Towards the end of last season, things went very wrong, very quickly for FC Porto. Already knocked out of the Champions League, they would exit the Europa League at the quarter final stage. The league would then be surrendered, a five point lead squandered as they slid to third place. Cup competitions would bring no consolation. The Taca de Portugal and the Taca de Liga saw semi-final exits for Porto.
No wonder then that Paulo Fonseca got the sack.
In his place, Porto have hired Julen Lopetegui and the former Real Madrid and Barcelona goalkeeper has brought with him a sense of optimism.
Manager of the triumphant Spanish Under 21 squad at the 2013 European Championships, Lopetegui is on the face of it well placed to continue a history of Porto coaches who started out not very well known but later became household names, in the process leaving for greener pastures.
That list includes Jose Mourinho, Andre Villas-Boas and Jesualdo Ferreira. It very well could be that Lopetegui gets his chance to finally prove himself at club level. An ill-fated stint with Rayo Vallecano in 2003 remains his only true test of club management at senior level. The Spaniard has however enjoyed moderate success at youth level, managing Real Madrid Castilla, before winning the Under 19 European Championship in 2012 and the Under 21 version last year.
It is thus no surprise that the current Porto side oozes youthful exuberance. That however is also a consequence of Porto’s unique stand in the European club football’s food chain. Without adequate finances to compete with the super clubs of Europe, Porto is resigned to selling their best players every season.
That has been the case this season, with Fernando and Eliaquim Mangala having been snapped up by Manchester City and with Silvestre Varela going to West Bromwich Albion on loan. Porto’s history also includes the sales of players such as Falcao, Deco, Pepe and Hulk.
In turn, it does show Porto’s greatest means of resourcefulness. A vast scouting network is in place which gets players from a young and early untried age and gives them the chance to excel. The network is particularly prevalent in South America, and its effectiveness is judged by the fact that Porto maintain a certain level of competitiveness that at least sees them challenging for the Portuguese league and going past the group stages of the Champions League in most seasons.
Allied to that is a fruitful youth academy that provides gems of its own. One current player to have come up through Porto’s youth setup is Ruben Neves. The 17 year old has a composure and confidence that indicates at a very bright future ahead.
To compound onto this, Porto has always had a clear sense of identity. It seems odd for a club not assured continuity of squad growth, but Porto have maintained a staple 4-3-3 formation over the years. The system functions with a single pivot in the midfield three, allowing for vertical penetration from the other two midfielders with forward runs. Width is provided by overlapping full backs. Pacey wing forwards support a lone striker who must be skilled enough to link up play with the wing forwards and the advancing midfielders. At the same time — as displayed by Falcao in the 2010-2011 season — the striker is usually of prolific ilk.
Currently, Jackson Martinez is that striker. The Colombian has a mixture of being good in the air and also on the ground with his feet. Out wide, club captain Ricardo Quaresma seems to have regained his form after his travails across Europe have now seen him return to his home country.
The midfield shows creativity in another Colombian — Juan Quintero while Hector Herrera should carry forward his great World Cup with Mexico into his club form. Defence is marshalled by the ever improving Brazilian Maicon while the goal is guarded by another Brazilian, Helton.
It is in recruitment however that Porto have performed their usual trick. The transfer window has seen not less than nine players come in. More importantly, these players are of requisite Porto quality and add to the ever competitive Porto philosophy.
They include Bruno Martins Indi and Ivan Marcano at the back, with Cristian Tello and Yacine Brahimi adding to the options on the wings. Casemiro has been brought on loan from Real Madrid to replace Fernando, while in the guile of Oliver Torres (on loan from Atletico Madrid), Porto have a young player already talked of as being the next Andres Iniesta.
It means this season, Porto are aiming to come back fighting strong. Last season may have ended in heartache as Porto limped out at the end. This season may yet end in celebratory gestures at the Dragao Stadium.
[images courtesy of zimbio]