FC Porto, Athletic Bilbao look to silence critics
PORTO, Portugal (AP) — FC Porto and Athletic Bilbao have a chance to silence their growing chorus of critics in a Champions League encounter in Portugal on Tuesday.
Porto’s 3-1 home loss to Sporting Lisbon last weekend was only its first in three months, but the Portuguese Cup exit angered fans already unhappy with a run of unconvincing performances.
Athletic, meanwhile, has made its worst ever start to a league season in Spain and desperately needs some good news.
Porto leads the group with four points from two games, while Athletic is last with one point.
BATE Borisov, with three points, hosts Shakhtar Donetsk, with two, in the other Group H game.
Here are some things to know about Tuesday’s matches:
Since he took charge at Porto, Julen Lopetegui hasn’t fielded the same starting lineup twice. He has also occasionally deployed players outside their usual positions, which has left them floundering.
Many fans blame those tactics for Porto’s inconsistent form, and the whispers have started at the Stadium of the Dragon that the Spaniard may not have been the right choice for a club that has won seven Portuguese titles over the past 10 seasons.
Porto invested heavily, by Portuguese standards, during the offseason. It spent about 40 million euros ($51 million) and brought in 16 players.
The team has spluttered, however, and is four points behind leader Benfica in the Portuguese league, as well as out of the domestic cup competition in the third round.
“We have to work, analyze, improve,” Lopetegui said. “We all need to get better.”
Colombia striker Jackson Martinez was widely expected to be snatched up by a major European club after the World Cup in Brazil. Good for Porto he wasn’t.
The top scorer in the Portuguese league in the past two seasons, Martinez already has 10 goals in all competitions this season. The only black mark has been his missed penalty against Sporting Lisbon last weekend.
Martinez is one of only two players, along with Mexico midfielder Hector Herrera, to play in all Porto’s matches this season. The only time he didn’t start, against Shakhtar, he came off the bench when Porto was 2-0 down to score twice and salvage a 2-2 draw.
Athletic Bilbao is fourth from last in the Spanish league with only one win in eight games and is looking lost for ideas. Coach Ernesto Valverde has to figure out how to stop the slide as his team travels across the border to Portugal.
The Basque club was held to a 0-0 draw at home by Shakhtar Donetsk in its group opener, then lost 2-1 at BATE Borisov.
The Basque club has one win in 10 matches in all competitions, not counting its elimination of Napoli from the Champions League playoffs, and Aritz Aduriz’s 6th-minute penalty in a 1-1 home draw against Celta Vigo last weekend was the team’s first goal at home since August.
Valverde has dropped veteran forward Gaizka Toquero but included the central midfielder Erik Moran and forward Borja Viguera. Rarely seen 22-year-old defender Jon Aurtenetxe is also in the squad, but midfielder Ager Aketxe and defender Unai Bustinza are out with injuries.
BRACING FOR BATE
Shakhtar has been unsettled by the Ukrainian conflict, which forced it to move out of its stadium in Donetsk.
There was a reminder of the dangers Monday when Donbass Arena was again damaged in fighting as a shell smashed a section of its glass exterior.
Ukrainian champion for the past five seasons, Shakhtar sits in an unusually low third place in the domestic league, four points off the lead. A loss to rival Dynamo Kiev earlier this month knocked it off its stride, but it recovered confidence with a 6-2 win over Volyn Lutsk on Friday.
BATE leads the Belarusian league with five games to go and is on track for its ninth straight title.