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By Paul Saffer
When FC Porto travel to Italy for the second leg of their UEFA Champions League first knockout round tie with FC Internazionale Milano, they could be forgiven for casting their minds back 12 months.
On that occasion they were playing at Manchester United FC, and despite a 2-1 lead from the first leg were expected to depart the competition, especially when Paul Scholes gave United a first-half lead. Porto did have their moments after the break, but their campaign seemed to be over until the final minute, as Tim Howard spilled Benni McCarthy's free-kick and Costinha pounced.
For Porto, and their charismatic coach José Mourinho who sprinted down the Old Trafford touchline in delight, nothing was ever quite the same. The club had the previous season claimed the UEFA Cup as well as all the major Portuguese trophies, but only in defeating United did they suddenly become acknowledged as real Champions League contenders, while Mourinho was the hottest coaching property on the continent.
Porto, of course, went on to beat AS Monaco FC in the final, but the changes have continued both for club and coach. Mourinho, having been linked with several of Europe's glamour sides, resigned to join the richest of them all - Chelsea FC - where he has already picked up the English League Cup and seems set to land the Premiership in a stunning debut campaign.
In contrast, however, Porto have found life tough, hence their status, according to most pundits, as clear outsiders in Milan. Mourinho's original replacement, Luigi Del Neri, left before taking charge of a game. Víctor Fernández stepped in, and began by losing the UEFA Super Cup in August, a 2-1 defeat by Valencia CF.
Form did recover, with Porto challenging for the Portuguese title, reaching the Champions League knockout rounds with a last-gasp winner against their former coach's charges and lifting the last ever European/South American Cup in Japan. However, poor results after Christmas saw Fernández sacked last month. José Couceiro swiftly assumed charge and oversaw the 1-1 home draw with Inter, Ricardo Costa claiming the crucial equaliser.
None of those coaches has been helped by the departure of several key players from last season's squad. From the team that started at Old Trafford, Paulo Ferreira, Ricardo Carvalho, Dimitri Alenitchev, Deco and Carlos Alberto - the latter three the goalscorers against Monaco in Gelsenkirchen - have all gone. As indeed have both second-half substitutes Edgaras Jankauskas and Ricardo Fernandes, plus Bruno Moraes, who was also on the bench. In all, eight from a selection of 16. Derlei, who was injured at the time, went too in the winter break.
Contrast to Inter
In contrast, of the United starting lineup on that memorable night, only Nicky Butt and Eric Djemba-Djemba are no longer with the club. Meanwhile Inter, who were already out of the Champions League by this stage last season, have changed their coach and several players, but through deliberate rebuilding rather than the financial realities of richer clubs like Chelsea and FC Barcelona tempting their star men.
Added to all those factors, indeed, is a chilling fact for Porto that no side has ever won two consecutive Champions League titles. Not the great 1990s AC Milan team, not the 'galácticos' of Real Madrid CF.
So, the reality that Porto face is travelling to a last-16 tie against a home team who have lost just once in Serie A this season. Not easy, to say the least. But then the situation does sound uncannily familiar.
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