Everything, and nothing. Having entered the Champions League amidst considerable fanfare, FC Porto find themselves in an unexpected position. After four matches, the Dragons are four points adrift of Group G leaders APOEL (where they were defeated 2-1 on Tuesday), and three of second-placed Zenit St. Petersburg, who dismantled them at the Petrovski Stadion at the end of September. After lifting last season's Europa League in some style, much was expected of this campaign, both internally and externally. Yet now, Porto will (barring victories over Shakhtar Donetsk and Zenit - the latter of which must be by at least three goals) find themselves back on European football's undercard.
That's not meant to dismiss the Europa League (well, not entirely). Portugal's whirlwind romance with the competition has been documented on this blog, and there is little doubt that the two current participants from the Liga - Sporting and Braga - would give the footballing equivalent of their right arms to lift the trophy next May. But for a plethora of reasons, both sporting and financial, the Europa League can never hope to compete with the Champions League. The entire structure of continental competition (i.e the UEFA Coefficient system) admits as much. For a club that has won seven of the last ten domestic titles, anything less than the Champions League football is unthinkable.
Yet there is a contradiction at the heart of Porto's current malaise. For all the lifelessness exhibited on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, weekends still hold little in the way of fear. Whistles have been heard loud and clear at the Dragão of late, but the players have responded: in the last three Liga rounds, Porto have scored eleven and conceded none. Ahead of Benfica in the table by virtue of a superior goal difference (head-to-head records are only relevant once the season has concluded), the Dragons were the better side for much of September's O Clássico, and whilst they aren't eviscerating opposition, it's easy to forget that they did not do so last season either, for the most part: workmanlike wins over Leiria, Beira-Mar, and Setúbal were as much as part of André Villas-Boas' title-winning formula as the 5-0 humbling of Benfica, the one-year anniversary of which falls on Monday.
Of course, Porto's current position in the table could be read as saying rather more about the quality of the Liga than it does about them as a team. Indeed, anyone unfortunate enough to have witnessed Gil Vicente vs. Beira-Mar from round seven, or Académica vs. Braga from this past weekend would have more than enough ammunition to aim at that particular stationary target. But it has always been thus in Portugal, or at least it has for most of the time: Porto's opposition is no worse than that encountered by José Mourinho (three and a bit paragraphs in, not bad eh)'s side in 2003/04 - in fact, your humble correspondent would argue that it is in fact superior.
The lack of domestic competition argument would have far more credence were it not for the fact that in their last ten Champions League campaigns, Porto have failed to advance beyond the group stages just once. Besides, as has already been mentioned, Porto might be winning at home, but they aren't exactly cruising [edit: a fact evidenced by a wretched 0-0 draw at Olhanense the weekend following this post]. No, the answers lie within - or rather, what used to be within but which now Porto are without. If you follow.
The departure of André Villas-Boas - he of the now-infamous 'dream job' declaration - caught Porto on the hoof, regardless of what President Pinto da Costa declared at the time. Earlier in the summer, Domingos had joined Sporting. Top-flight coaches in Portugal can be categorised according to which grande they are connected with. Domingos, a former fan idol and B team coach, could not be more 'of Porto' if he dyed his hair blue and white. That's not a statement of character, that's just how it is. It is difficult to imagine Domingos turning down the chance at coaching Porto, were it offered to him, which it could have been from January onwards (it was an open secret that Domingos would be leaving Braga from around that time). The expectation was that Villas-Boas would remain, but as we all realised long ago, in Portuguese football money doesn't talk as much as take to its soapbox with an industrial-strength megaphone and Scargill sideburns.
The transfer fee (let's call it what it was) on offer for Villas-Boas was too good to refuse, but his departure has left a void that cannot be filled by money. For all his youthful good looks and intellectual approach to the game, Villas-Boas is at his core a leader of men. Not in the Russell Crowe sense, but in the making players want to play for him (a cliché, but one grounded in reality) sense. A brooding menace on the touchline, Villas-Boas' visceral celebrations in particular call to mind a Munch-ian creation, all limbs and catharsis.
With Domingos out of the picture, and the other alternatives (Leonardo Jardim, Pedro Emanuel, Jorge Costa) deemed unready or striking out on their own, da Costa opted to draft in Vítor Pereira, the quiet, unassuming, somewhat bland assistant brought in from Santa Clara after an unremarkable coaching apprenticeship in the lower leagues.
Without wishing to be unkind, in hindsight Pereira's principal qualification for the post was his presence - meaning that of the coaching trio from 2010/11, he was the only one left (Pedro Emanuel having joined Académica). Continuity is a valuable commodity in football, but the transition from assistant to head coach (even if they choose to change clubs) is fraught with peril: witness the wretched fortunes of another Porto idol, João Pinto, at Sporting Covilhã last season.
Pereira is undoubtedly well-liked amongst the Porto squad, and after the sale of Radamel Falcao, only the most unrealistic of supporters would have expected Porto to maintain last season's level of consistency. The Colombian's movement, instinct and efficiency in and around the penalty box was unparalleled both at home and in European competition, and his departure was inevitably going to have a negative effect.
However, the signs of late have been worrying. The desire for continuity appears to have superseded any question of innovation in Pereira's mind, meaning that when Porto are required to produce something slightly different, the task becomes that much harder. Under Villas-Boas, relentless pressing was combined with a mixture of short, quick passes and piercing aerial balls. Against APOEL, Porto attempted to play through a side that were not only defensive, but experts in distributing the ball to wide areas in a minimal amount of time. Therefore, not only did they struggle to create chances, but they were also left exposed to the counter attack.
Pereira's apparent inability to impact on the situation is undoubtedly more concerning than any loss of form on the part of individuals, and is quite possibly the root cause of it. Continuity is desirable, but regression certainly is not. Upon his appointment, Pereira declared that 'I am where I always dreamed of being.' Be careful what you wish for...