Braga win in Athens to earn Champions League berth

Braga booked their place in the 2023/24 Champions League after beating Panathinaikos 1-0 in Athens for a 3-1 aggregate win.

In a mature display, despite the frenetic atmosphere created by the passionate Greek fans, Artur Jorge’s team largely controlled Panathinaikos, although goalkeeper Matheus was called on to make two outstanding saves.

But the Portuguese team also created danger throughout and Bruma’s late goal sealed the deal.

Braga join Benfica and Porto as the Primeira Liga again have three representatives in the greatest club competition in world football. 

Landmark occasion

Boss Artur Jorge had described the tie against the Greeks as the most important games in Braga’s recent history, and his side certainly rose to the occasion tonight, putting in an even stronger performance than in the home leg last week.

Álvaro Djaló kept his place in the starting XI after an excellent goal-scoring cameo last week, as did André Horta who also did well coming off the bench at the Quarry in the first leg. The injured Al Musrati and veteran Pizzi made way.

Braga showed from the off that they did not intend to spend the night defending their lead, Vitor Carvalho seeing a shot deflected wide early doors after good work by Bruma.

Bruma-Vagiannidis battle

The intense battle between the lively Bruma and the impressive Panathinaikos right-back Georgios Vagiannidis was a feature of the match, with the young defender holding his own for most of the game, but the reborn Portuguese winger would have the last laugh.

On 14 minutes Abel Ruiz turned smartly and shot narrowly wide, but the hosts came close to levelling the tie soon afterwards when Fotis Ioannnidis failed to finish off a tantalising cross by Palacios.

The hosts, roared on by the raucous crowd, gradually started increasing the pressure with some dangerous crosses zipping across the Braga goal, but the visitors remained dangerous on the break. A well-worked move saw the ball worked to Abel Ruiz, the Spanish striker’s low shot saved by the outstretched leg of Brignoli.

Matheus wonder save

On the verge of half time Panathinaikos were again desperately close to scoring, with Vagiannidis seeing his point-blank header brilliantly tipped over the bar by Matheus.

Braga’s Brazilian goalkeeper was again called into action ten minutes after the break, diving full-length and getting a strong hand to deflect a goal-bound shot by Sebastian Palacios wide of the post.

Braga’s squad strength shows

Braga were no longer causing danger, but at the same time were keeping Panathinaikos at bay, and the visitors’ level of control only increased after both sides made a series of substitutions.

Serder Saatci, Pizzi, Rodrigo Zalazar, Simon Banza and Paulo Oliveira came on for Braga and all made positive contributions, with young Turkish centre-back Saatci especially catching the eye. It is further evidence that Braga have a deep and well-furnished squad.

The tie was all but put to bed in the 83rd minute when a swift counterattack saw Pizzi pass to Ricardo Horta, the captain with a classy touch to put Bruma in on goal and the winger producing a lethal angled finish.

The goal sparked wild celebrations among Braga’s players, staff and small contingent of travelling fans who had journeyed to Greece.

Braga almost let Greeks back in

Truth be told, for the first time in the match Braga let their guard down with a loss of concentration leading to three close calls in quick succession, Filip Djuricic guilty of an especially bad miss.

In the first of eight minutes of stoppage time a careless tackle by Juankar on Banza led to a second yellow for the Spaniard and well and truly ended all doubts about which side would triumph on the night.

Indeed, Ricardo Horta and Banza were close to doubling Braga’s lead, but the job was done and the northerners can now start planning for another Champions League campaign more than a decade after their previous appearance in the competition.

By Tom Kundert