Basel, Porto aim to break into Champions League elite
BASEL, Switzerland (AP) — Basel and Porto meet in the Champions League on Wednesday with both aiming for a rare run to the quarterfinals.
Two-time European champion Porto reached the elite eight just once since winning the title in 2004. Basel’s only quarter-final appearance was 41 years ago.
Two coaches in their debut Champions League seasons also offer a fresh look to clubs seeking to step up from being group-stage regulars.
Here are some things to know about the only last-16 series not to feature a team from the big three Champions League nations of Spain, England and Germany:
Basel likely needs to make home advantage count Wednesday, after making St. Jakob-Park a difficult place to visit for European football’s biggest names.
Bayern Munich was beaten 1-0 in the first leg of Basel’s only recent last-16 appearance three seasons ago, which ended after a 7-0 rout in the return in Germany.
Basel has also sent past winners Chelsea and Liverpool home with losses since a 2-1 win over Manchester United in December 2011 showed how the perennial Swiss champion had matured on the biggest stage.
Though Basel has often sold key players and trusted its ability to quickly find top-quality replacements, its transfer strategy in January was curious.
Two international midfielders — Marcelo Diaz of Chile and Ivory Coast’s Geoffroy Serey Die — were sold to German clubs and not replaced, and Ivorian forward Giovanni Sio loaned out. Only Ivorian-Australian leftback Adama Traore was brought in last month.
Basel had already lost a key player for the first-leg match with Switzerland center back Fabian Schaer suspended. Schaer, who is also a goal-scoring threat, got a third yellow card of the group stage late in the 1-1 draw at Liverpool which ensured Basel advanced in December.
The Swiss will look for goals from its top scorer, Albania international Schkelzen Gashi who was named this month as Swiss league player of year for 2014.
Both clubs have been rewarded for trusting relatively untested coaches to lead them this season.
Basel hired former Portugal playmaker Paulo Sousa from Maccabi Tel Aviv after beating the Israeli club last season in both Champions League qualifying and Europa League knockout rounds.
Though Sousa won back-to-back Champions League titles as a player with Juventus and Borussia Dortmund, in 1996 and ’97, respectively, his coaching resume was built in the English lower tiers and Hungary.
Porto turned to former goalkeeper Julen Lopetegui after he led Spain to European titles at under-19 and under-21 level.
Lopetegui’s previous top-tier club experience had been more than a decade earlier with Rayo Vallecano.
Porto joined select company with its unbeaten run through the group stage: Only Real Madrid — which topped Basel’s group — and Chelsea also avoided losing in their six-match pool.
Porto’s 16-goal tally was also just one fewer than Chelsea’s competition-leading 17. Colombia forward Jackson Martinez scored five times, and Yacine Brahimi four.
Brahimi was recruited after impressing at the World Cup with Algeria. He joined from Spanish club Granada. — one of eight players with Spanish connections added to Lopetegui’s squad this season.