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Hic sunt dracones

Image from stadiumdb.com

And so into the Dragons’ den. The time: Wednesday evening. The occasion: the Champions League Round of 16 first leg against FC Porto. The location: a sold-out Estádio do Dragão.

The 50-000 seater stadium, the third largest in Portugal, was built for the 2004 Euros. Porto moved in the year before, travelling a few hundred metres down the street from the Estádio das Antas, where it had played since 1952. A 16-year-old Lionel Messi made his Barcelona debut in a friendly that christened the new digs.

The stadium takes its name from our hosts’ nickname, the Dragões, which, in turn, comes from the dragon in their crest, which in turn comes from its home city’s coat of arms at the time the club’s crest was redesigned in 1922 by one of its players, a graphic artist with the pen name Simplicio. He combined the club’s original crest, a blue ball, with elements of the coats of arms of the city and the royal family. 

Dragons have been associated with Porto ever since St George became Portugual’s patron saint in the 14th century (Anglo-Portuguese alliance, King João I marries John of Gaunt’s daughter, Philippa, and all that) but particularly since the 1832-33 civil war between King Pedro IV of Portugal and I of Brazil and his brother Miguel. Think Harry and William but with armies and a serious point: constitutional vs absolute monarchy. 

In return for Portuenses helping Pedro prevail against the odds in a year-long siege, their city was granted the title Invicta (‘unconquered’). Porto incorporated this honour into its crest along with a black, fire-breathing dragon sitting in a crown. After he died, Pedro was buried in Lisbon but left his heart in Porto. It is in a crystal and gold vase near the main altar in the Church of Our Lady of Lapa.

The ribbon and dragon were removed from the city’s crest in 1940 during the Salazar dictatorship, but not from the football team’s. Simplico had turned the dragon dark green (it has lightened and brightened over the years) because green and white were the city’s colours. However, when the team initially decided on its shirts, it opted for the blue and white of the royal family. The country’s now distinctive red and green became the national colours only after the ill-fated Republican Revolution of 1910.

The football club had been founded 17 years earlier by António Nicolau d’Almeida, a 20-year-old Oporto port merchant enamoured by the game during a trip to England. As affairs of business diverted his attention, the club stagnated until 1907, when it was revived, playing in local competitions and regional championships. 

After Portugal organised a national league in 1934-35, FC Porto was its first champion. As one of the country’s ‘Big Three’ with the Lisbon clubs, Benfica and Sporting, it has gone on to create a storied history: 84 trophies, including 30 league titles, with an unmatched five in a row from 1995 to 1999, 19 domestic cups, two European Cups and two Europa League titles. The only blemish on this fine history is to have given a young Jose Mourinho his first big managerial break. Under the former translator of another of the club’s managers, Bobby Robson, Porto became the first Portuguese side to win a treble.

It also holds the Arsenal Cup, reputedly the world’s tallest sporting trophy at 3 metres, struck after Porto beat us 3-2 in a friendly played at the Estádio do Lima in May 1948. As the reigning Football League champions, we were considered ‘the best team in the world’ at the time, and Porto’s victory was all the sweeter as we had put archrivals Benfica to the sword 4-0 earlier in the tour. The imposing trophy is the centrepiece of the club’s museum in the Estádio do Dragao.

We have played Porto competitively six times since: CL group games in 2006 and 2008 and a Round of 16 tie in 2010 that we won on aggregate. That was the last time we advanced beyond this stage in the CL. The record stands at three wins — all at the Emirates — and two losses and a draw in the Estádio do Dragão, where we have scored only once (not counting a Lukasz Fabiański own goal in 2010).

The opposition 

Porto is managed by Sergio Conceição, a former right-winger for the club who spent half his nomadic playing career in Italy and scored a hat-trick for Portugal against Germany in Euro 2000. Since taking over in 2017, the 49-year-old has won three league titles, three domestic cups and a league cup. He has also taken his team into the knockout rounds of the CL three times in the past four seasons.

Porto currently sits third in the league seven points adrift of joint leaders Benfica and Sporting. A low-key 2-0 win over relegation-flirting Estrela at the weekend got it back to winning after a draw and a loss in its previous two games. It was the better side in both but failed to take its chances (sound familiar?).

