Sunday, 7 August 2011

Europa League Round 2, first legs

In Round One we saw managers lose their jobs over brash predictions, misses so shocking they knocked teams out of Europe before the postcards were made, and lots and lots of goals. The teams who survived Round One would be met by a team from the greatest nation in the world, Scotland. Yeah, another blink and you miss it Scottish European performance. Also showing up were sides from Greece, Switzerland, Denmark, Holland, Portugal, Turkey and a whole range of top twenty countries.

With some of my favoured underdogs facing winnable but tense ties, some unforgettable minutes, shocks, and heart attack inducing seconds were to follow.

SECOND ROUND

Shakhtar Karagandy, to recap, beat Koper in Round 1, to the annoyance of everyone in Slovenia. Karagandy are 3rd in the Kazak Premier League as it stands, and Kazakhstan in general are just one big result away from being quite good indeed. They have big crowds fanatic about football, they have some good teams, they just need the inner belief. But it will come.

St Patricks Athletic were a post away from exiting to IBV, but stayed in they did, and so it was the long trip to Karaganda, closer to China than it is to mainland Europe.

There were no goals in the first half, but soon after the break, Shakhtar had a corner, and a ball floated in met the head of Vasiljevic, who knocked it into the back of the net. The Kazaks went mad, whilst there were signs of argument between the Irish players, hints of things not quite right for St Pats.

All well and good for the Kazaks, to the delight of their loud and many fans, until ten minutes before the end, when they gave away a needless free kick. The ref took his time ordering the players back the required distance. The would be free kick taker parried allowing his partner to strike viciously into the right corner of the net, but the goalkeeper produced a big save, tipping it almost out for a corner. Sadly, the ball, in one of those big moments of luck you get in a season, landed on the byeline but not over it, so it was still a live ball. The nearest Irish player kicked the ball over the heads of the Kazak defence and one of two Irish players bundled the ball into the back of the net. David McMillan credited with the goal. Just like the massive stroke of luck in Round One, St Pats had had an even bigger stroke of luck here. A crucial away goal!

As he ran off to celebrate, leaping into the air with a sinking to his knees as adeptly finished as his goal, the audio picked a clear “Woohoo!” from McMillan. He knew as well as we did how big that goal was for his club.

And replays were to show it was an even bigger slice of luck for the Irish than first thought, as it is very dubious as to if that ball DIDN’T actually cross the bye line immediately after the goalkeepers save, making a controversial decision, even if the referee’s eyesight and line of vision turn out to have been far better than the cameras.

Now in the olden days, and by olden days I mean a decade ago, Kazak teams would fall apart after this sort of decision went against them. But over the decade, they’ve started developing more backbone. So it was to no surprise Karagandy swept forward looking for a winner, and to their credit they got it. A long throw in met the looping header of Vasiljevic who scored his second header of the match. The keeper had no chance, the move was so sudden. It was done so well Stoke City would have applauded it.

Karagandy won 2-1 in the First Leg, but a tough night was promised in Ireland to come. And a narrow win, with an away goal conceded, always spells danger.

**

Metalurg Rustavi took on Irtysh, Kazak overthrowers of Partick Thistle wannabes Jagliellonia. In a tense match, Kvakhadze headed into the net in the 72nd minute to give the Georgians the lead. However, the advantage for the second leg came through one of the worst goals of the tournament. A free kicked majestically floated in met a Rustavi defender who fell to ground for no reason. The ball hit an attacker who scuffed it, but it deflected off two Georgians and the keeper had already gone to ground for it, so he watched aimlessly as the ball slipped past him and Daskalov practically fell over himself slotting the ball home. Art, it wasn’t, but an away draw it was. Irtysh had been unseeded in Round 1, and were now favourites to reach Round 3, which would have been a phenomenal achievement.

**

Scottish sides in Europe tend to last about as long as the average rabbit lasts in a tiger enclosure. There have been some ignominious exits in recent years (Dunfermline 1-2 Harfnarjardour, Dundee United 2-2 MyPa, Vaduz 2-1 Falkirk, to name but three).

