These are historic times for FC Paços de Ferreira – from a small city just 35km from Porto, they are third in the Portuguese Liga ahead of their trip to fourth-placed SC Braga on Monday.
Tuesday's 1-0 home win against GD Estoril-Praia took Paços one point above Braga in the hunt for the third and final UEFA Champions League qualifying berth. The Beavers' only previous European experience amounts to the qualifying stages of the 2007/08 UEFA Cup and 2009/10 UEFA Europa League. Throw in last week's loan to Málaga CF of left-back Vitorino Antunes – the squad's only player acquainted with Europe's premier club competition – and it is easy to see why optimism is being tempered.
"It's an unprecedented, gratifying moment," said coach Paulo Fonseca, who turns 40 on 5 March and is in charge of a top-flight side for the first time. "But we cannot obsess about European competitions or third place. It's a memorable moment for the club, one that all of us want to prolong. Our goal [at the start of the season] was to reach 38 points and we are almost there."
Fonseca – who counts CF Os Belenenses, CS Marítimo and Vitória SC among the teams he represented as a player – is well positioned to etch his name into Paços folklore. With his side already on a par with last season's 31-point tally – yet with 13 fixtures remaining – surpassing the club's best Liga finish of sixth (2002/03 and 2006/07) is well within reach.
Paços have lost only twice in the league – against perennial pacesetters SL Benfica and FC Porto – and have the joint second-best defensive record, having conceded just 12 times. "No one would think that after 17 rounds of matches Paços would be third, ahead of Braga," said 32-year-old midfielder Manuel José, who scored the winner against Estoril. "But we have a lot of quality and this has not happened by accident. We have to keep our feet on the ground."
If they maintain this modesty and rhythm Paços could indeed be difficult to catch. Also looking to overturn a 2-0 deficit in the second leg of their Portuguese Cup semi-final against Benfica, Fonseca's men will surely taste European football once more.
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