Conceição favours a possession-based 4-4-2 but has switched to 4-2-3-1 of late and will likely stick with that against Arteta’s 4-3-3. In either formation, the young Argentine Alan Varela, a rumoured Liverpool target, plays as the double pivot alongside either the equally young Nico González, a lanky Spaniard who came up through Barca’s youth teams before joining Porto last summer, or the Canada international Stephen Eustáquio. 

Their job will be to deny Havertz and Ødegaard space between the lines and to shield a likely back four of (if fit) Wendell, an experienced Brazilian left-back with an eye for goal (he is joint second-leading scorer this season with three), Portugal international right-back João Mário, the young but highly rated Brazilian centre-back, Otavio, signed from Famalicão in January and who made his Porto debut at the weekend, and Pepe, the Brazilian-born club captain who has 134 Portugal caps and turns 41 next week. 

Pepe played against us in 2006 before moving to Real Madrid the following season. There, he won three CL titles among 16 trophies. He has won as many with Porto and two with his adopted country. Pepe brings some (very hardened) steel and experience to the heart of the defence. Assuming he plays, he will extend his record as the oldest player to appear in a CL game, and if, heaven forfend, he scores, extend that age record, too.

Swiss-born but Porto-raised Diogo Costa, Portugal’s first-choice keeper, will be between the sticks. It is a tight defence: 16 goals conceded in 22 league games. It has been more porous in the CL, giving up eight goals in the six group games, although its xGA was 6.3. 

Having unloaded last season’s player of the year, 29-year-old midfielder Otávio, on Al-Nassr for a rich 60 million euros, Porto’s attacking creativity comes from Pepê, a Brazilian winger-turned-No 10 who has one cap for his country, his compatriot, Galeno, who had more goals and assists combined than anyone in the group stage, and the manager’s son, Francisco Conceição, who is on loan from Ajax (Sergio Conceição has four sons who are all professional footballers). Another couple of promising young attacking midfielders, the Spaniard Iván Jaime, another recruit from Famalicão, and the homegrown Gonçalo Borges, will likely get some minutes from the bench.

Yet another Brazilian, Evanilson, will provide the firepower up front, with Iranian international Mehdi Taremi, who is off to Inter in the summer, off games. Evanilson is their leading goal-scorer this season with nine, plus three assists. No one, including Haarland, Morata or Greiznmann, had a better goals-per-90-minutes stat in the group stage.

The Arsenal

Zinchenko and Jesus start in what I believe to be Arteta’s preferred CL team. Neither will be fit enough to play in Porto. Thus:


White – Saliba – Gabriel – Kiwior

Ødegaard – Rice – Havertz

Saka – Trossard – Martinelli

Thomas Partey and Fabio Vieira have reportedly travelled to Portugal, but not Tomi.

Hic sunt dracones is a euphemism for unknown or dangerous territory. Porto represents that. There are no pushover opponents in the CL Round 16. Diogo Costa said ahead of the match that they had identified our weaknesses and would go all out to exploit them and win. Yet, if we are to have the deep run in the tournament that I feel we shall, the Dragões will have at least to be kept at bay in their den and then slayed in N5.

Enjoy the game, ‘holics, near and far.

37 Drinks to “Hic sunt dracones”

  1. 1
    Bathgooner says:

    Thanks for a characteristically well researched and very informative preview, Ned. I am now far more informed about our opposition who will clearly be no push over. Porto is a nice town and I envy the travelling Gooners their opportunity to sample its cuisine. As well as great restaurants, I remember its spectacular post office, an early twentieth century shrine to the cutting edge communication technology of the time. I think you have nailed the starting eleven though I hope that we are in a position to rest Saka, Martinelli and Trossard after an hour. I suspect we won’t be.

  2. 2
    TTG says:

    A super preview which is exceptionally detailed but fascinating as well. Portugal is a country I have visited on numerous occasions but mainly the Algarve . I once met Ray Parlour in the loo at the airport !
    We craved a return to the big stage but hoped to have a manageable tie and I think we have one but it won’t be a pushover and we will need big characters to stand up in what is sure to be a passionate atmosphere . I think your suggested team is spot-on but any thought of resting stars after an hour is fanciful . I remember the Bendtner game well. Nasri and Eboue scored spectacular goals but Porto made TGSTEL look exactly what he claimed to be . Not many teams did that .
    I think we should manage a narrow win but won’t be surprised if we come away with a draw . We will miss Jesus who loves the CL but couldn’t go into the game in better form . COYG!

