With a new coach and a completely rebuilt defence, SC Braga are very much "still under construction" going into the first leg of their UEFA Europa League play-off against BSC Young Boys in Portugal on Thursday.
This is the verdict of Leonardo Jardim, the new man at the helm of last season's surprise finalists. Beaten by domestic rivals FC Porto in May's Dublin showpiece, Braga subsequently lost coach Domingos Paciência to Sporting Clube de Portugal yet his replacement, Jardim, feels that despite a summer of upheaval, "Braga are favourites" to overcome Young Boys and enter the UEFA Europa League group stage.
To do so, Jardim believes it is "important to win at home without conceding", something that requires his new-look side to hit the ground running. When Braga began their Portuguese Liga campaign with a goalless draw at Rio Ave FC on Saturday, their starting XI included just three players – Hugo Viana, Lima and new skipper Alan – from the UEFA Europa League final. Their back line has undergone a particularly radical overhaul, with all four defenders – and goalkeeper Artur – who lined up against Porto having left for fresh challenges.
Acquisitions such as keeper Tommaso Berni and defenders Baiano and Paulo Vinicius have helped bolster the ranks only to an extent. "The defence is the most fragile part of our team," said Jardim, who made his name by guiding SC Beira-Mar into the top flight in 2009/10. "The players are now much younger, which brings some immaturity, and some haven't yet adapted to playing at this level. The team have been progressing but we are still under construction."
Of the other new faces, Djamal Mahamat will assume the defensive-midfield duties of former captain Vandinho (who remains in limbo while deciding on his future), while former Sporting defender Nuno Coelho and vastly experienced SL Benfica old boy Nuno Gomes will have key roles at opposite ends of the pitch. According to Jardim, the promising 21-year-old forward Pizzi will also be "a very important player in our structure" after his return from a loan at FC Paços de Ferreira.
Jardim will be under no illusions, however, about how high the bar has been set. Paciência's two-year reign yielded not only a best-ever Liga finish of second, but also a maiden UEFA Champions League campaign and a first European final. That will take some beating, so a winning start would certainly help.
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