Alex Goncalves is an expert on Portuguese football. Here, he gives his lowdown on Wolves’ first opponents in the Europa League group stages, Braga.
Throughout the course of Portuguese footballing history, an established “Big Three” has emerged in the domestic game, with Benfica, Porto and Sporting having collectively won all but two Primeira Liga titles since the inception of the Portuguese league in 1934.
That’s 83 out of 85 titles that have gone to one of Benfica, Porto or Sporting, with Belenenses in 1946 and Boavista in 2001 the only two existing examples to date whereby all three of the prestigious trio failed to lift the biggest title Portuguese football has to offer.
Braga, however, are the most prominent side looking to change the course of Portuguese footballing history for good. Over the last decade, Braga have made great strides in turning the traditional “Big Three” – known as Os Tres Grandes in Portuguese – into a modern, more competitive “Big Four”.
Over the years, a handful of clubs have been successful in upsetting the apple cart by coming close to, or sometimes even succeeding in, breaking into the top three in the Primeira Liga. But few, if any, have shown the impressive consistency that Braga have done over the last decade and a half.
Braga come into this Europa League clash in a similar predicament to their English opponents Wolves. Like their counterparts, Braga are in patchy form, making a comparably awkward start to their own league campaign whilst also impressing in European competition.
Nevertheless, Braga have shown great attacking promise and flair, but just lacking the cutting edge and clinical finishing required to make them count.
And it has proven costly, with Braga having only picked up four points from their opening five league games, leaving them just one point and one place above the relegation zone at this very early stage, having found the back of the net just five times across those five outings.
It would be easy to therefore fall into the trap of thinking that this should be an easy win for Wolves, playing against a side who are seemingly struggling in an inferior league. But their league standing really is quite misleading and doesn’t tell the full story, with Braga having already played against both Sporting and Benfica, in addition to a stubborn Gil Vicente side who had already earned victory against Porto in an earlier round.
They started the season strongly, beating Moreirense, who finished sixth last season, 3-1 at home, but then fell to a disappointing but understandable 2-1 away defeat to Sporting, following that up with a 1-1 home draw against Gil Vicente.
One point from those two games is far from ideal for a side looking to push for a top-three berth, but that doesn’t tell you about the dominance that Braga showed against Sporting in Lisbon, and the fact that they played a significantly rotated side against Gil Vicente in preparation for their trip to Moscow in the Europa League.
They went on to then lose against Benfica 4-0 at home, before losing a third game in four league matches when they suffered a very disappointing 1-0 defeat at the hands of Vitoria Setubal.
They created opportunities and had the chances to score goals and beat Setubal, just as they did against Sporting, but it was that lack of clinical finishing and fortune in front of goal that meant that a potential 10 points from their opening five games became just four points across the same number of fixtures.
Their Europa League campaign has been a completely different story though, where they have been free-scoring and have a 100 per cent record. Their 7-3 aggregate victory over Brondby in the third qualifying round proved that their ability to do the double over Russian outfit Spartak Moscow was an excellent achievement and shows that they can more than compete on the continental stage.
Braga are currently under new management, with their previous young and exciting manager Abel Ferreira, who did such a great job at the helm across two seasons, leaving in the summer to join Greek champions PAOK.
He was swiftly replaced with the demanding, outspoken and rather controversial Ricardo Sa Pinto, who has built a reputation over the years for being a rather agitated, aggressive figure both on the touchline and in interviews.
There’s reason to be optimistic with Sa Pinto in charge though; while not the most tactically astute manager, his teams are generally the embodiment of his own personality, and show the energy, tenacity and fighting spirit that fans call out for, following that up with a generally attacking, adventurous style.
That can leave them open at the back against superior opposition and strong counter-attacking sides, but it does mean that they create goalscoring opportunities.
One aspect that Braga often try to exploit is their crossing ability. Braga are a side that do possess high quality players that have the ability to put together some nice attacking moves, though they are also frequently direct, very much looking to whip the ball into the box towards their dominant striker, be it Ahmed Hassan (Koka) or Paulinho, at any given opportunity, possessing the likes of Ricardo Esgaio, Ricardo Horta and Nuno Sequeira who are very competent crossers of the ball.
One substantial issue for Braga going into the match is that they only have two recognised central defenders available to them – Pablo Santos and Bruno Viana. They are arguably Braga’s two best in that department, but should one of them have to come off prematurely it could prove problematic, with Wallace, Raul Silva and Tormena all injured. Another player that will not be available to Sa Pinto is striker Rui Fonte, who has been left out by choice.
While some players will be unavailable, Braga will be pleased that their stand-out performers remain fit and ready to go. And when considering their most influential players, you cannot look beyond the Horta brothers. Andre Horta had a disappointing spell in America over the last year, but since returning to Portugal and Braga, has been instrumental in their Europa League campaign, with their attacking play often coming through him. His creativity in behind the striker has been a joy to watch, and if Braga are to be effective going forwards, he will likely have to be on the top of his game. It is his brother Ricardo, though, the best friend of Wolves midfielder Ruben Neves, who has been particularly sensational, with his movement, pace and flair often on show.
Looking at the competition as a whole, while they may not be particularly fancied to make it out of their group from a neutral standpoint, those associated with Braga – and Portuguese football fans as a whole – are certainly confident that they have what it takes to advance to the next round despite being handed a very tricky group alongside a side in Besiktas that have strengthened well in the summer to add to a squad already possessing a good deal of European experience, and Wolves who were far and away the toughest team in pot 3.
That’s what makes this group so intriguing; there are three teams here who all went into the draw with very realistic ambitions of advancing to the next round. Now, at least one of them is going to be left very disappointed come December.
In terms of expectations heading into the match with Wolves, Braga fans will know all about the quality that Wolves possess, with a lot of familiar faces in their ranks thanks to their heavy Portuguese contingent.
As a result, their exploits over the last couple of seasons have been very well-documented in the media and followed closely by fans. The Portuguese population has built up quite an affection for Wolves, and they know exactly how challenging this match will be, despite where their opponents currently sit in the Premier League. A draw would be seen as a very positive result for Braga, and the vast majority of fans would take that if it were offered to them.
Sa Pinto has been speaking ahead of the match, and believes that all the pressure is on his opponents. “Wolverhampton have different expectations to us; they play at home, have players of great quality and have got a very different budget. We haven’t got any pressure at all and I want the team to have fun and above all to be ambitious.”
“There will be two teams that are yet to lose in this competition. Our opponents will be a Wolves side with great players and great experience. We will encounter a difficult atmosphere, with a full stadium of supporters who will motivate the hosts a lot.
“Wolves like to impose their own tempo on the game, based on great intensity and good use of set-pieces.”
Speaking about how well he knows his opponents and the Portuguese contingent of the opposition: “Nowadays there are no surprises every team knows each other very well. Nuno has been doing a great job. They got promoted to the Premier League, finished in seventh place and qualified for the Europa League.
“He has excellent players at his disposal. I worked with Patricio, I played with Moutinho, Ruben Neves is a youngster with incredible talent. Nowadays, there are no secrets.”
On Braga’s ambitions, he said: “We want to earn points and will do everything to make it happen. We’ll see how it goes. We don’t want to leave without points.”