged out Scotland's Rangers in a round of last 16 which saw the demise of big-spending English pair Manchester City and Liverpool, who crashed out to Dynamo Kiev and Braga respectively. PSV, 21 times Dutch champions, won the old UEFA Cup in 1978 but are currently trailing FC Twente in the Dutch league after losing last weekend's table-topping meeting.
In the semi-finals, the winner of the Braga versus Dynamo clash will be at home first against Benfica or PSV, with Porto or Spartak enjoying home advantage first against Villarreal or Twente.