What has gone wrong at Porto?

The 27-time Portuguese champions sacked their coach Paulo Fonseca two weeks ago and will hope the Europa League provides respite amid a turbulent campaign on the domestic front

By Alec Fenn

This season has been a humbling one for several of the traditional powers of European football.

Manchester United have suffered the most alarming demise under David Moyes, while AC Milan remain mired in the bottom half  in Serie A despite the January appointment of Clarence Seedorf as head coach.

The winds of change have blown over Spain, too, with Gerardo Martino’s maiden campaign in charge of Barcelona marred by boardroom upheaval and the impending departures of two lifelong servants in Victor Valdes and Carles Puyol.

But though the respective struggles of all the above have been the subject of widespread debate, reigning Primeira Liga champions FC Porto have flown largely beneath the radar amid a turbulent campaign.

Last season represented one of the most thrilling in their history. The 27-time Portuguese champions lifted a third successive title – just one point ahead of rivals Benfica after beating the Eagles 2-1 in the penultimate game of the campaign - and in doing so finished the term unbeaten in the league for a second time in three years.

However, the last nine months have been nothing short of disastrous. Paulo Fonseca – a former centre-back of the club during his playing days – replaced Vitor Pereira in the hotseat after the latter opted to depart for Saudi Arabian side Al-Ahli when his contract expired last June.

The appointment was a continuation of a policy adopted by the Portistas hierarchy in hiring bright young Portuguese coaches – Jose Mourinho and Andre Villas-Boas are two star pupils to have graduated from this very school – while Pereira was tipped to take over at Everton before bizarrely opting to continue his career in Asia.

Fonseca was a popular choice having guided Pacos de Ferreira into the Champions League for the first time in their history in 2012-13, a remarkable achievement for a club with a stadium that holds just a little over 5,000 supporters.

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But despite starting his reign by lifting the Portuguese Super Cup, having seen star men James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho sold to Monaco last summer, Porto were knocked out at the Champions League group stage before embarking on a four-match winless streak in the league that left the club nine points adrift of leaders Benfica.

That run ultimately cost Fonseca his job, with his assistant Luis Castro named interim coach and the ninth man to occupy the Porto dug-out in the 10 years since Mourinho’s departure in 2004.

And it is that statistic that provides the most telling answer to the sudden demise of the Portuguese giants. While success is more often than not built upon the solid foundations of consistency and continuity, the almost annual change of leadership has had a destabilising effect that the current squad have failed to adapt to and left supporters with a sense of disillusionment.

"I'm expecting to go about my job every day with dedication and determination," Castro told the club's official website after being handed the reins until the end of the season.

"I am hoping the work will be followed closely by the fans, as they are essential for development."

Saturday’s defeat to Sporting Lisbon was their fifth loss in the league this season and Porto will hope to take solace from their Europa League campaign when they travel to Napoli for the second-leg of their last-16 tie on Thursday.

A solitary strike from Jackson Martinez gave Castro’s side a 1-0 win in the first-leg, with the 52-year-old reverting to the club’s favoured 4-3-3 formation as he bids to get the best out of summer signing Juan Fernando Quintero and maintain the outstanding form of Ricardo Quaresma since his return in January.

Should Castro reap the fruits of that tried and tested recipe in Naples on Thursday then it could well be the catalyst for another famous European run or merely another false dawn in a season that has never really begun.