FC Porto coach Sérgio Conceição surprised everyone with a radical change of personnel and a new tactical setup against Estrela da Amadora on Friday night.
Things soon had to be mixed up again after early injuries forced centre-back Iván Marcano and striker Evanilson off.
Despite another subpar performance by Porto, and an energetic and enterprising display by the hosts, a single goal by substitute Mehdi Taremi gave the Dragons all three points.
All change as seven players handed first start of 2023/24
Porto’s XI was completely revolutionised, with David Carmo, Alan Varela, André Franco, Iván Jaime, Gonçalo Borges, Fran Navarro and Evanilson all getting their first starts of the season, while usual first-team regulars João Mário, Pepê and Taremi began on the bench.
The new formation comprised three centre-backs, with Wenderson Galeno and Gonçalo Borges playing as wing-backs.
Estrela went into the game with just one victory to their name this season, although performances have been better than the results for the newly promoted team. And the hosts again acquitted themselves well, with burly Brazilian centre-forward Ronald Pereira impressing once more, causing Porto’s back line problems all night long.
The opening 20 minutes was a stop-start affair, with constant injuries and a long VAR check for a possible penalty to Estrela not allowing the game to settle. Conceição had to rejig his pieces as Wendell and Taremi entered the fray before 15 minutes were up to replace the injured Marcano and Evanilson.
Taremi answers his critics
As has been the case all season, Porto struggled to find their rhythm with goal-scoring opportunities at a premium at both ends of the pitch. The visitors improved when Taremi entered the fray. Despite the constant controversy surrounding the Iranian striker owing to his notorious diving antics, there is no doubt that when he focuses on playing football he is a magnificent centre-forward, certainly the best in his position in Portugal in recent seasons.
Taremi was soon dropping back into midfield with some typical classy link-up play, and it was the Porto No9, fresh from notching two goals for his country in the international break, who gave the away team the lead in the 29th minute.
Pepe won the ball with a robust challenge in midfield, played a long ball towards Taremi, who made short work of the surrounding defenders to work room for himself and shoot into the corner of the net from 20 yards out.
Diogo Costa goes from hero to zero
Gonçalo Borges missed a golden chance to double Porto’s lead, skewing over an open net from close in, and it almost proved a costly miss as just before the break Ronald Pereira went on a bludgeoning run towards goal, fooling two defenders to get his shot away which forced a brilliant save out of Diogo Costa.
In the second half Estrela ratcheted up the pressure, with Porto increasingly retreating into their own half. It was time for captain Pepe to shine, the ageless Portugal centre-back superb in snuffing out several moments of alarm with opportune interceptions.
Porto had scored four goals in stoppage time in their previous four matches but almost got a taste of their own medicine as Estrela came desperately close to equalising in the 91st minute. Diogo Costa made a mess of dealing with a cross, completely missing his punch, allowing substitute Regis Ndo to latch onto the loose ball 10 yards out, with Alan Varela’s goal-line clearance saving Costa’s blushes.
Porto go top of the league ahead of their rivals’ games later in the weekend, but Conceição knows a vast improvement is needed if his team are to make a sustained challenge for the Primeira Liga title this season.
By Tom Kundert