When he steps on the Anfield turf for the Europa League return tie with Liverpool, Hugo Viana could be forgiven for taking a wistful look into the opposition half and wondering what might have been. In the summer of 2002, the then-19-year-old European Young Footballer of the Year joined Newcastle United for £8m, having just helped Sporting Lisbon to a league and cup double. Unlike fellow Alvalade graduates Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani, though, the gifted Viana never really took to the Premier League.
"I went through a lot of changes," he candidly admits of his arrival in England, "and it wasn't easy for me." He credits the late Sir Bobby Robson, highly respected in Portugal for his work with Porto, with sustaining his morale during two sparse years of intermittent promise and disappointment. "He knew I had difficulties in adapting to England," Viana says, "but he always tried to help me a little bit more. He's someone who has been very important in my career."
Now 28, Viana is in his second season at Braga, some 15 miles from his birthplace in the town of Barcelos. In his debut season, he helped Domingos Paciencia's side to runners-up spot in the league – the club's best finish in its 90-year history – and eventual Champions League qualification. The midfielder is rightly proud of his modest side's achievements, even if he admits he and his colleagues have felt the strain on occasion this season.
"No, we've not stayed at the same level as we were last season," he concedes, "but last season, we didn't have the Champions League or the Europa League, so it was easier from both a psychological and physical perspective. It's more taxing this year, but it's clear we have to keep improving in the [domestic] league as well."
Liverpool, like Arsenal before them, will attest from last week's first leg as to how quickly Braga have picked up the knack of top-level European competition. After two heavy defeats – at the Emirates and against 2009 Uefa Cup winners Shakhtar Donetsk – in a Champions League baptism of fire, Paciencia's men recovered to move to the brink of an improbable qualification, as Viana's Newcastle did in 2002. Braga have since been hit by the departure of key players, including Matheus, whose two goals beat Arsène Wenger's men at the Estadio Municipal, but Viana remains bullish.
"Some players left in December, but that's done," he says. "We have to concentrate on the group we have now. We've since knocked out the team that eliminated Juventus [Lech Poznan] and we've already equalled Braga's best-ever performance in this trophy by reaching the last 16, so we want to keep going."
Nevertheless, Viana and company are under no illusions what a stiff task Braga face to finish the job against a side, like themselves, going through some profound changes. "We watch a lot of English football on television here in Portugal," he says, "and we've seen Liverpool often. We watched the games against Manchester United, and against West Ham, very closely. We know they can give us a lot of problems."
"Liverpool have a great coach," Viana continues, "and are managing to improve a lot at the moment. They're a team who beat [Manchester United] 3-1, so you have to say they're one of the top teams worldwide at the moment. We know we're going to have to play well to get ourselves a good result."
He is also effusive in his praise of his countryman at the heart of Liverpool's current revival, Raul Meireles, who made a first playing return to northern Portugal since leaving Porto in August last year in the first leg. "We knew Raul is a great player," says Viana, "and he's just confirming at the moment that he can produce great performances week in, week out. He's a very important player for Liverpool right now."
After the frustration of the constant injuries which blighted his time in La Liga with Valencia and Osasuna, Viana himself is in fine fettle at present. In the build-up to last week's win over Liverpool his direct free-kick helped Braga defeat champions Benfica, ending the latter's astonishing 18-match winning run. Conjuring the same trick in successive seasons must be quite a kick? "I've scored some good free-kicks against a lot of different teams," he says modestly, "and it just so happens that this time – like last year – it was against Benfica. I feel very proud to be playing for Braga and to be scoring goals. It's important to look to the future now."