We knew it would be close. Both these teams are evenly matched in every area on the pitch on paper. Solid defense, loads of playmakers, young stars…you name it, it should have been here.
That’s not how it worked out. In the end the game finished as Porto 1-0 Malaga.
In a match focused mainly on tactics, largely dominated possession-wise by Porto, it was clear that Málaga came to the Dragao with more defensive measures in mind. They offered up possession to Porto hoping to catch them on the counter. Possession is Porto’s game anyway, but Málaga seemed to have no intentions of trying to pursue their own. According to uefa.com, Porto enjoyed 61% possession while Málaga only 39%.
For all that possession it took 56 minutes for Porto to break down a resilient Malaga side. Often six or seven men were behind the ball, and the two center backs Dimechelis and Weligton effectively nullified Porto’s Jackson Martinez, the top scorer in Liga Sagres (20). For the entire first half, Malaga played a tight back four, crowded the space at the top of the box. This did not allow Porto to initiate any 1-2’s to break through since either the ball was cleared or 2 to 3 Malaga players crowded the ball. Porto thrives on space, which will make the return leg in Spain interesting since the home side will have to come out of their shell in order to create opportunities, thereby giving back what they took away today.
Interestingly enough, as Málaga were the ones looking to counter, they were caught out by Porto doing the very same. Marauding left back Alex Sandro muscled the ball off Manuel Ittura in Málaga’s defensive third, took it forward into space and deftly curled a low through ball into the path of the oncoming Joao Moutinho, who drilled it low and hard past goalkeeper Willy Caballero. It was a great pass by Alex Sandro, who continues to be in fine form for Porto and is arguably one of the best left backs in the world. Moutinho had to show great composure to finish that off, and he did so to perfection. Being caught on the break proved disastrous in this case for Málaga, who had little time to adjust and the gap in the back showed. There’s also a large question of Moutinho being offside. I’m not going to debate that here. (The goal stood and it can’t be taken back, so why bother?)
One of the better players of the night was Porto’s Izmaylov, who playing on the right wing was a constant menace to the back line. Left back Sergio Sanchez often required the help of Jeremy Toulalan to keep the Russian quiet, and even that wasn’t enough. Favoring movement to get in front of goal, Izmaylov would cut in. At times this congested the space in front of goal, forcing Jackson Martinez out wide, where he had a rough time crossing in balls from the right and being effective. Had Izmaylov been more deadly tonight with his shooting boots there could have been another one, possibly two goals on the scoreboard.
This is not to discredit Málaga, who had a clear game plan and almost executed it to perfection. But their rivals on the night were better. Porto had 17 shots compared to Málaga’s 1, and the defensive effort from the Dragons was outstanding. Fernando worked extremely hard in front of the back four, and offered much going forward – something less than common for him usually. There were a few shaky moments for the back line of Porto, which saw Mangala start over the more experienced Maicon (an interesting call, but it worked out well). Alex Sandro offered much from the left back spot, and worked relentlessly covering ground and playing simple passes. Danilo did well also, but didn’t get forward as much as his left-sided counterpart, which left space for Moutinho to exploit. There was a lot of space in the middle of the pitch due to the shell-like nature of the visitors, and Porto can likely count on that not being there in Spain.
Málaga never really got going, and much of that can be credited to Porto. Fortunately for Los Boquerones (Anchovies) the scoreline is only 1-0 and the next match is at home. Joaquin and Isco are two of Málaga’s most deadly players, both wingers, and neither of them had any sort of impact on the game whatsoever. At most times, they were too concerned with tracking back and providing cover, and when they did get a break were either too far deep to be effective or mishandled the ball. This was another oddity that is unlikely to occur again next time in Spain – Málaga had a hard time retaining the ball. Turnovers killed any momentum they were gaining. Not just on the behalf of Isco and Joaquin, but Santa Cruz and Baptista were guilty of it too. Toulalan and Iturra did well to snuff out the final efforts around the box of Porto, but were too deep to be effective against Moutinho, allowing him ample time and space. Izmaylov caused big problems for them, and so did Varela on the left. When Varela was subbed out for Atsu in the second half it got worse. Atsu’s speed sliced open Málaga time and time again as Atunes was outmatched and tired. James Rodriguez had the same effect, but to a lesser degree. He’s still recovering from injury and regaining match sharpness.
The idea in the end for Málaga was to absorb the pressure and win on the counter. But Porto just had too much to their game for that to happen. Isco and Joaquin, arguably their best two playmakers, couldn’t get forward nor find space to work. The team defending of Porto was too overwhelming. Málaga is fortunate not to have conceded more, but also did well to prevent opportunities. With the next game at home in Spain, Pellegrini will have them play their game. You can bet your top dollar that they’ll get more than 1 shot on goal at home. On the flip side, a dominant performance only has one goal to show for Porto. James will likely be back and in form for the next match, but will they rue not taking their chances?