Early Doors

Forget Porto, get down the Galpharm!

Early Doors

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Early Doors wants to love the Europa League. It really does.

Despite the huge number of groups (Group L, anyone?), the extra knockout round and the absurd mid-tournament admission of Champions League drop-outs, it is still a European competition.

The likes of Porto, Napoli and Villarreal are all very good teams worthy of anyone's time, and it is usually at least interesting to see how different Premier League sides treat the bridesmaid of continental shindigs.

But, sadly, it still lacks much of the lustre of its previous incarnation, the UEFA Cup. ED yearns for the days when Jeremy Goss was netting screamers against Bayern Munich.

Still, Porto were crowned champions in Dublin last night, beating near neighbours Braga 1-0 in the final. It was their third trophy of the season, and they could make it an incredible quadruple on Sunday if they win the Portuguese Cup final. Their four-trophy haul may be tinged with plastic, given that one piece of silverware already claimed is the domestic Super Cup, but there is no questioning the fact that Andre Villas-Boas's side have laid waste to all before them - they remain unbeaten in the league they have already won this season.

Like so many finals - not least Manchester City's FA Cup win over Stoke last weekend -  it was a clear case of one team being better than the other on paper and that coming to pass on the pitch.

The stats incurred around Radamel Falcao's superb headed winner just before half-time say it all. The Colombian - the first to score in a European final - extended his record for the most goals by a player in a single European campaign to 17, and seven of those have been scored with his head. Surprisingly, considering the swashbuckling way in which they have gone about their business all season, that goal was Porto's only shot on target in the entire match, a credit to Braga's obdurate set-up.

Right after the break, half-time substitute Marcio Mossoro had THE chance for Braga, but he could not beat Helton one-on-one and from then it seemed clear who the winners would be, and Braga's regular PA announcer never got the chance to rock the Dublin mic like his Porto counterpart had in celebrating a goal for his club.

In all fairness to Porto, this trophy was won with little of the diving, gamesmanship and histrionics which defined the same club's UEFA Cup win over Celtic in 2003 under Jose Mourinho. The star of Villas-Boas continues to rise. That armband he wears with the word 'Treinador' on it, marking him out as the coach, could yet become the must-have fashion item of the summer.

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Afterwards, broadcasters Five did their usual trick of playing an action film after a live match - bringing to mind the infamous missimodus operandi from the channel's former head, Dawn Airey: "Films, football and f******" -  but the real action was on the other side.

While the Europa League final may have gone according to plan, the Football League play-offs routinely serve great drama by the spadeful, and last night's League One semi-final was no exception.

There were 16 points between Huddersfield Town and Bournemouth at the end of the regular season in League One, but after the second leg of their semi-final last night none of the four matches between the Terriers and the Cherries this season could produce a winner.

The Galpharm Stadium crowd saw a rollicking tie which contained four goals (including a beauty from Bournemouth's Steve Lovell), a red card and a penalty in normal time alone.

In extra time, Bournemouth led for the first time through a Danny Ings header that Falcao himself would have been proud of, but before you had time to process the inevitability of a Huddersfield equaliser it duly came through Antony Kay. A penalty shootout seemed the only logical way to end such a ding-dong of an encounter.

Lee Clark's Huddersfield were the ones to hold their nerve, converting all four of their spot-kicks to Bournemouth's two, and they will meet either Peterborough or MK Dons in the Old Trafford final.

Compared to Porto's regulation win in Dublin, this was a breathlessly epic encounter. It was a victory for good old British blood and guts over continental technique, true passion over top professionals and any other footballing cliche you may want to name.

Any analyst could have a field day picking apart the defensive naiveties and tactical errors which led to such a scoreline, but that is what made it such a wonderful spectacle.

So often semi-finals provide more thrills than finals themselves, and so it was last night.

If Porto can keep their team together, no one will want to meet them in next season's Champions League. They look capable of becoming a top side once more.

But, on the evidence of last night, the real beauty in football is still to be found in its flaws.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: "(The Premier League) will be relieved if we lose and get relegated. Then I am not badgering them. I am so annoyed. Sir Alex Ferguson is a winner. He would never dream of not being interested in winning any match. That man deserves to pick whatever team he wants to pick. No one should question it. Look at his record. Those people running the game, what planet are they on? They must have beamed down from planet Zarf. They are not in the right world. They think we can only beat Manchester United if they are weak. What a load of baloney. Unfortunately, that is what we are dealing with." - If Blackpool Ian Holloway is to wave goodbye to the top flight, he is going out with a bang with his latest conspiracy-laden rant.

FOREIGN VIEW: "Criminality involved in fixing football matches is global, enormous and organised. Football is too respected globally to not be protected. These are criminals taking advantage. They are not to be respected, they are not Robin Hoods, they are not good people. They hurt players and they destroy careers." - FIFA security chief Chris Eaton is predictably scathing as a new report reveals that illegal betting in football is worth an estimated £55 billion annually, equivalent to that of the legal market.

COMING UP: The second League play-off semi-final second leg is this evening, and if it is half as good as last night's it will be a cracker. Follow live coverage of Peterborough United v MK Dons at 19:45. Plus Birmingham City manager Alex McLeish answers your questions and The Fantasist will be popping up with the injury report ahead of the final games of the Premier League season.

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