Fiorentina will face SC Braga in the Europa Conference League knockout round play-off. The Portuguese club stand in the way of us reaching the last 16 of the competition, and we will play them away on February 16th, with the second leg in Florence a week later.
Braga were the highest UEFA ranked team of the clubs we could have drawn, at 35th they are ranked higher than Milan and Lazio. This is thanks to their decent runs in the last three Europa League campaigns, reaching the quarter-final stage last season.
On the domestic front, Braga have finished in the top four in each of the last five seasons, in a league dominated by the big three of Benfica, Porto, and Sporting Lisbon. In the last nine seasons, they are the only club outside of those giants to break into the top three, when they finished in third place ahead of Sporting in 2020.
Braga have never won the Portuguese League title, and have finished as runners-up just once, in 2010. They’ve been an ever-present in the top tier since 1975 although they made their European debut back in the 1966/67 Cup Winners’ Cup. As our games with Braga don’t take place until next February, we’ll have plenty of time to look at our opponents. In this first feature piece I’m going to take us back to Braga’s most successful season in Europe, which followed that second-place league finish.
The 2009/10 season had seen Braga on top of the Primeira Liga for a large part of the campaign. A great start saw them unbeaten after eight games, drawing just once and recording wins away to Sporting and home to defending champions Porto. They were now level on points with leaders Benfica, who were the visitors to the Estádio Municipal de Braga for round nine at the end of October.
The Municipal had only been in use since 2003, built for the Euros in 2004, and replacing Braga’s former ground, the Estádio Primeiro de Maio. The new stadium is an amazing looking piece of architecture. For those of us used to our stadiums, especially in Italy, with the Curve behind the goals and then two main stands on the side, at Braga there are just the two main stands. Behind the goals, there are no areas for fans, but they make up for it at one end as the stadium was built right up against the huge rock wall of the Monte do Castro quarry.
Braga took an early lead against Benfica when Hugo Viana scored from a free kick in the sixth minute. Both sides were reduced to ten men at the end of the first half following a confrontation in the tunnel, and it was Paulo César who ensured Braga took all three points when he grabbed their second goal in the 77th minute. Braga were now top with a three point gap to Benfica, and the pair battled for the top spot over the next few months.
In late February, Braga were two points ahead, but it was a 5-1 hammering they suffered at Porto which saw Benfica take advantage. The sides met again towards the end of March and this time Benfica came out on top. That 1-0 win saw them move six points clear with six games remaining, and Braga would end the season five points behind the champions in second place, their highest ever league finish.
This saw them qualify for the Champions League for the first time in their history. Braga entered the 2010/11 competition in the third qualifying round and were handed a tough draw as they would face Celtic. After the home leg in July, they had a 3-0 lead to take to Glasgow and they then had a 1-0 lead at half-time in Glasgow. The Scottish side scored twice after the break, but Braga were through to the play-off round.
Standing between them and a place in the group stage was Spanish side Sevilla. Brazilian forward Matheus scored the only goal in Portugal to give Braga a slender advantage to take to Spain. Matheus then scored the only goal of the first half in Seville, but it was a more action-packed second half, with six goals scored. Three of those came from another Brazilian, Lima, who helped Braga to a famous 4-3 win, to go through 5-3 on aggregate.
As third seeds, they were always going to face a tough group, and they were drawn in Group H alongside Arsenal, Shakhtar Donetsk, and Partizan Belgrade. It was a disastrous start, first they suffered a 6-0 mauling in London before losing 3-0 at home to Shakhtar.
They recovered with two wins over Partizan and then shocked Arsenal when Matheus scored two late goals to give Braga a 2-0 home win. They lost the last game at Shakhtar to finish in third, three points behind Arsenal, which did give them access to the Europa League.
In the Round of 32 they were drawn to face Lech Poznań, who had finished as runner-up in their Europa League group to Manchester City. The Polish champions were no pushovers, they had drawn with Juventus twice in the group stage, as the Italians failed to win a single game.
Lech had also beaten Manchester City 3-1 at home and finished level on points with the English side. They again showed their quality in the first leg as they defeated Braga 1-0, but goals from Alan and Lima gave the Portuguese a 2-0 home win to advance.
There were now three sides from Portugal in the last sixteen of the competition. The champions Benfica, like Braga, had been relegated from the Champions League. They looked to have drawn an easier group, where they would face Lyon, Schalke 04, and Hapoel Tel Aviv, but they managed just six points, their two wins coming over Hapoel and a 4-3 victory over Lyon where they had led 4-0 at one stage. They finished just a point ahead of the Israeli side, and then beat Stuttgart in the Round of 32.
