Braga, FC Porto to face off for Europa crown

PORTUGUESE SHOWDOWN::Braga are headed to the Europa League final for the first time since 1990, while FC Porto aim to take their first Europa League title since 2003

AP, BRAGA, PORTUGAL

Sat, May 07, 2011 - Page 18

Braga reached their first European final when they beat Benfica 1-0 and advanced on the away-goal rule in the Europa League semi-finals on Thursday.

Custodio Castro’s first-half goal left the two-leg semi-finals on a 2-2 aggregate.

Unheralded Braga were the underdogs again, but added Benfica to earlier triumphs over Liverpool, Arsenal, Celtic and Seville on their unprecedented run.

Castro, a Portugal defender, rose above the defense in the 19th minute to head in a corner.

“We’re heroes, the fans’ heroes,” Castro said. “Words can’t describe this joy.”

Braga, who lie third in the Portuguese league, 14 points behind second-place Benfica, were the more composed team as they looked to overturn the first-leg 2-1 deficit.

Only one European opponent — Shakhtar Donetsk — managed to find the net at Braga’s stadium this season.

“We’ve got a great group of players. They give everything for each other. I’m so proud of them,” Braga coach Domingos Paciencia said.

Benfica, whose European glory days were in the 1960s when they were back-to-back continental champions, were unbeaten in the tournament this season. They sought their first European final since 1990.

“We had several good chances to level the score. We did everything we could,” Benfica coach Jorge Jesus said. “We’re disappointed, but we fought and worked hard and kept on trying.”

The all-Portuguese encounter featured more grit than flair even though Braga started with five Brazilians who have been a mainstay of the club’s success in recent seasons.

Lima beat Luisao to Albert Meyong’s cross in the 10th minute, deflecting the ball over the goal before Braga goalkeeper Artur Moraes tipped a Carlos Martins free kick over the bar.

Benfica lifted their game after the goal and Silvio’s low drive just missed on the half-hour, while Javi Garcia should have made more of a loose ball at the other end.

Before the interval Javier Saviola hit the post as Benfica signaled the contest wasn’t over yet.

Benfica replaced midfielder Cesar Peixoto with striker Franco Jara, as they went in pursuit of the equalizer during a tense second half, but Braga looked the most dangerous and Mossoro beat two defenders as he broke into the area before shooting weakly.

Benfica squandered some late chances, Moraes denying Nicolas Gaitan from short range and Saviola failing to tap in a stray ball at the back post.

However, the Eagles faded toward the end, with goalkeeper Roberto denying Hugo Viana and Castro in late action as home fans at Braga’s prize-winning stadium — built in a disused quarry — celebrated.

VILLARREAL VS PORTO

AP, VILLARREAL, SPAIN

FC Porto reached the all-Portuguese Europa League final after they lost 3-2 at Villarreal on Thursday, but advanced on a 7-4 aggregate score.

Cani stabbed home Marco Ruben’s cross in the 17th minute to give Villarreal hope, but Porto striker Hulk silenced the crowd at El Madrigal stadium in the 40th when his blast took a friendly deflection off defender Mateo Musacchio’s foot before landing in the net.

Porto’s Radamel Falcao broke Juergen Klinsmann’s 15-year-old record with his 16th goal of the tournament in the 48th.

Joan Capdevila leveled the score in the 76th and Giuseppe Rossi scored Villarreal’s third from the penalty spot in the 80th.

First-year coach Andre Villas-Boas was now one step away from leading Porto to their first European title since Jose Mourinho guided the Dragons to the Europa League crown in 2003 and the Champions League in 2004.

The Portuguese champions also boosted their bid of winning the triple crown as they face Guimaraes in the Portuguese Cup final-four days after the Europa League final.

Villarreal began strong, knowing that they had to score quickly to have any chance, and owned almost 80 percent of the possession early on.

Except for a sole occasion by Cristian Rodriguez four minutes in, Porto were content to protect their comfortable margin and wait to counterattack.

Porto goalkeeper Helton stretched to block a shot by Cani on the edge of area seven minutes before Villarreal’s pressure paid off in the Spanish midfielder’s opener.

The rhythm of play slowed down, but Villarreal continued to create chances. Santi Cazorla played Rossi through in the 32nd, but the Italy striker fired into the side netting with only Helton to beat.

After equalizing, Hulk had a shot to double his haul on halftime, but the Brazilian could not better Villarreal goalie Diego Lopez.

Freddy Guarin finally took advantage of Villarreal’s high defensive line when he found Falcao alone in the area in the 48th for the Colombia forward’s fifth goal of the semifinals.

Villarreal midfielder Marcos Senna returned after two months on the sidelines in the 67th.

Capdevila controlled a cross before firing past Helton to end Porto’s perfect run of seven wins in as many away games before Rossi cashed in a foul by Nicolas Otamendi on Ruben in the area for his 11th goal of the tournament.

Villarreal, which were fourth in the Spanish league, remained perfect in eight games at home in the continental competition.