FC Porto beats Liverpool at SkyDome

Alberto scores game-winner in the 85th minute

Friday night's exhibition contest between reigning European champions FC Porto and English giants Liverpool at SkyDome was supposed to mark the return of world-class soccer to Toronto.

Unfortunately, the 'beautiful game' was nowhere to be found on this evening; instead, its half sister the 'ugly spectacle' decided to show up in its place.

Second-half substitute Carlos Alberto scored in the 85th minute to lift the reigning Portuguese titlists to a 1-0 win in a dull, lifeless affair.

With the roof closed due to the threat of inclimate weather – rain would have turned the specially laid grass field over the concrete floor into a swampy quagmire – the SkyDome became a sticky sauna, with the players visibly battling the thick humidity that permeated the air.

To their credit, most of 40,078 fans that crowded into the Dome did their part to ensure the contest resembled a typical European soccer game.

Loud chants of "Liverpool, Liverpool" and "Porto, Porto" rung throughout the building, fans decked out in soccer jerseys sung songs and several attempts to start a Mexican wave were made.

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez was impressed with the Canadian crowd and the festive atmosphere.

"When you go to another country and see a lot of [soccer] fans it's very good," he said. "You try to do the right things because you know that they want you to."

It has to be said, though, that the action on the field couldn't match the pageantry of the crowd, as both teams cancelled each other out in midfield in a tightly-contested defensive battle.

Friday's game at the Dome – and Saturday's between Scottish champions FC Celtic and Italian powerhouse AS Roma – is part of a seven-city, 11-game tour across North America staged by New Jersey-based promoters Champions World.

The purpose behind the tour is to showcase Europe's best soccer clubs and stars to American and Canadian audiences.

However, only Liverpool fielded a strong starting 11 on Friday. England internationals Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard, newly-acquired French striker Djibril Cisse and first-team regulars Sami Hyypia, Danny Murphy and Dietmar Hamann all started for Liverpool.

By contrast, new Porto coach Luigi Del Neri decided to hold back several key players that featured prominently at the recent Euro 2004 tournament, including Portuguese trio Maniche, Nuno Valente, and Costinha, and Greek defender Giourkas Seitaridis.

The game started brightly with both teams attacking, but quickly lost its flow and pace at the 15-minute mark. From there, the contest began to resemble a boxing match between two lumbering heavyweights trying to figure the other one out.

Owen's weak header from close range in the second minute landed safely in the hands of Porto goalkeeper Vitor Baia. It turned out to be Liverpool's only shot that was on target in the first half.

Porto tried to dazzle Liverpool with some fancy footwork down the wings, but the steady Liverpool defence held firm, thwarting the Portuguese attack and limiting Porto to only half-chances.

Porto's best scoring opportunity came in the 11th minute when Quaresma fired a blistering shot that hit the underside of the crossbar and bounced out.

Liverpool took off Owen, Gerrard, Cisse, Hamann, and inserted speedy winger Harry Kewell and Czech striker Milan Baros into the lineup at the start of the second half.

Liverpool's best chance in the second half fell to Baros – the top scorer at Euro 2004 – but his glancing header off a free kick whispered just wide of the left post in the 62nd minute.

In such a tight game, it was ironic that Alberto's goal came as a result of a defensive miscue.

Liverpool failed to clear a swinging free kick into the penalty area and the ball was eventually played into the middle where an unmarked Alberto effortlessly blasted it into the roof of the net to the delight of the Porto fans.

Only when they were down 1-0 with five minutes remaining was Liverpool able to fashion some quality scoring chances. They camped out in the Porto penalty area and had the Portuguese champs on the ropes with wave after wave of pressure, only to see their final scoring touch desert them.

Goalkeeper Nuno, who came on at half time to replace Baia, denied Liverpool defender Zak Whitbreak from close range in the 89th minute with a fine save to preserve the win for the European champions.

After the game, a gracious Benitez gave full credit to Porto for their victory.

"When you play a team such as Porto it's difficult to get a result" said Benitez. "They play quick and aggressive up the middle. It's very difficult."

by John F. Molinaro