FC Porto followed Benfica's lead from Tuesday and bowed out of the Champions League, but forgot to observe the Eagles' example and at least win the match, particularly after Zenit did their part and made things harder for themselves.
It seems unfair to blame a team that hit the woodwork three times, had a deflected shot against a post and missed a penalty. Paulo Fonseca will most likely be heard complimenting his team's play and pinpointing bad luck as the chief reason for the side's premature exit from Europe's top competition.
However, PortuGOAL alerted to some of the key aspects that were changing under the former Paços de Ferreira coach and this reporter went as far as saying that the groups draw had been far from fortunate for FC Porto, given how Fonseca had been moulding his team. As it were, a paltry record of no home wins (for the first time in the club's history) and just one victory in six matches was hardly unpredictable, given the abandonment with each the team attacked.
Yesterday was a bit different, but not by much. Atlético Madrid coach Diego Simeone chose to rest some of his players, but still fielded an XI that had Raúl Garcia, Gabi, Miranda and the gem that is Óliver Torres. Simeone stayed true to his beliefs and his team were deployed in an expectant (not to be mistaken for passive) 4x1x4x1 while defending, sitting compact in front of their 18-yard box.
The Dragons were more expeditious in attack and could in fact have scored with just 7 minutes gone, Jackson Martínez connecting with Danilo's left-footed cross only to see the shot rebound off the crossbar. Seven minutes later, Atlético Madrid would score through Raúl Garcia from an impossible angle. While Helton could certainly have done better, the whole defensive positioning in a simple throw-in left a lot to be desired as well.
Lucho González was asked to contribute more in midfield during the build-up phase, but there was not much going on in central areas, an issue proven by Fernando's need to try to provide airborne through-balls or even a shot from way out.
As a result, FC Porto kept looking to the wings to create danger, and it was from there that Varela headed against the crossbar 7 minutes after Atlético Madrid's first goal. Despite the apparent good signs, the fact that both these good opportunities came from individual approaches spoke volumes about the team's approach for the season.
Adding insult to injury, Josué missed his first penalty in an FC Porto kit, after Jackson Martínez had single-handedly won a foul from Aranzubia, Atlético Madrid's 'keeper. In Fonseca's words, luck was having nothing with his side.
- Irony on the wings
For a team that keeps insisting on playing down the flanks, the reason why there is so little support to the player that receives the pass on the wing is hardly fathomable. The team clearly resents the lack of a central creator and invariably gets the ball out wide, but no player apart from the full-back and the winger (at best) ever seems inclined to get close to those positions. Not only does the team struggle to get past opponents, but they also suffer from the distance between the ball and the position of central midfielders (in this case, Defour and Fernando).
With that approach, opposing defenders have time and space after winning the ball back to pick their pass, which in turn allows the forward (in this case, Diego Costa for the most part) to receive the ball and turn to goal.
The defensive transition is clearly the (main) Achilles' tendon of this FC Porto side. Atlético Madrid's second goal proved just that, when Jackson Martínez' deflected shot met the post. The subsequent corner was typical of this season, when a potential attacking opportunity quickly turned into a wide avenue for Diego Costa to round off Helton and expertly bury the ball in the back of the net.
The departure for the Europa League may not necessarily be the worst scenario for FC Porto, but Paulo Fonseca's position as the team leader is fast approaching untenable levels, with just 2 wins in their latest 9 matches. The adjustments Fonseca had talked about in the past seem not to have been implemented and the dip in the team's confidence will not help the least bit, in all likelihood.