Braga are putting forward a strong case to be considered the best outside bet for the 2016 title – but first they must surmount the not-inconsiderable obstacle of Fenerbahçe.
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When it comes to ranking the pre-eminent forces in Portuguese football, Braga would count as a distant fourth behind Benfica, Porto and Sporting CP but they continue to hold their own.
Fourth in the Portuguese table, they are through to the Portuguese Cup final with a League Cup semi-final to come. More importantly, at 1-0 down heading into the home leg of their round of 16 decider against Fenerbahçe, Braga are in with a chance of emulating their 2010/11 campaign, when they battled through to the final – losing to Porto in Dublin. "Honestly, I think we can win a trophy this season," coach Paulo Fonseca said. "But to be in four competitions at the same time is very hard, so we will have to cope with that."
With the UEFA Europa League very much in mind, Fonseca rested several players for Sunday's Liga trip to Belenenses – and Braga were punished, the ensuing 3-0 defeat their heaviest loss of the campaign. However, those back-to-back reverses against Fenerbahçe and Belenenses have been very much against the run of play – prior to that, the northern Portuguese outfit had gone a club-record 15 games unbeaten in all competitions.
That is not the first record Braga have broken in their first term under Fonseca; they won their first three matches in a UEFA group for the first time, and – in another first – topped their section, picking up a club-best 13 points.
The Arsenalistas certainly have reason to believe they can go further in Europe. They have won 15 of their 20 home fixtures this season – losing only once in the process – and have progressed in all three of their past UEFA ties where they trailed by one goal entering a home second leg. "After what we did in the first leg, I have to believe we have what it takes to be in the next round," confirmed Fonseca. "We know Fenerbahçe are a great team, they have the advantage and it will be hard. But I do believe we can do it."
The 43-year-old also has the personnel to justify that belief. Successfully mixing the experience of players like Alan – with 69 UEFA club appearances to his name – with lively youngsters like team-of-the-group-stage nominee Rafa Silva, Braga boast rugged defenders Ricardo Ferreira and Willy Boly, classy midfielders Nikola Vukčević and Pedro Santos, and fine attacking options such as Ahmed Hassan and Nikola Stojiljković who have both scored 12 in all competitions this term.
So can Braga be this season's Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and leapfrog a series of bigger names to reach the final? Fonseca is reluctant to tout his charges' potential. "We are having an excellent campaign in the Europa League," the former Porto boss said. "Our first goal was to reach the knockout stage, which we did. Now I don't think much about what might happen. I only say we want to go as far as possible, knowing it gets harder with every round."