Porto’s direct 4-1-2-3 system comes up against Malaga’s compact 4-2-3-1. Vitor Pereira has no selection concerns so can field his first choice XI. The return of Julio Baptista gives Manuel Pellegrini a dilemma – Isco was excellent as a central playmaker in the Champions League Group Stage, but Baptista’s inclusion may see the Spaniard moved out to the left wing.
This should be a style clash. Porto have played with verticality and attacking width for a decade, whereas Pellegrini has rebuilt Malaga around ball retention and patient build-up.
Porto have natural wingers in Silvestre Varela and James Rodriguez, both equally comfortable hugging the touchline or cutting inside into goalscoring positions. They are also well supported by Alex Sandro and Danilo, two Brazilian full backs in every sense, meaning attacking width is maintained should the wingers drift infield. Jeremy Toulalan and Ignacio Camacho will sit in front of Malaga’s defence to deny Porto’s wingers space inside, but Isco and Joaquin will need to be wary of Porto’s full backs overlapping.
Malaga also look to attack with width, but recent personnel changes have severely weakened their left side. The sale of Nacho Monreal to Arsenal has taken away Pellegrini’s starting left back, while Isco’s move to the left has seen Eliseu, a natural wide player, dropped to the bench. Isco is an excellent playmaker but will adopt central positions, which will likely remove Malaga’s left side threat. Fortunately Joaquin offers a genuine wide threat on the right wing, so Malaga may focus their attacks down that flank.
The return of Baptista changes the way Malaga can play. With Isco in a central role, Pellegrini’s side form a 4-2-3-1 in the truest sense. Toulalan and Camacho are tasked with protecting the space in front of their defence, while the three advanced players get forward from midfield in support of Javier Saviola. Baptista is likely to interpret his role different, operating closer to Saviola as a deep forward rather than an advanced midfielder. Therefore Malaga could resemble closer to a 4-4-1-1.
Such a change would largely remove Baptista from the midfield battle. With Toulalan and Camacho tasked with denying Porto’s wingers space inside as well as engaging the home side’s midfield, they are likely to require assistance to put pressure on Joao Moutinho and Lucho Gonzalez. Isco can offer support from left midfield, but at the risk of leaving Danilo, so Baptista will need to be responsible when not in possession.
Porto’s midfield has had the same balance from the days of Jose Mourinho – one player defends (Fernando), one passes (Moutinho) and one shuttles forward in support of the forwards (Gonzalez). With Malaga likely to play their key playmaker on the left (Isco) and Baptista as a deep forward, Fernando will often find himself surrounded by opponents.
In contrast Malaga’s midfield pairing of Toulalan and Camacho will often find themselves guarding a deserted area with no Porto player occupying central positions behind Jackson Martinez on a permanent basis. However they will need to be alert to the runs of Varela and Rodriguez from wide and Gonzalez from deep, who will all look for space between the lines.
A very young team are faced with what feels like a very old one. Pellegrini has done an excellent job with an extremely raw squad, especially considering the turnover of players he has to endure. In contrast, although they have to contend with departures of their own, Porto’s players are utterly comfortable with their system and style of play. They will have faced passing sides like Malaga before, and will know what to expect, whereas Malaga will not have faced too many opponents in La Liga that attack with such natural width. Malaga’s left will be crucial – Isco is capable of causing Porto problems but may leave new left back Vitorino Antunes exposed to the threat of Danilo and, in particular, James Rodriguez.