Sitting in the Anfield trophy room, Domingos Paciência, flanked by two nattily-dressed club officials, ruffled his hair with the contented relaxation of a man who knew that he had just achieved something remarkable. His press conference was short, no more than ten minutes, and the questions were, in the main, of the pitter-patter variety, but the Braga coach appeared to have something important to get across to the assembled hacks. “I want the Liverpool fans and people to understand why we celebrated the way we did”, he said. “We achieved a different level tonight.”
It was a surprisingly magnanimous pronunciation, the kind that stands at odds with the stereotypical image of modern football. Braga's celebrations following the final whistle at Anfield had indeed been exuberant, with players and coaching staff alike dropping to the turf before heading over to the corner flag and the travelling fans, who had provided non-stop vocal encouragement throughout an often tense ninety minutes. Following this introspective display, the Braga contingent then directed their waves and applause towards the rest of the rapidly-emptying stands. They received a warm reception not just from the Portuguese officials massed in the guest area, but from the local fans. It was a memorable moment in an evening that will long be recalled in the history of the northern side.
The romanticisation of the fixture had begun the moment the draw was made. A Bola's preview of the second leg carried the headline 'Above Them Only Sky.' One of the characteristics of Portuguese football which struck me when I first began covering it, and continues to do so on occasions such as last night, is the level of appreciation and respect for the English game. As a naturally cynical and suspicious Londoner, this has baffled and intrigued me in equal measure, but when Paciência declared that Portuguese football “should be proud of itself”, it didn't take a genius to deduce what he was referring to. For all that they have endured a torrid season, eliminating Liverpool at their historic home is still A Big Deal.
That result, combined with a 1-1 draw for Benfica in Paris and a 2-1 win for F.C Porto at the Dragão means that for the first time since the 2002/03 season, the Liga has three representatives at the quarter-final stage of a European competition. The Europa League has been met with short shrift amongst many sections of the English-speaking media, but from a Portuguese perspective, the competition is already assuming the sort of lustre that has UEFA rubbing their hands with glee. Whilst one could argue that the reasoning behind such appreciation glances beyond the Europa League and up towards the rarefied air of the Champions League – the 2012/13 edition of which should now contain three participants from the Liga – the fact remains that with the title race sewn up; the dominant narrative for the remainder of this season in Portugal concerns the fortunes of the three clubs mentioned above.
Statistically, the odds on a Liga side lifting a European trophy for the first time since 2004 are shortening by the day. But practically, the task will not be an easy one. After their heroics at Anfield, Braga will face a Dynamo Kyiv side buoyed by the renaissance of Andriy Shevchenko; undoubtedly one of the finest centre-forwards of the last two decades, and newly motivated by the twin prospects of a last hurrah in Europe and the 2012 European Championships.
Benfica will face PSV Eindhoven, a side with a recent presence amongst Europe's elite, who eliminated Sporting's conquerors Glasgow Rangers. Yet the manner in which the Eagles progressed last night should fill fans with hope. Having sacrificed the likes of Fábio Coentrão, Carlos Martins and Javier Saviola at the weekend, Jorge Jesus will have been gratified (and perhaps a little relieved) to see all three play key roles in a nervous evening at the Parc des Princes. Backed by a sizeable expat presence in the crowd, Benfica appeared more than up to the challenge, and after going half a century without European success, appear to be headed towards an all or nothing scenario when it comes to the 2010/11 season. Regardless of whether they emerge triumphant or empty-handed, the campaign will be remembered for a multitude of reasons.
Victory for Benfica and Braga would see the renewal of what is becoming a visceral, sometimes ugly domestic rivalry. Paciência was sanguine yesterday about the prospect of an internal match-up, and with both clubs having landed telling shots in recent times, a two-legged meeting would be too close to call.
Although they cannot meet any of their Liga rivals until the final, Porto have perhaps been handed the tougher task. André Villas Boas' men will head to Moscow once more to face Spartak, and with the Russian outfit on the cusp of a new season, the Dragons limited first-team squad will need to be carefully managed between now and April 7th in order to combat the inevitable fatigue. Vágner Love of Spartak's city rivals CSKA, who fell to a 4-2 aggregate defeat in the round of sixteen thanks to a pair of 2-1 victories; declared that Porto must be considered tournament favourites. To that list I would have to add potential semi-final opponents Villarreal. The Yellow Submarine have produced some truly beautiful football this season, and whilst a succession of Thursday matches have taken their toll in La Liga, Porto's fellow Iberians look a Champions League outfit in waiting.
But all of that is still to come, in the usual form of guest contributors, podcasts and dehydrated, slightly hungover (it was St Paddy's day in Liverpool, give me a break) blog posts written on a train from Liverpool to London, such as this one. For now, a simple parabéns will suffice.