The last sacrificial offering on the altar that is UEFA’s second tier competition was Dundee United, and the high priests, Slask Wroclaw of Poland. The Polish weren’t that well known, but I congratulated them on the 3rd round qualifying before this tie had even begun. Dundee United were listless, and the goal was always going to come, though it didn’t come till fifteen minutes before the end. Voskamp the scorer, and it ended 1-0 for Slask.

Some readers might remember that Irtysh lost 1-0 in Poland in Round 1 and that 1-0 for a home side in the first leg is not an insurmountable lead for a second leg. But as a spoiler, you didn’t take into account the Scottish factor into that theory.

Polish sides are figured by Poles to be even worse. Who could win this tie then?
I was only half-joking when I claimed it would go as follows:

"And at Tannadice, nervous scenes here in the penalty shootout. The goalkeeper of Slask is coming up to take a penalty. It is 0-0 as it stands in the shootout. 2-2 on aggregate, four unfortunate own goals across the 2 legged tie. Dundee United have missed 14 penalties in this shootout, but Slask missed 3 penalties before the shootout, including one that scientists claim was physically impossible to miss by all known laws of nature."

3 hours later...

"And UEFA have decided to decide this tie on rock paper scissors..."

4 hours later.

"Ok, rock paper scissors led to too many ties. UEFA will now draw one team out of random from a hat."

5 minutes later.

"Who put BOTH teams names on all the bits of paper?"

UEFA then decides to do something coefficientish to sort it out, and a 30 page thread is started on this forum about the decision. “


**

Rad met Olympiakos Volou (given I have been told it is Volou and Volos, I walk a tightrope however I spell it!), a team absolutely mired in a myriad of controversy. The Rad of last season might well have won, but this was the Rad of this season, and the only goal, though three minutes from time, had an air of inevitability about it. Juan Martin the scorer for OV, their first European goal.

**

Three ultra exciting matches here. Gaz Metan were a late replacement into Europe, after Timisoara were denied a Romanian top flight licence and were relegated. The drama in Romania never ends on the pitch, indeed, one might call the on-field bits the least exciting, but then that would do a disservice to a rather underrated league.

So Gaz Metan, from Medias, had no plans to be in Europe till just before the competition. They faced KuPS of Finland and lost 1-0 in the away leg. Hinted to be a short stay in Europe for the unexpected Romanians.

Next up, Flamurtari took on Jablonec, a team from the Czech Republic I’d like to see more of. It was regulation stuff, a 2-0 away win for the Czechs all but see them through. And then it was Varazdim’s time to show up again, this time getting a 1-1 away draw with Iskra Stal of Moldova.


**

Ask a hundred well versed European football fans what they’d expect from Tauras v Den Haag, and almost all of them would predict a thumping. The ones that wouldn’t would bring Den Haags inexperience in Europe into question, and certainly it would be a factor. Even so, a match against Tauras, a side who had recently lost 3-0 to Banga (yes, the side thumped by Qarabag in Round 1, well remembered!) wasn’t expected to be of much difficulty.

In the very early going Den Haag nailed in a free kick, but it was well saved by the Lithuanian keeper Borysenko. Den Haag built up some steam with a nice passing game, quickly passing from one end of the pitch to the other, and an insightful pass found Verhoek free but the keeper was swift to block him. Another ball lofted into into the box after passing which tore the Lithuanians apart, and Immers smashed the ball across the goal instead of in. Den Haag were looking very promising, and it looked a question of “how many?” as opposed to “when?”.

But the defence was looking questionable. Dilly dallied on the ball allowing the Lithuanian forwards to dispossess them, then the keeper fluffed getting rid of the ball. Too often free kicks were given away.

In the 56th minute came disaster for the Dutch. A long ball up field was knocked on weakly by Luksik, allowing Jerkovic to move free into the box. Luksik panicked and took down the attacker. Result: a red card and a penalty for Tauras! Coutinho fell far too early to try and save the shot allowing Jerkovic to slot it easily into the net. The Lithuanians led!

