Resting in the heart of the peninsula and calling its capital city home, one that has stood for millennia, AS Roma are perhaps the most Italian team in all of Italy. Their trophy cabinet isn’t bursting at the seams like Juventus, AC Milan, or Inter Milan, but they've always embodied everything that's unique about Italian football: ruthless pragmatism balanced with pure splendor.
To their ranks Roma has added standouts from across the globe, boasting Brazilians, Argentinians, Germans, and Frenchman among the members of the club's Hall of Fame. But if you've detected a particularly Portuguese bent to the club over the past few months, your senses haven't failed you. With their coach and new general manager both hailing from the tiny Iberian nation, this once provincial-looking club is looking more cosmopolitan by the day.
Considering that—and the fact that Paulo Fonseca managed them five years ago—it's quite fitting that Roma is now pitted against Braga in the Europa League Round of 32. Braga, currently third in the Primeira Liga, is, along with Benfica, one of two Portuguese clubs remaining in Europe's second-most famous club competition.
While Roma are no strangers to Portuguese opponents, Thursday's match will be the first between these two clubs—call it a high-stakes meet and greet. So, in order to familiarize ourselves with the Archbishops, let's take a quick look at Roma's latest European opponents.
Located in the northwest corner of Portugal, Sporting Clube de Braga was established in 1921 and quickly adopted the city's coat of arms—Mother Mary and the baby Jesus—as its crest; hence the Archbishops moniker. While Braga has never won a league title, they are one of the most decorated clubs in the country, laying claim to seven titles, including four domestic cup trophies and the 2008 UEFA Intertoto cup.
With 40 points through 19 domestic matches, Braga are precariously perched in third place in the Portuguese league, two points ahead of fourth-place Benfica. With a +15 goal differential (4th best), 274 shots (3rd best), 37% shooting (4th best), and 0.11 goals per shot (3rd best), Braga are one of Portugal's most prolific and balanced sides. Portugal only sends two clubs to the Champions League each season and with Sporting CP sitting comfortably in first, Braga will have to duke it out with Benfica, Porto, and Pacos for the league's final Champions League place—those three teams are only separated by three points. Sounds familiar, right?
While they're slugging it out domestically, Braga were one of the most prolific teams in the Europa League group stage. Cast into Group G with Leicester City, AEK Athens, and Ukrainian club Zorya, Braga compiled 13 points and a +4 goal differential in six group stage matches, finishing second to Leicester in both categories.
With 13 goals in six group stage matches, Braga were the sixth-highest scoring club in the group stage, and actually outperformed their xG by nearly three. Similarly, with 42% of their shots on target, Braga were one of the most accurate teams in the competition, both in terms of percentage and total shots on target.
Under manager Carlos Carvalhal, Braga have experimented with multiple tactical looks, alternating between three-man backlines (mostly a 3-4-3, their most common look) and four-man defenses (typically a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1).
With an average of 54% possession (4th in the league), Braga prefers a methodical approach, piling up pass after pass as they build from the back. To wit, Braga's 736 long-ball attempts are the top mark in the league, while their 9,220 total passes attempted are the second-highest mark in the league.
But more than just compiling passes for the sake of it, Braga makes effective use of all that ball movement, racking up 205 key-passes (2nd in the league) and ranking fifth in accurate crosses played. And if all that wasn't enough to convince you that Braga is a pass-happy bunch, consider this: the Archbishops rank dead last in total dribbles.
As far as Carvalhal's tactics are concerned, you either pass, pass or get out of the way. More often than not, all that ball movement produces attempts on goal, too. Braga currently ranks third in the Portuguese league in total attempts (274) and on-target attempts (95). And what's more, despite passing the ball more than nearly any team in the league, Braga are extremely careful with it, losing possession only 125 times—the best mark in Portugal.
With nine goals and three assists in all competitions, the 26-year-old Horta has been Braga's most dangerous attacking player through the first half of the season. Capable of playing as an out and out striker or in support of another forward, Horta not only brings goals, he brings versatility and a bevy of attacking traits sure to make nearly any manager drool.
Horta is tied for fifth in goals scored, second in shots per game, second in on-target shots and second in shots from open play. If Braga's m.o. is pass, pass and pass some more, then Horta stands as the logical inverse of that—something must be done with all those passes and Horta seems to enjoy a license to shoot, if you will.
Medieros, a 26-year-old Portugal native like Horta, is Braga's utilityman extraordinaire. Having played five positions already this season, Medeiros has made Carvalhal's job a lot easier. And with five goals and two assists in league play, he's proven to be more than just a plug and play piece—he's also fifth in the league in accurate crosses.
With 40 keypasses, four goals and six assists in all competitions, Galeno, a 23-year-old midfielder, is arguably Braga's most creative player—no small feat when you consider he's frequently deployed deep in midfield, though he can play practically anywhere in midfield. Furthemore, despite his team's preference to advance up the pitch via the pass, Galeno is tied for sixth in successful dribbles.
Another versatile wide player, the 27-year-old Esgaio can play practically anywhere down the right flank, though he spends most of his time at full-back or defensive midfielder. But if you want to talk about pass-happy Braga's best passer, look no further. Through 19 league appearances, Egaio is tied for eighth in keypasses, ninth in accurate passes in the oppositions half, and 11th in passes into the final third.
Kickoff is set for Thursday afternoon in Braga, stay tuned over the next 24 hours for our match preview, probable lineups and viewing guide.