Europa League preview: Porto, Benfica eye final meeting

A Europa League final between rivals Porto and Benfica beckons should they hang on to respective first-leg leads over Villarreal and Braga.The Portuguese heavyweights have already met five times this season, but could be set for yet another encounter on the continental stage.

Porto already have one foot in the final at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium on May 18, having thumped Villarreal 5-1 in the first leg of their semi-final tie at the Estadio do Dragao last Thursday.

Porto’s treble of league, domestic and continental trophies looked in danger at half-time after Cani’s strike Villarreal, but four second-half goals from in-demand striker Falcao and a headed effort from Colombia team-mate Fredy Guarin turned the tie on its head and in their side’s favour.

Guided by highly rated 33-year-old manager Andres Villas Boas, Porto’s attacking troika of Falcao, Brazilian Hulk and Portugal winger Silvestre Varela troubled Villarreal’s defense with their pace and movement.

Villarreal, however, do possess the talents to arrest the deficit. Former Manchester United forward Guiseppe Rossi rivals Falcao for interest in his signature, while Brazilian strike partner Nilmar can prove a headache for any defender on his day.

But the La Liga outfit will need to score at least four goals to win the tie, all the while keeping Porto’s front line – which troubled Villarreal so much just seven days earlier – starved of opportunities.

Porto sealed their Liga Sagres title on April 3 courtesy of a 2-1 win at last season’s winners Benfica.

Perhaps with one eye already on avenging that defeat, Benfica hold a 2-1 lead going into the second leg of their own semi-final tie with another Portuguese club in Sporting Braga.

Braga have home advantage this time around but have lost all three encounters against the Lisbon side this season, including a 2-1 loss at home on March 3.

Braga defeated some big names long their way to the Europa League semi-final, including five-time European Cup winners Liverpool and Ukraine heavyweights Dynamo Kiev.

They also defeated English Premier League outfit Arsenal before their exit at the group stage of the Champions League.

They possess a squad more effective than star-studded, with the graft of Leandro Salino and Vandinha in Braga’s engine room complemented by the vision of former Newcastle United midfielder Hugo Viana.

Up front, Braga have had to learn quickly to deal with the January transfer of striker Matheus to Ukraine Premier League outfit Dnipro.

Manager Domingos Paciencia opted to start Alan, Lima and Albert Meyong Ze his front third in the first leg, and Benfica would expect him to do the same on Thursday as Braga chase a result.

Benfica’s stars are far more glittering, from towering Paraguay forward Oscar Cardozo to creative Argentine quartet Nicolas Gaitan, Javier Saviola, Franco Jara and Pablo Aimar.

They will fancy their chances of progressing past Braga into another meeting with Porto, giving them a much-cherished chance to rain on their bitter rivals’ parade in Dublin.