Braga v Fiorentina
The Europa Conference League returns on Thursday as the knockout round playoffs get underway. The second-placed teams of their Europa Conference League groups will face off against the third-placed teams of their Europa League groups, with the winners of each of the eight fixtures facing off against the Europa Conference League group winners in the Round of 16. Teams from as far and wide as Cyprus, Azerbaijan and Bulgaria will be competing for a chance to win Europe’s tertiary competition in its second iteration, and perhaps the most scintillating fixture in the first round of knockout matches is Braga-Fiorentina.
Despite winning their first two matches, Braga finished third in their group, meaning that for the first time in six years, they will not be competing in the Europa League knockout round. Truth be told, that may very well have been a blessing in disguise. Artur Jorge’s side have returned from the World Cup break in stellar fashion, beating Benfica 3-0 (their first and only defeat of the season) before thrashing Santa Clara 4-0, mustering a late comeback win against Vitória in the cup gutting out narrow wins against Boavista and Paços de Ferreira and opening February with a 5-0 defeat to Sporting – their first league defeat since November 6. They have responded well, beating Famalicão 4-1, edging Benfica on penalties and advancing to the Taça de Portugal semifinals, and beating Marítimo 2-1. Braga sit third in the table, eight points above Sporting, two behind Porto and seven behind Benfica. Whilst a first-ever league title may still be a pipe dream for the Arcebispos, Braga are nevertheless on pace to return to the Champions League after 11 years.
Fiorentina, on the other hand, qualified for European football for the first time in six years after an impressive seventh-place finish, but they have nevertheless followed it up with a steep decline in form under Vincenzo Italiano. La Viola sit 14th in the table, seven points clear of relegation, and have scored 23 goals and conceded 29 in 22 league matches.
They enter this match on the back of a 2-1 defeat to Bologna and a 1-0 home defeat to Juventus and have collected just one point from their last five league matches. They have kept just one clean sheet in the league since the start of October – a 2-0 win against 19th-placed Sampdoria on November 6 – and will arrive in Portugal as slight underdogs. Braga boast a goal differential of +25 and have dropped points at home on just three occasions – a 3-3 draw to Sporting on August 7, a 1-0 defeat to Chaves on October 9 and a 1-0 defeat to Casa Pia on November 6. I’m backing Braga to come away with a first-leg victory at home, but just to be sure, I consulted my Fiorentina expert on how his side fares ahead of this match-up.
“Goals have been extremely difficult to come by, especially in the league. Creating chances isn’t a problem, but the conversion rate is just too low. We create plenty of them, but finishing is an issue. Luka Jovic clearly hasn’t been the same since his time at Eintracht Frankfurt. Arthur Cabral isn’t firing like he was at Basel, Nico Gonzalez and Jonathan Ikone have been ineffective in front of goal. Even Christian Kouame hasn’t done as well either. As long as Braga make the most of their chances, they should be able to progress here.”
Fiorentina haven’t been able to find a consistent source of goals since Dušan Vlahović’s departure to Juventus in January 2022, and their defense has been a far cry from that of last season. Braga, on the other hand, are in sensational form and have been one of the most effective sides in front of goal in Portugal. Expect Braga to come away with at least a point against an underwhelming Fiorentina side.
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