The Underdogs from Porto: A tale of 2004 Champions League success

As Danish referee Kim Milton Nielsen blew the final whistle at the Arena AufSchalke, Germany and Jose Mourinho casually strolled onto the pitch like it was any other match, Porto had defied all odds in order to win the second European Cup/Champions League of their storied history. It was a night when, no matter which side won, football would have benefited. Had Didier Deschamps’s Monaco triumphed, there would still be the tale of a true underdog success, the likes of which the top tier of European football had not seen since Ajax in 1995, and one which many feared would never be possible with the continuous revamps to the competition favouring the bigger clubs.

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The resulting success for Porto has perhaps become more notable for being the catalyst that has enabled Mourinho to establish himself firmly amidst the pantheon of the game’s greatest managers. Leading a team of Porto’s size and resources to Europe’s premier title, as well as its understudy the UEFA Cup a season earlier, gave new Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich enough reason to gamble on the charismatic Portuguese native. Mourinho’s story, both good and bad, will forever be a footballing legend. Yet, perhaps there needs to be a greater recognition of the quality that Porto team possessed, and their remarkable run in upsetting the odds that had seemingly been created in order to prevent a team outside of Europe’s so-called elite from winning the Champions League.

Heading into the season on the back of a treble consisting of the Portuguese domestic double and a UEFA Cup triumph, Porto were heavily fancied to retain their domestic honours but the odds were minimal on them causing any of the European powerhouses’ real problems in the Champions League. What could not be predicted, however, was the almost siege mentality that Mourinho could instil in his squad, inspiring his squad to overcome the financial mismatch that they would face during the competition.

As Portuguese champions, the Dragões automatically entered the competition at the group stages and were drawn in a group containing Real Madrid, Marseille and Partizan Belgrade. The games against the French side were the most likely matches to help decide their fate in the group, with Madrid and Partizan likely to top and prop up the group respectively.

Given the challenge of starting their group campaign with an away trip to Belgrade, an always daunting prospect, Porto stumbled out of the blocks only managing to return home with a solitary point. A powerful header from defensive midfielder Costinha seemingly set the Portuguese giants on their way to victory, but Partizan battled back, with a deflected free-kick eventually being hammered into the back of the net by striker Andrija Delibašić.

Although the next group game would be at home, they would be welcoming Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid to the Estádio das Antas. Undeterred by facing an incredibly talented Madrid side, Porto started extremely brightly, with Pedro Mendes stinging the palms of Iker Casillas in the Madrid goal early before an uncharacteristically poor clearance from the goalkeeper allowed Costinha to head Porto in front once again. If anything, the fast start served only to anger Los Blancos, with Iván Helguera heading Madrid level before Santiago Solari calmly slotted the Spanish side ahead, giving them a 2-1 advantage at halftime. The second-half saw Porto continue to cause some problems, but the greater quality of Madrid ultimately paid dividends, with Zidane firing home a Figo cross to secure a comfortable win.

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The result, combined with Marseille’s confident 3-0 victory over Partizan, left Porto knowing that their next European match, the away tie in Marseille, was crucial if they were to have any chance of progressing to the next round. This clash was arguably the turning point in Porto’s European campaign, offering hope for their prospects of reaching the knockout stages.

It was not the most auspicious of starts by Mourinho’s men, with Didier Drogba bursting between the two central defenders to calmly slot under the Porto goalkeeper to give the French side an early lead against his future manager. Digging deep into the underdog spirit that Mourinho so successfully inspired in his squad, Porto responded within just seven minutes with Maniche firing a low shot past the goalkeeper before Derlei put Porto ahead four minutes after that, again firing low past the goalkeeper.

A tense second-half was seemingly settled by Dmitri Alenichev’s late third for the Portuguese side, although a Steve Marlet header offered Marseille hope of snatching a draw. Utilising all the tactical nous of Mourinho, Porto saw out the remainder of the game and earned their first three points of the group stage and put themselves into second-place in the group, just a single point ahead of the French club.

The home fixture against Marseille offered Porto the chance to move four points clear of their closest challengers, and it was Alenichev once again who proved to be the match winner, chipping the ‘keeper from a tight angle to give Porto the slender advantage, one which they held onto for the remainder of the match. Alenichev is quite often the forgotten man of this Porto team, with the young, emerging talents of Deco, Ricardo Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira often gaining the headlines. The Russian provided an experienced presence on the pitch with his professionalism, ensuring that Mourinho kept him continuously around the squad, even if he was often utilised as a substitute. His key goals, including both winners against Marseille and a goal in the previous season’s UEFA Cup final, endeared him to the Porto faithful and board, and his legacy has firmly impressed itself into the club’s history.