Immediately after, Tauras gave a free kick, the keeper was in no mans land and the ball was hoofed off the line. The Tauras manager Gedemenas Jarmalavicius could be seen, notes in his hand, yelling at his players to keep calm. But the Dutch continued to race forward, and only Borysenko was keeping them at bay, just and no more. No one was that surprised when a swift past on the edge of the box found Immers in front of an open goal, who duly slotted in. The Lithuanians all thought it was incredibly offside, and whilst it was 50/50, it did sort of look like Immers was onside when the ball was played.

Regilio Seedorf had something to say about this ‘outrage’. The younger cousin of multiple times European Cup winner Clarence, he grabbed the ball from kick off, went around two players, and then from the edge of the box fired into the back of the net! Unstoppable, bloody genius. Everyone watched stood and applauded. I gave the goal a standing ovation, and I was alone in my bedroom watching on a laptop. Tauras led 2-1! Seedorfs reaction to his magic was about as close to an “eat my goal” exclamation without having Alan Partridge sitting next to you.

Once more Tauras were the architects of their own downfall though. The ball looped into the net, and Toornstra got it, before Zubavicius got him! Penalty for Den Haag, and Immers made no errors to get his and Den Haags 2nd.

Finally in the 94th minute, Den Haag broke forward, broke the offside trap, a swerving pass broke the goalkeeper and Sirevicius fumbled the ball into his own net. Disaster and tragedy for Tauras, who had put so much into an enthralling game, only to fall apart at the seems.

Den Haag were so wobbly at times it is disastrous to think how they might have done drawn against Minsk or even KupS, the other unseeded sides in their section. They got the easiest draw on paper, and were highly fortunate to do so.

**

Another mini-round up. I am very fond of Austrian football, so Austria Wien’s 3-0 away win over Rudar of Montenegro pleased me immensely. Austrian football have a “big four” I like to watch – also Rapid Wien, Sturm Graz and Salzburg – but this year Rapid were replaced by underdogs Reid who won the Cup final.

Westerlo had to wait 93 minutes before snatching the only goal away to TPS. Bnei Yehuda, highly rated Israelis, saw off St Julia of Andorra with the 2-0 away scoreline. Minsk, conquerors of Nazim, found themselves with the same home score that they gave AZAL in Round 1. A 1-1 home draw with Gaziantepspor. Orebro and Sarajevo played out a 0-0. Ventspils in injury time, through Kosmacovs, got the away win over Salihorsk of Belarus.

A second half goal was enough for Valerenga to get the home win over Mika.

**

Ferencvaros were once the biggest team in Hungary, and feared throughout Europe. Reaching three European finals from 1965 to 1975, and beating scalps like Manchester United (with Best, Law and Charlton), Roma, Shankly’s Liverpool (followed by Paisley’s Liverpool!) showed them as one of the most feared sides in Europe.
The last ten years have been turmoil for the once massive club though. After entering the Stock Exchange to counter financial difficulties, and spending loads on an anti-racism campaign to quell some crowd problems, the results began to dry up.

Once feared, they were now relying on drawing Millwall to advance, or being ousted by the mighty MTZ Ripo (now better known as Partizan Minsk). The club were ousted for financial reasons from the Hungarian top flight, and it looked like the end of an era, more so when they didn’t go straight back up. The relegation was controversial at the time, and Ferencvaros has since won a legal fight against the Hungarian FA that said the FA was working outside its own rules.

In 2008 came some better news, as Sheffield United chairman Kevin McCabe (!) bought the club’s real estate, and paid off most of the £5m debts. In 2009, Ferencvaros got their promotion. Last season, they finished 3rd, qualifying for Europe for the first time since 2005. I didn’t even like Ferencvaros in their previous reign, but you can’t help but admire a club who refuse to die even when the world seems against them.

We saw briefly that they had a comfortable Round 1 over James Joyce’s Ulisses (sorry). Now they took on Aalesunds. Aalesunds are a Norwegian club founded nearly a century ago, but their first major success came only in 2009, when they won the Norwegian Cup, beating Molde in the final. Hey , good things come to those who wait!

