SC Braga have waited 55 years for their first taste of football's premier club competition and as they prepare to host Celtic FC in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League third qualifying round tie on Wednesday, coach Domingos Paciência believes his side are primed for the occasion. "The team is ready and physically very strong," he said.
Under Domingos, Braga enjoyed their best season in the Portuguese Liga last term and pushed SL Benfica hard before being forced to settle for second spot ahead of FC Porto. A pair of recent defeats in pre-season friendlies against Athletic Club (1-3) and second division Varzim SC (0-2) have raised concerns that Braga may not yet be back to their best, but Argentinian midfielder Andrés Madrid insists it will be all right on the night. "We weren't at our best but these friendlies allow us to learn from our mistakes," the 28-year-old said. "One thing is for sure: we're ready to face Celtic.
We have no anxiety although we are aware of the game's importance."
The northern Portuguese side are perhaps most famous for their Municipal stadium, built for UEFA EURO 2004, and the rock face that climbs steeply behind one of the goals. Compared to Celtic's illustrious past they can boast just one Portuguese Cup victory, but as they prepare to welcome the 1967 European champions they can take confidence from the giant strides they have made in European competition in recent years. UEFA Intertoto Cup winners in 2008, they have also reached the last 16 of the UEFA Cup twice since 2006/07 and there is no doubting the club's ambition to take the next step up.
They have signed 17 players since finishing runners-up last season, though goalkeeper Eduardo, left-back Evaldo and midfielder Hugo Viana, all influential in propelling the club up the table, have left. The new faces need time to adapt and Domingos insists "there is still much room for improvement.
Our main concern now is Celtic and I think my team is ready and physically very strong for a very demanding task".
Striker Lima is one player who has hit the ground running. He arrived this summer from relegated CF Os Belenenses and has scored five goals in his first six friendly matches. "We are up against a tough opponent but we have the quality and ambition to perform well," the Brazilian said. "Personally I have adapted very well to the club and I think the goals I've scored show that. This is a huge opportunity in my career and I don't want to miss out on it."
Braga chairman António Salvador could not agree more. "We're all focused on reaching the Champions League group stage," he said. "The money involved is vital for the continued growth of the club as we aim to repeat or even improve our last season's performance."
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