Another one of the key players within the Porto squad, one who never quite managed to replicate his success elsewhere, was South African striker Benni McCarthy. Having brought the player in on loan, McCarthy’s potential had convinced the board to part with nearly €8 million to bring him in permanently, although his initial impact was limited. With Partizan visiting the Estádio das Antas, McCarthy finally found the back of the net on Europe’s biggest stage, finding the scoring touch with two simple tap-ins. A spill from the goalkeeper and a poor back-pass that rolled the ball towards the goal-line allowed the South African to score the two goals that won Porto the match and ensured their qualification to the first knockout round.

Having finished behind Madrid in the group, with the final group match being a well-earned 1-1 draw in the Spanish capital, Porto were destined to face one of the other group winners in the first knockout round, and were given one of the toughest draws possible: a match-up against Manchester United. It was a match that few expected Porto to stand any real chance in, pitting their talented but inexperienced squad against a squad filled with Champions League regulars and led by Sir Alex Ferguson, one of the game’s greatest managers.

The first leg, held at the newly-built and highly impressive Estádio do Dragão, was the perfect opportunity for both Mourinho and Porto to prove that they were more than a match for a side as good as Manchester United. The first action of the game seemingly proved that even with Porto’s willingness to try and take the game to their opponents, the Red Devils were a team with just too much quality for Porto to handle. A Paul Scholes free-kick could only be parried by Vítor Baía in the Porto goal, allowing the on-rushing Quinton Fortune to slot home and give United a vital away goal and an early lead. Fortune almost turned provider a few minutes later, with his cross expertly picking out Ruud van Nistelrooy who surprisingly could not bring the ball under his spell and the chance was lost.

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Had the Dutch striker found the back of the net, the whole tie, and recent European football history, may well have turned out differently. As it ultimately turned out, Mourinho proved his reputation as a meticulous planner having targeted the Manchester United left flank as the weak area and it was Alenichev who found space on that side before delivering a cross for McCarthy to fire Porto level.

With United scrambling to offer better protection down their left-hand side, space began to appear over on the right and Nuno Valente was allowed the time and space to deliver a pinpoint cross perfectly between Gary Neville and Wes Brown, the central defenders for the evening. Having found a gap between them for his first goal, McCarthy once more drifted between the two, powering a header beyond the dive of Tim Howard. The goal was to prove decisive, with Porto claiming the 2-1 victory from the first leg.

That second leg task was made more complicated for United with Roy Keane, the captain and talisman of the side, getting himself sent off in the final moments of the match for a stamp on the side of the Porto goalkeeper. And yet, there was still the sense that United would progress having claimed an all-important away goal and being the more experienced team. A clever check-back and cross from Ryan Giggs just after the half-hour mark was met by a glancing header from Paul Scholes, and United had re-established themselves in the lead of the match.

On the stroke of half-time, Scholes once again found himself free in the penalty area, poking home a clever through-ball to seemingly cement United’s advantage. But, as these were the days long before the introduction of VAR into Europe’s premier competition, the assistant referee’s flag stopped the celebrations before they got into full swing with Scholes being incorrectly called offside. It was perhaps the moment of luck that every successful side experiences, one which allowed Porto to still be in a position to launch a late flurry of attacks.

Porto appeared to be heading out on the away goals rule as they had failed to find a response to United’s first-half effort before the 90th minute of the match. A Porto free-kick offered a lifeline, and when McCarthy’s strike was parried into the middle of the penalty box by Howard, Costinha was the fastest to react, steering the ball into an empty net. It gave Porto the 3-2 aggregate lead and meant that even a United winner would only send the match to extra-time. The exuberant celebrations from the travelling Porto fans could only be matched by their enigmatic coach, with Mourinho’s sprint down the Old Trafford touchline becoming an enduring image of his team’s incredible victory.

Mourinho was increasingly making his presence felt in Europe. At the post match press conference, he left no opportunity pass to showcase his superiority, saying that, “I understand why Ferguson is a bit emotional. He has some top players in the world and they should be doing a lot better than that. You would be really sad if your team gets as clearly dominated as that by an opponent who has been built on maybe ten per cent of the budget.

The Portuguese champions were rewarded with a tie against French champions Lyon, who were on their way to a third French title out of seven in a row. The match gave Porto the chance to prove that their result against the English champions was more than a lucky one, and the team delivered with a confident display of controlled football. The whole team produced a performance worthy of the occasion, and it was just before half-time when a cross from McCarthy deflected in off the side of Deco. With just twenty minutes remaining Deco turned to his more familiar role of provider, delivering a world-class free-kick onto the head of the on-rushing Ricardo Carvalho, who powered it home.