Porto had topped their Europa League group, unbeaten, and then saw off Sevilla, the same side Braga had defeated in the Champions League. The three Portuguese clubs avoided each other in the draw, as Benfica would face PSG, Porto were up against CSKA Moscow, while Braga were drawn with Liverpool.
The first legs were played on March 10th and Braga were at home to the English side, unbeaten in the Europa League that season. The only goal of the game came from the penalty spot. Alan converted the spot kick after 18 minutes and thanks to a determined defensive display and the impressive goalkeeping of Artur Moraes, the Brazilian who had spent the previous two seasons at Roma.
Benfica and Porto also came through their ties and in the draw for the quarterfinals the three sides again avoided each other. Porto, who had overcome CSKA Moscow, were now up against Spartak Moscow, Benfica were drawn with PSV, and Braga would face Dynamo Kyiv. In the first leg away from home, Braga fell behind to an early Andriy Yarmolenko goal, but an own goal seven minutes later saw them take a draw back to Portugal.
Andriy Shevchenko would miss that second leg, having come on as a sub for Dynamo at half-time he managed to get himself sent off for two yellow cards within 15 minutes. That own-goal proved fatal for Dynamo, as a scoreless draw in the return game meant Braga went through thanks to that away goal.
Porto put five past Spartak in each leg to win 10-3 on aggregate while Benfica defeated PSV 6-3 over the two legs. With three Portuguese teams into the semi-final, two would have to face each other in the last four, and it was Braga who were drawn to play Benfica. Porto, meanwhile, would be up against Villareal.
On April 28th, while Porto were 1-0 down at half-time to the Spanish side, Braga were holding Benfica scoreless in Lisbon. After the break, Radamel Falcao scored four for Porto as they ran out 5-1 winners. Braga had a terrible record away to Benfica, having won there just once in their history, and they again fell to defeat. A Vandinho goal scored in between strikes from Jardel and Cardoza, did give them some hope, as they had an away goal to take back to Braga.
A week later, Porto lost 3-2 at Villareal, Pepito Rossi scoring the final goal of the game from the penalty spot. Porto went through 7-4 on aggregate and we were now guaranteed the first ever final of a European competition between two Portuguese clubs. It just remained to be seen whether it would be Benfica or Braga who would take on Porto in Dublin.
Custódio headed home a corner-kick inside the opening 20 minutes to give Braga the lead. Benfica piled on the pressure, but were unable to find the net, and Braga, thanks to the away goal rule, were into their first ever European final. The fans at the Estádio Primeiro de Maio celebrated with Irish flags, as two weeks later they would be off to Dublin to take on Porto.
The final took place at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, on May 18th, 2011. This came four days after the Portuguese league season ended, with Porto running out easy winners. The league champions finished undefeated and had a 21 point gap over Benfica. Braga had finished in fourth place, a massive 38 points behind the title winners. Braga had lost both league games to their final opponents and went into the decider as underdogs.
Falcao had already scored 16 goals in the competition that season, five more than his nearest rival Pepito Rossi. He would be the danger-man for Domingos Paciência’s Braga side to contain, while Porto manager André Villas-Boas also had the Brazilian Hulk in his team, top scorer in Portugal that season, along with Fredy Guarín of Colombia. Braga had six Brazilians in their starting eleven, including their keeper Artur Moraes, the captain Vandinho, as well as Alan, Lima, and Paulo César.
It was Custódio, the man who grabbed the winner against Benfica, who had an early chance but fired wide. It was then Hulk’s turn as he rounded the Braga defenders before putting his shot just wide of the top corner. Just before the break Braga committed the error of leaving Falcao unmarked in the box. Guarín floated a cross into the area and all alone, Falcao was not going to miss a free header from there.
Márcio Mossoró was one of two Brazilian subs sent on after the break for Braga, and he had the best chance to level the game. Fernando was caught napping in the middle of the park, and Mossoró stole the ball away, he raced towards goal and with just the keeper to beat his shot was saved by the foot of Helton.
A late free kick saw the Braga keeper up in the Porto area, and he did get a header in, but it was never going to trouble the Porto captain in the goal. Porto held on to win the trophy, having already won the competition when it was the UEFA Cup in 2003 and the Champions League a year later.
Braga are a team with plenty of European experience over the last few seasons, while Fiorentina have been in exile. This will be a real test for Vincenzo Italiano’s men, but if we want to be a team with real ambition, these are just the sort of games we should be looking to win.