This gave them their first ever European tie, where inexperience dealt them a killer blow, as they actually lost to a Scottish side! A Motherwell managed by well respected coach Craig Brown though, so that’s not quite so bad. Aalesunds had seen off the Keystone Cops of Neath in Round 1, but had shown enough shaky moments to remind that European football is still very new for them, and they were still learning at this level. They are however, alongside their regional rivals Molde (top of the Norwegian league as it stands, with Ole Gunnar Solksjaer as their manager) one of the swiftest rising sides in Europe, so whilst you may not have heard of them now, you will.

The first leg was in Hungary. This entire match is currently available on YouTube, incidentally. Aalesund had fallen behind to Neath, but took the lead here. Jovanovic with the foul on Jaager just outside the box, Barrantes took the kick very quickly before barely anyone could react, and Okoronkwo smashed the header into the net with the force of a tiger rushing to an “all you can eat fresh meat buffet”.

The passing that lead to Ferencvaros’ equalizer though, was sublime, and more clich├ęd commentators would refer to the Magical Magyars. But not me. Except there. Ahem. The ball passed through to Olah, offside only seconds before, and this time onside he swept the ball home. 1-1.

There was nothing the Norwegians could do about the winner, a goal out of the screamer variety. Ferencvaros had just missed a corner, and the ball was aimlessly in the corner of the match, when the quick thinking Jozsi passed to Abdi who was on the left just outside of the box. Oh the trajectory needed to score from there! And yet he did, the swooping kick sailing at an angle around the defence and into the top corner of the net. Look, I’ll use hyperbole for a second to sell this: if he tried that a thousand times more it would not go in the net. Sublime.

Ferencvaros held the 2-1 lead to take to Norway. With nearly forty fouls, it was a feisty game. There was certain to be further drama to come.

**

Hacken took on Honka, those winners in the game over Nomme we matched previously. This was a game of two goalkeepers, only Hacken’s Kallkvist and Honka’s Maanoja prevented this game ending ten-all. And some of the saves. A triple save off the line while on the ground for Kallkvist, and a point blank save from Maanoja. It would need something special to win this game. Instead, we got a reckless challenge in the box from Heilala, giving Mathias Ranegie the chance to score from the spot. Michael’s only scorer in the RFF Summer tournament barely stabbed at the ball, but still surprised the keeper long enough for the ball to slide into the net. And that was the only goal for the game.

**

Anorthosis saw off Gagra 3-0, 2-0 by half time.

**

I was asked before the match not to jinx AEK Larnaca of Cyprus – “Root for Floriana Michael so that AEk wins” - , so indeed I spoke highly of their opposition, those well known giant killers from Malta, Floriana. (No, they aren’t well known. Or giant killers.) Larnaca scored 4 minutes into the match, and that was as good as it got for the Maltese. By half time it was 5-0 to the away side. Three more well to follow in the second half, rounding off a solid 8-0 away victory for the Cypriots, and at that point, even the most pessimistic of fans had to think they were in the Third Round already.

**

Maccabi Tel Aviv continued the comeback trail in Europe, taking on Xazar of Azerbaijan. I still remember the mass excitement in 2005 when Avi Nimni, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s greatest ever player, returned to the club. After a brief absence from Europe, they returned with a bang last season, KOing Olympiakos from Europe before running Paris St-Germain very close, losing 5-4 on aggregate.

I must admit to the blink and you’ll miss it syndrome, as this game was 1-0 when I went to put my dinner on, and when I came back I just caught Xazars Muresan slotting away the free kick goal, at which point it was 3-1 Maccabi! Konate’s fumbled opener had been added to by Adars smash after a low cross, and another low cross lead to terrible goalkeeping, terrible fumbling and the ball crossing the line for Israilevich.

So 3-1 it finished. Now, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s biggest ever defeat was 10-0 to Maccabi Haifa, but only a 2-0 win was needed to see them out in the second leg. Was it possible? Well, Azerbaijan is never an easy place to visit these days.

**

Llanelli raised the flag for the Welsh with a surprise 2-1 win over Dinamo Tbilisi.

Elfsborg continued their unconvincing run for a seeded side, draw 1-1 in Lithuania with Suduva, a side I still remember for their 10-1 aggregate defeat to Celtic.