The return leg in France was a much closer affair, with Lyon perhaps benefitting from being on their home turf. Despite the close nature of the game, the sixth-minute strike from Maniche, played in from another Deco assist, gave Porto the vital away goal and left Lyon needing four goals. A Luyindula finish just eight minutes later gave the French champions some hope, but Maniche, once again found by Deco, put pay to any notion of an unlikely comeback shortly after half-time. A late Élber strike meant that Lyon at least drew the home leg, but the Portuguese champions had comfortably progressed to their first Champions League semi-final since 1993-94.

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The draw for the semi-final was always going to present two fascinating ties, especially as the usual big names were already eliminated from the competition. Porto were joined by the newly-wealthy Chelsea, a Deportivo La Coruña side who had produced one of the competitions greatest ever comebacks to defeat Milan in the quarter-finals, and Monaco, who had just defeated European royalty Real Madrid. Although individual teams, such as Monaco in 2017, have managed to reach the semi-final stage since 2004, it was arguably the last season in which the Champions League had a truly different line-up in the last four.

Porto were given the task of trying to contain a Deportivo side flying high at the sharp end of Spanish football. Unlike the other semi-final which saw a 5-3 aggregate victory for Monaco, the all-Iberian clash was a low-scoring affair, a cagey tactical battle between Mourinho and his counterpart Javier Irureta. The first leg was hosted by Porto, and the match was predictably cagey with few clear-cut chances for either team. It was Maniche who came closest to opening the deadlock, with a brilliant effort from range bouncing back off the underside of the bar. Although the Portuguese side failed to win the match, they prevented Deportivo from scoring a vital away goal.

The return leg followed the same pattern and the match was still goalless heading into the second half. Once more it was Deco who dragged his side forward, driving into the box only to be fouled for a penalty. It was, looking back, a soft decision awarded by referee Pierluigi Collina, although one which falls under “seen them given” category. It was the Brazilian striker Derlei who assumed responsibility for the spot-kick and he just managed to sneak the ball under the despairing dive of Deportivo’s goalkeeper.

Despite Super Depor’s best efforts to push forward to score the two goals they needed to advance, Mourinho had his side tactically well-drilled and Porto saw out the remainder of the game in an assured fashion, cementing their place in the final of Europe’s biggest club competition.

The final was supposed to be a showcase between two quality attacking sides, with Monaco boasting the talents of Fernando Morientes, Emmanuel Adebayor and Captain Ludovic Giuly. Monaco were the team who started the match brighter, but just 20 minutes into the match, Giuly was forced out of action with a groin injury, a moment which perhaps changed the course of the match.

Monaco kept pressing despite the setback, trying to force the game to be played at their pace, but the tactic helped play into the hands of Porto, allowing them to hit the French side on the counter-attack. It wasn’t until the 38th minute of the game for the first proper chance to arise, with 19-year-old Carlos Alberto hitting a composed volley into the top corner of the net. The game still felt like it was balanced on a knife’s edge and it was the introduction of Alenichev that saw Porto fully wrestle control of the match.

With just twenty minutes remaining, and Monaco looking increasingly like making the breakthrough, Porto countered with Deco and Alenichev combining down the left-side before the Portuguese magician received the ball on the edge of the area, sold two defenders and the goalkeeper a dummy as he slotted the ball into the near side of the goal, doubling Porto’s advantage.

As Monaco threw everyone forward in a desperate attempt to get themselves back into the game, more space opened at the back and Alenichev was freed by Deco and calmly slotted home a third of the night, rounding off the victory with style. It was a triumph that feels quintessentially Mourinho, a seemingly comfortable victory that was built around defensive stability and fast transitions into direct counter-attacks.

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The game was the springboard for the careers of many, with the squad largely dismantled in the immediate summer, with the key names departing for more reputable leagues and clubs on the continent. It was a disappointment for the fans to see their heroes leave, but the unexpected Champions League success was the perfect farewell message from the manager and the key players. It was the last true underdog success in the competition, one which captured the attention of all those watching and helped launch the careers of some of Europe’s premier players during the decade.

As Mourinho casually strolled onto the pitch after the game, it felt like he was destined for greatness as he exuded an aura of raw invincibility and an insatiable hunger for success. Years later, Mourinho reflected on his European success with Porto in an interview with UEFA saying that at the time, they felt that if they could eliminate Manchester United, they could eliminate any team. He said, “We felt it couldn’t go wrong. We made it and we won very calmly. I always say I didn’t celebrate it like a Champions League final, because it didn’t feel like a Champions League final – the game was very calm and controlled. I didn’t feel like a European champion after the referee blew the final whistle: I felt like a champion of Europe long before the game was finished.

Years have passed since Porto’s success and fans of the club still recall the night when they pulled off the impossible on a night in Germany. The tale of the underdogs, led by an extraordinary manager, has gone into history books and nothing can take this inspirational success away from the fans.

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