  3. 3
    ClockEndRider says:

    Superb preview, Ned. Fantastic history lesson and a detailed introduction to some of their players. We will do very well to come home with a point, and Pepe, if selected, will look to play act and maim. I hope we come back with a clean bill of health for Saturday evening. No sign of Jesus in the training pics today but Partey and Vieira were both there. 10 minute cameos for them would be a nice reintroduction in time for the final third of our season.

  4. 4
    Esso says:

    Cheers Ned!

    Here be dragons!

  5. 5
    TTG says:

    I’m told by a reliable source that Partey has NOT travelled but Vieira has . I think Sweet, Heaven , Nwaneri and Lewis- Skelly have travelled but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily in the squad .
    I suspect Mikel will be assessing availability as he makes his plans for next year . We have a group of lads who are regularly injured and when injured don’t recover quickly . Note how quickly Salah has returned for Liverpool . Some players are just more resilient than others . Tomayisu has disappeared from sight after going to the Asian Cup. He has five starts this season . Jesus, Zinchenko and ESR are regularly injured and Partey has scarcely been seen . It puts huge strains on the rest of the squad

  6. 6
    Trev says:

    Simplico excellent, Ned – an education as usual.

    Very disappointing that 20% of our squad is missing as usual – making it extremely difficult to maintain a challenge in football’s top two competitions.
    Our recent tactic of Havertz and Trossard swapping positions and dropping deep to leave Porto’s centre backs with no-one to mark would be a good one – it will also leave Pepe with no-one to kick.

  7. 7
    bt8 says:

    Cheers Ned.

    Muito obrigado pelas informações.

    Very informative and entertaining indeed. Upon deep reflection I am thinking, or at least hoping, that we’re going to kick their Lusitanian arses.

  8. 8
    OsakaMatt says:

    Thanks Ned, an excellent preview and
    I share your optimism as to the eventual
    outcome. Although the photographic
    evidence is sparse I believe MA to bear
    a striking resemblance to St. George and
    I expect him to slay the dragons 2-0.
    I also think Jorginho may start.

  9. 9
    OsakaMatt says:

    Do we really have two players called
    Sweet and Heaven in the squad (TTG @5).
    I want them to start as twin CFs immediately.

  10. 10
    scruzgooner says:

    nicely penned, ned. harry and william in a cage match, winner takes all? yea man!

    and for those in the know, this is a naughty offering: https://birichino.obtainwine.com/product/2021-hic-svnt-dracones-duplicate

  11. 11
    Trev says:

    Matt, better than that – we have Sweet, Jesus and Heaven 😳

  12. 12
    TTG says:

    We do indeed seem blessed to have rather nice surnames and as Trev points out we also have Jesus . I also believe Bukayo translates as ‘ God’s child ‘ so we are quite spiritually orientated !

  13. 13
    Trev says:

    Strangely, Sweet, Jesus and Heaven don’t have a prayer of playing tonight 😳

  14. 14
    bt8 says:

    Luckily, Trev, Bukayo has more than a prayer of playing. Not to mention two of our three archangels Gabriel

  15. 15
    Bathgooner says:

    Arsenal clearly aren’t simply a bloody good team currently but they’re also becoming a theologian’s dream. Another facet of the club’s resurrection under the blessed Mikel.

  16. 16
    Esso says:

    In addition to Sweet and Heaven we’ve also got Gary Bitter and Peter Hell coming through the ranks. (Thks to @AALLenSport of twitter).

  17. 17
    North Bank Ned says:

    Thanks for the kind words, all. Can’t go wrong when there are dragons.

    In one of those odd little coincidences, the last Portuguese royal family was the House of Braganza, also known as the Brigantine dynasty, which shares Celtic linguistic roots with the Brigantes that Dr F mentioned in his Burnley preview. Everything is connected in mysterious ways.

    Bukayo is a Yoruba name that means ‘one who adds to joy or happiness’, according to the Yoruba Names Project database. His full name is Bukayo Ayoyinka Temidayo Saka. Ayoyinka means ‘joy surrounds me’ and Temidayo means ‘my story has become one of joy’. No wonder he is always smiling.

  18. 18
    North Bank Ned says:

    On the theological theme, we’ve had a Devine and a Cross in the past. And a John and a George, if we are collecting saints.

  19. 19
    Doctor Faustus says:

    A highly informative and entertaining preview Ned, thanks!
    I know Lisbon fairly well, but never been to Porto, Lisbon football fans of either color dislike Porto as much as their respective city rivals, if not more.

