FC Porto failed to win their Champions League group while Málaga bested AC Milan and Zenit St. Petersburg to win theirs, but the Portuguese side enters Tuesday's first leg as the favorite to advance. They're unbeaten in well over a year in Portugal, while financial troubles have required the sale of yet another star Málaga player in January.
The Dragons have suffered a number of injuries to key personnel over the course of the winter, but they're getting healthy at the right time. Their only serious issue comes at a position of considerable depth. Málaga are also missing just one key player, but it's in a spot -- left back -- where their replacement options are unproven.
While Porto have done brilliantly to replace all of the stars they've sold, Málaga have gone for less than ideal bargain options. They're doing a decent enough job of maintaining their place in La Liga and their loan reinforcements have looked competent, but they've experienced a few less than impressive slip-ups since concluding their stellar Champions League group stage campaign. Meanwhile, Porto have not lost a domestic game in over a year and looked convincing in their 2-0 win over Beira Mar on Friday, even though they clearly had one eye on Tuesday's encounter.
Porto are still shorthanded in midfield as Steven Defour recovers from injury. He suffered a thigh strain last month and could not get fit in time for this match. Fernando, João Moutinho and Lucho González are almost certain to be Porto's starting midfield in his absence. Silvestre Varela has recently returned from injury and could be in contention to start, though it wouldn't be too shocking to see him remain on the bench. James Rodriguez has also shaken off a recent knock, and is expected to start.
Málaga are without Eliseu, who misses out through a knee injury. Before January's transfer deadline day, that wouldn't have been much of a problem, but they're lacking in depth on the left now that Nacho Monreal is an Arsenal player. Vitorino Antunes, who is on loan from Paços Ferreira, has started at left back in the last two matches for Málaga. Eliseu is their only major injury concern.
Projected lineups (left to right)
FC Porto (4-3-3): Helton; Alex Sandro, Eliaquim Mangala, Nicolás Otamendi, Danilo; Fernando, João Moutinho, Lucho González; James Rodriguez, Jackson Martinez, Marat Izmaylov
Vitorino Antunes vs. Porto's right: Málaga have won the two games they've played with Antunes at left back, and in impressive fashion. They won away to Levante two weeks ago, then kept a clean sheet against Athletic Bilbao at the weekend. Still, Antunes is the untested man in the side and will likely see a disproportionate number of attacks go down his side. Whether it's Varela, Izmaylov or Christian Atsu running at him, he'll need to be on his game. He'll also have to watch for overlaps from Danilo, who is an excellent crosser of the ball.
Fernando vs. Isco: Fernando has been a rock-solid defensive midfielder at Porto since 2007, even if he lacks the pure athleticism and passing range possessed by world class midfield players. He'll be tasked with denying space and time on the ball to Isco, the key man for Málaga. Even though Málaga has sold off a number of players to balance the books in recent transfer windows, they've held onto Isco, the crown jewel of their side. Just one misstep by Fernando could lead to Isco creating a clear-cut scoring chance and a vital away goal.
Manuel Pellegrini vs. Porto's bench: Thanks to their youth program, extensive scouting network and brilliant transfer business, Porto have a bench stacked with game changers. Even if the men who start the match for Porto struggle to have the impact desired by Vitor Pereira, someone on the bench will. Pellegrini will have to anticipate Porto's changes, or react very quickly when they're made. The home side's bench players can and should change the game.
Porto should win on Tuesday, though they don't have enough quality at the back to put the tie away. Málaga nets an away goal, keeping things interesting heading to La Rosaleda. 2-1 Porto victory.