Preview: Braga vs. Panathinaikos – prediction, team news, lineups

Sports Mole previews Wednesday’s Champions League clash between Braga and Panathinaikos, including predictions, team news and possible lineups.

Having progressed to the final round of Champions League qualifying in differing circumstances, Braga and Panathinaikos commence their two-legged playoff battle at Estadio Municipal on Wednesday night.

The hosts thrashed Backa Topola 7-1 on aggregate in the penultimate preliminary stage, while their Greek foes eliminated former winners Marseille on penalties in the third round.

Match preview

Braga coach Artur Jorge on September 30, 2022© Reuters

Even with a seemingly unassailable 3-0 lead to boast from the first leg of their showdown with Serbian minnows Backa Topola, Braga did not take their foot off the gas during last week’s stopover at the TSC Arena, blowing their beleaguered opponents away with a glut of first-half goals.

Within 20 minutes of kickoff, Pizzi, Bruma, Alvaro Djalo and Al-Musrati all made the net bulge during a phenomenal display of attacking superiority, before Marko Rakonjac pulled one back for Backa Topola with perhaps the most inconsequential goal he will ever score in his career.

Sticking with the theme of fours, Braga appropriately came up with another quartet of goals on the road four days after their 4-1 thumping of Backa Topola, coming from 2-1 down to put Chaves to the sword 4-2 in Saturday’s Primeira Liga contest for their first domestic success of the season.

Perhaps paying too much attention to European matters, Artur Jorge‘s men went down 2-1 to Famalicao on the opening day of the top-flight campaign, but notching eight goals in their last two away matches represents the perfect tonic to that early giant killing.

Braga also have previous when it comes to Champions League qualifying playoff round battles, as their only two group-stage appearances in 2010-11 and 2012-13 were achieved via the preliminary stages, overcoming Sevilla and Udinese respectively at the final hurdle.

Braga's Andre Castro celebrates scoring their first goal on February 23, 2023© Reuters

Unlike Braga and most other teams vying for Champions League qualification, Panathinaikos are yet to kick off their quest for domestic glory and have thus been able to focus solely on their continental endeavours, which paid off and then some during a third-round giant killing.

Following a 5-3 aggregate victory over Ukraine’s Dnipro-1 in their opening encounter, Panathinaikos ensured that Marseille’s trip to Athens would be a miserable one on August 9, as Bernard propelled Ivan Jovanovic‘s men to a 1-0 first-leg win ahead of their visit to the Orange Velodrome last week.

A first-half double from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had Marseille on the verge of a successful comeback, but a last-gasp Fotis Ioannidis spot kick in the ninth minute of added time forced extra time and penalties, where Panathinaikos went five for five and Matteo Guendouzi fluffed his lines.

Coincidentally, Braga’s first Champions League group-stage appearance in the 2010-11 season is also the most recent time that Panathinaikos advanced to the proper tournament, and the Shamrock have suffered four subsequent exits in the preliminary rounds, including a playoff defeat to Malaga 11 years ago.

An opening Greek Super League battle with Volos NFC also awaits the Greens in between their two legs against Braga – an unwelcome distraction indeed as Jovanovic’s side meet their Portuguese counterparts for the very first time at Estadio Municipal.

Braga Champions League form:

Braga form (all competitions):

Panathinaikos Champions League form:

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Team News

Braga's Ricardo Horta is shown a yellow card by referee on September 30, 2022© Reuters

Thanks to their scintillating first-half display in Serbia, Jorge was afforded the luxury of taking some of his big-hitters off at half time in last week’s second leg, and the hosts did not sustain any fresh injuries during their recent success over Chaves either.

However, midfielder Rodrigo Zalazar lasted just 45 minutes in the number 10 spot and will no doubt be worried about the prospect of losing his starting berth to Pizzi or Djalo, both of whom came up with crucial contributions to the Archbishops’ second-half turnaround.

Djalo crossed for fellow substitute Simon Banza to score Braga’s third goal on the day, but the Frenchman is fighting a losing battle to displace Bruma, Ricardo Horta or Abel Ruiz up front.

As for Panathinaikos, left-back Juankar was forced off 20 minutes before the end of normal time against Marseille last week, and while the seriousness of his problem is unclear, Filip Mladenovic is on standby.

The Shamrock will otherwise head to Braga with an identical group of players from their second-leg triumph over Marseille, where first-leg hero Bernard was surprisingly named on the bench before converting his penalty in the shootout.

Both the ex-Everton man and Ioannidis ought to come into Jovanovic’s thinking for starts this week, while midfielder Ruben Perez should don the captain’s armband again, in spite of the fact that he will miss the second leg if he is cautioned.

Braga possible starting lineup:
Matheus; Gomez, Fonte, Niakate, Marin; Pizzi, Carvalho, Al-Musrati, Bruma; Horta, Djalo

Panathinaikos possible starting lineup:
Brignoli; Vagiannidis, Jedvaj, Magnusson, Mladenovic; Vilhena, Perez; Mancini, Djuricic, Bernard; Ioannidis

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We say: Braga 2-1 Panathinaikos

One or two Marseille fans may have learned the hard way about underestimating Panathinaikos, whose week’s worth of rest should do them the world of good against Jorge’s goal-happy Braga.

The hosts’ mettle will be put to the test far more than it was against Backa Topola, but their attacking firepower will likely be too hot for Panathinaikos to handle, and the Archbishops ought to head to Athens for next week’s second leg defending a slender advantage.

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Top tip

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