Olimpija continued their resurrection with a fine 2-0 victory over Irish Bohemians in Ljublijana.

Differdange of Luxembourg got a shock draw with Estonian Levadia Tallinn, the best rated Estonian side to be in the Europa League this season. And the only one left after the other two conspired to exit in Round 1. 0-0 was also the scoreline as Tirana and Vllaznia of Albania held Trnava and the Swiss Thun respectively.

Vojvodina got a 2-0 away win over the only Liechtenstien team in Europe, Vaduz, and so had nearly two feet in the Third Round. Qarabag scraped a 1-1 draw in the Faroes with EB, Paks and Tromso played out a 1-1 in Hungary, with Kecskement and Aktobe doing the same.

The Macedonian Arsenal Rabotnicki got their win late over Juvenes of San Marino, Petkovski in the 86th minute sparring their blushes. No repeat of the heroics for Glentoran as they lost 2-0 at home to Vorskla.

Portuguese Nacional were very lucky to escape Iceland with a 1-1 draw against FH, fast improving Icelandic side. Only the post prevented an Icelandic win, which would have been a complete embarrassment.

Fans of Macedonia and Bulgaria will be delighted to know Metalurg Skopje v Lokomotiv Sofia ended in a 0-0 draw, the biggest talking point being the vast number of fouls committed, Metalurg having fouled 29 times to Lokomotiv’s 27! Lokomotiv claimed they weren’t ready for the new season yet, and here they set out to prove it.

**

Latvian fans can look away here. Austrian superpowers Salzburg, who 2 seasons ago had the record of 6-0-0 in a group with Lazio and Villarreal, took on Metalurgs Liepajas, the upstarts who ended Skonto Rigas stranglehold over Latvian football. Alan, who might well be our very own AlanK (but probably isn’t) scored a hat trick for the Austrians, and the 4-1 away win was comfortable.

**

Little was expected of Welsh TNS in Round 2 despite their first round heroics, as they were drawn with Midjytlland of Denmark, so it was to their credit that they went in at half time still goalless. It was a massive shock, though, when Evans forced in the Marriot corner, and TNS led!

Jeff Stelling, former host of Countdown and long time host of Soccer Saturday, used to joke “They’ll be dancing in the streets of Total Network Solutions tonight!” whenever they won, a reference back to the hapless English pundit who announced the same of Raith Rovers when they won the League Cup, not realising there is no such place as Raith. (The team come from Kirkcaldy, just like former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown!) “They’ll be dancing on the streets of The New Saints” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, TNS having changed their sponsors and name, but there was bound to have been dancing in Oswestry all the same! TNS moved homes, having previously represented Llansantffraid-ym-Mechain, but I’m afraid those looking for pronunciations will have to look elsewhere!

Hassan scored six minutes later for Midjtylland to spoil the party. Two late goals, a penalty from Olsen, and a 95th minute strike from Mads Albaek, sealed a 3-1 away win for the Danish, and TNS, though they had their moments in Europe, looked on the brink of another early exit.

**

Fears in Slovenia over Domzale v RNK Split proved to be well founded as the Croats won 2-1 away from home. Slovenia never have good luck in matches against Croatia.

Also, and back in Iceland, I guess if you are going to produce a seeding shock, you might as well do it with style. Zilina are well known to football fans, after their win over Aston Villa a few years back, and there not as successful attempts at the Champions League last season. This time, they took on KR of Iceland. And lost 3-0. A stunning result for KR, but good results in Iceland for Icelandic sides are becoming less rare as the seasons roll on. It would be very difficult for Zilina to over turn it in Slovakia though.

**

Finally, time to say some nice things about Fulham. They won. There you go. Crusaders of Northern Ireland have some scary fans, and it is a tough place to go to, so winning comfortably despite being held for long periods of the match was a great success for the English sides. Briggs opener was equalised by Adamson for Crusaders, but second half goals for Zamora and Murphy (from the penalty spot) sealed the away win and put them in touching distance of Round 3.


With the unexpected length of the Round 2 first leg round ups, the second legs will follow soon!