The match was arguably more lopsided than the simultaneously played game at the Emirates, though you wouldn’t be able to tell by the scoreline. Against a visiting Málaga team that set up to merely survive the Dragão, Porto kept 63 percent of the ball and outshot their opponents 18-2. Helton, their goalkeeper, never had to make a save, but when Mark Clattenburg’s final whistle blew, the 1-0 lead the Portuguese champions won was little more than holding serve. That’s the minimum a team’s supposed to get at home.
Based on how he set up his team, Málaga boss Manuel Pellegrini will be happy with that result. In fact, he should have anticipated it, though he undoubtedly would have loved to get out of Portugal with a clean sheet. Keeping his defensive midfielders Jeremy Toulálán and Manuel Iturra deep throughout the night, Pellegrini wagered Porto wouldn’t be able to move through what is a stalwart to defense under normal circumstances.
Ultimately, Pellegrini’s wager paid off. On Tuesday, despite almost never venturing forward, Málaga only sprung one leak. The 1-0 may not have been the result they wanted, but it was a result they could live with.
Their one leak came in the 56th minute when Porto holder Fernando ventured forward before putting a pass from the left flank behind central defender Martín Demichelis. Midfielder Joao Moutinho blew unmarked past Málaga’s two-man midfield and onto the ball, one timing it between Willy Caballero’s legs from 10 yards out for the game’s only goal.
Málaga can live with that blemish, taking a one-goal deficit back to the Rosaleda for the second leg. Porto, on the other hand, is in a more interesting position, not really knowing what they have. Clearly, they have a one-goal lead, but set to go on the road against a team that won their Champions League group, do they really have an advantage?
Given Málaga’s strength throughout the season has been in prevention, not scoring, Porto may be encouraged, but whether they believe they can keep a clean sheet in Spain dictates how they’ll approach the second leg.
Man of the Match: So you’re Daniel Levy, chairman of Tottenham Hotspur. You almost had a deal for Joao Moutinho in the summer window, but the paper work didn’t get sorted out, somebody knocked over the fax machine, somebody’s cell phone battery died – who knows. The deal didn’t go through, but in the back of your mind you’re already planning to ring Porto president Jorge Pinto da Costa in May and get the deal done.
If you’re Levy, you can’t feel great seeing Moutinho put in performances like tonight’s, possibly driving up his value. Sure, there’s a debate to be had as to whether Moutinho’s value’s going to go any higher, but he certainly didn’t diminish it on Tuesday. Great movement running at the Málaga line. Passing as accurate and reliable as ever. Spectacularly dangerous corners, and the match’s only goal. It was a complete (if somewhat uncontested) performance.
What team in the world wouldn’t want a Moutinho? Maybe he doesn’t play every day at a place like Barcelona, but are you telling me he doesn’t improve teams like Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain, or even Juventus?
Maybe you are, and if so, Daniel Levy has to be hoping other chairmen are thinking like you. Because if they’re thinking like me, Moutinho’s probably not going to end up at White Hart Lane.
Threesome of knowledge: What we learned
Not every first leg is amazing – Every once in a while we get a Arsenal-Bayern or a Shakhtar-Dortmund, but for the most part, first legs of Champions League ties are cagey affairs. If you’re lucky, you get a couple of goals, as we did last week at the Bernabeu. Most of the time, you get a match like today’s.
But look at it from Málaga’s point of view. Manuel Pellegrini probably sees his side as the better team but not overwhelmingly so. If he can take one half of the 180-minute game — the half where he’s at a disadvantage — and drastically reduce the number of opportunities, fast forwarding the game to leg two? He’ll take that.
Don’t blame Pellegrini. Blame the competition format. The approach makes sense, but as a result, we get a lot of flat first legs.
Would James have mattered? – Vitor Perreira elected to start Colombian dynamo James Rodriguez on the bench, giving Russian Maxim Ismailov the start at left wing. Ismailov offers a more direct option, but he’s doesn’t have Rodríguez’s skill on the ball. Against a team that sat deep and kept the game in front of them, Rodríguez would have provided some needed creativity, something that may have brought a quiet Jackson Martínez into the game.
There’s a reason for his absence. James came back from a month-long absence this weekend against Beira-Mar but only played about 20 minutes. That opened the question as to whether he would be ready for today’s game. Perreira brought him off the bench against Málaga, but left with two wingers who tended to turn-and-go on the outside (Ismailov and Silvestre Valera), James would have made a welcome difference. His playmaking ability could have gotten more out of Moutinho, Lucho Gonzalez, as well as Martínez.
Málaga clearly needs to change it up – Obviously, Pellegrini isn’t going into leg two with the same conservative approach, but even if his team somehow finds itself up 2-1 going into the last half hour, he needs to do something different than what he did today. At the start of the second half, Perreira was allowing Fernando more license to get forward. Right back Danilo was releasing as soon as Porto regained possession. Center half Nicolas Otamendi even ventured forward once.
Porto had adjusted. They started pushing people forward and playing a numbers game against Málaga’s packed in defense. If Pellegrini takes the lead on March 13, he’ll need to give Porto a different look.
Packaged for takeaway
- Had their Champions League games not been scheduled for the same day as Bayern and Arsenal’s, Málaga’s matches would have been a good showcase for Willy Caballero – a chance for more people to see a goalkeeper that’s becoming one of La Liga’s best. Unfortunately, even if you tuned in today, you wouldn’t have seen many of Caballero’s talents, Málaga effectively limited his exposure to Porto’s attacks. In the first half, however, you could see how quick and decisive Caballero is off his line, one of the plus-talents he’s shown during the Primera campaign.
- Former Mexican league start Jackson Martínez was one of the players to watch coming into this tie, but a packed in Málaga defense kept the Porto star from threatening goal. To his credit, he moved out of the cluster in the middle and started combining with Porto’s wingers, but the former Jaguares star was still neutralized on Tuesday. As easy way for Porto to get to the quarterfinals is by getting something out of the man who has scored 20 times in 19 league games.
- Because of the way Pellegrini played, Málaga star Isco was also quiet. He’ll need to be more of a factor in Andalusia. If it wasn’t for the fact he’s a completely different player, you could consider him Málaga’s Jackson. Regardless, both teams will look to get more out of their star.
- Julio Baptista was a mild surprise, starting with Roque Santa Cruz in place of Javier Saviola, but he held up well. The former Real Madrid and Arsenal man went 78 minutes in his first Champions League appearance since Oct. 2010. It was The Beast’s fourth game this month after 16 months on the sidelines.