    We never have beaten them away, though thrashed them a few times at home, once including a hat trick by Bendtner if I remember correctly. A draw will be fine but there is no reason not to win.

    Agree with you that Jesus and Zinchenko would have been better suited to a CL away match, but Kiwior has been playing well enough and there is a very interesting tactical development in progress between Kai and Leo interchanging positions which I think the Porto defense will find more puzzling than they would prepare for, allowing Gabi and Saka some space down the flanks.

    Let’s hope Pepe doesn’t decide to maim one of our players.

    Come on Arsenal!

  20. 20
    North Bank Ned says:

    Beyond Pepe, his fellow centre-back, Otavio, is also a yellow card magnet. So is Cardoso, who would likely start if Otavio doesn’t. Conceição has said his side will be physical.

  21. 21
    OsakaMatt says:

    I wonder if our heavenly oriented choir all drink in The Angel 😇

  22. 22
    TTG says:

    And Matthew Upson , Luke Ayling and Mark Healey ! That’s the Gospels sorted ! If we did the Nativity scene we had Joseph Baker and Mary Phillip . Terry Mancini could be the donkey! But among my favourite players were Methuselah Jones and Nebuchadnezzar Smith . Very few people remember them

  23. 23
    BtM says:

    Excellent, Ned. Sometimes your positivity on the quality of the opposition causes me colly-wobbles but on this occasion your optimism for rock solid progression deep into the tournament has countered those nicely and bolstered my own optimism for a good outcome over these next two legs. A win tonight would be wonderful, but I’ll happily settle for a draw at the worst.

  24. 24
    bt8 says:

    If you read all of Ned’s preview it should help you, at least marginally, with this BBC quiz on the identities of the players in our team that beat Porto in 2010:


    Bonne chance. Also boa sorte.

  25. 25
    Esso says:

    Same starting XI again.

  26. 26
    Uplympian says:

    Thanks Ned for a brilliant and informative preview. Your team is the one chosen by Mikel – he must read the blog for inspiration!
    I hope our good form continues with a comfortable ish win for us. A draw would also be satifactory so we can pick them off at home in a couple of weeks time.

  27. 27
    OsakaMatt says:

    0-0 half time isn’t to be sniffed at, tense stuff

  28. 28
    OsakaMatt says:

    Big chance Leo, still tight. Bit nervous.

    Need to be careful on the yellow cards for Declan and Kiwior
    as well. Havertz booked for nothing.

  29. 29
    OsakaMatt says:

    Jorginho to come on it looks like.
    For Leo.
    Porto are as unlikeable as expected.
    But well organized defensively and their coach has done
    his homework

  30. 30
    OsakaMatt says:

    I wonder if they train at slapping the ground in agony each time
    they fall over.

  31. 31
    OsakaMatt says:

    Only 4 minutes added time.

    Nice chance for Gabriel to nick a winner there.
    Gave the ball away 3 times in the last minute and got
    punished in the end. So fucking frustrating

  32. 32
    Esso says:

    Super Mik’s somewhat mixed record in Europe continues.

  33. 33
    North Bank Ned says:

    Very disappointing. Should have been getting on the plane home all square. They can be beaten at the Ems, but it won’t be easy.

  34. 34
    Gunnersaurus Stunt Double says:

    Oh fiddlesticks.

    What a daft goal to concede. Still, our attack was off all night, even though we looked solid and in control until we tried to score a goal. Not that we tried that hard… no shots on target.

    0-0 would have been a good result. We should still have enough to turn them over at our place. And, if we don’t, we won’t deserve to go through. But this was a needless loss tonight and one which made happy a bunch of players whose tactics and behaviour were equally objectionable and boring.

  35. 35
    Bathgooner says:

    A very disappointing night out in Porto. No attempts on target and sloppiness in the last minute result in inevitable defeat. Despite the possession we were absolutely toothless up front. We have to find some fangs for the home leg.

  36. 36
    TTG says:

    I think some of the wider Goonerverse forgot that this is the hardest competition of the lot and tgat despite our fine rec3nt form this was going to be a huge test. I thought we worked hard and didn’t deserve to lose but our front four played as badly as I’ve seen them . One or two looked very nervous .
    We will be a different team at the Emirates but making us third favourites looks a bit ill judged at this stage of our development . I think we would have won with Jesus upfront .

  37. 37
    scruzgooner says: