Friday, 5 August 2011

Europa League

Football football football football football football football football.

Don't worry, not every post will be about football. But this one was requested by Jon Arnold.

I strongly believe that if it is worth becoming a fan of anything, you might as well go the whole way. There's no point for me in reading "A Christmas Carol", and then mentioning a liking for Dickens the rest of your life without struggling through Curiosity Shop, being befuddled by Bleak House, amazed by Tale of Two Cities, getting through the Ackroyd, reading his essays and articles, visiting his grave and family home and getting into an argument with a learned academic about the quality of the finish of Great Expectations. Dive right in and immerse yourself in all of the subject. Learning is good. Tackling the unknown. The unknown known can become a great friend, after all.

Football is much the same. A great game is a great game, if it be Barcelona v Real Madrid, or Dudelange v Differdange, or even as one person succinctly pointed out, Ayr United v my beloved Partick Thistle.

I came late to football. We can blame my Dad and godfather Len for this, as their idea of introducing 5 year old me to football was to take me to a match. Arthurlie vs Gala Fairydean to be exact, one of the few matches in history to rival Switzerland v Ukraine as one of the worst football matches of all time.

A decade later, I gave the sport another shot. This time it was the World Cup 2002, a slightly higher standard of football, and somewhere around the Irish getting an injury time equaliser against the mighty German national team, I was hooked. I mostly blame Senegal for this one. Them beating France interested me, then the shock of them beating Sweden hooked me forever. The end of Spain/Rep Ireland, from Ireland's goal to the heartbreak of penalties, was watched at my aunt's old house, with the entire family. When Juanfran missed his penalty, my granda Bob nearly jumped out of his sitting chair in delight, despite his need of two walking sticks to get around! And I was utterly hooked, and began annoying everyone with all the zealousness of a late convert.

One of the things I am most interested in is the Europa League, formerly known as the UEFA Cup. For all the talk of the Champions League, it is its lower cousin that gives me greater joy. That is where the unknown sides hide away, where the matches often are far better (memories of a stunning Hamburg/Bremen semi stick in my mind, as well as an unfancied Rabotnicki/Odense match). Anyone can win, upsets happen, teams that don't take it seriously get KO'd quite swiftly. Brilliant stuff.

We have just passed the 3rd Qualifying Round. There is only the Playoff round to go between now and the group stages. What's happened so far? A lot.


QUALIFYING ROUND 1.


We started off on the 30th June 2011, which seems a year ago. I've turned 25 and had my first wedding anniversary since then!

The tournament starts in the far off reaches of Europe, in Armenia, where Banants of the capital Yerevan, playing in Pyunik's Hanrapetakan Stadium as their own stadium didn't meet UEFA standards (something that comes up often with smaller clubs) huffed and puffed against Metalurg Rustavi of Georgia. The Georgians are a rising nation once more, but Metalurg took a long time to break down Banants, the only goal of the first leg coming from Kobalia in the 48th minute. Armenian sides aren't known for their quality, and whilst this was a fighting display - though great chances were missed by the Georgians - it was still a defeat and no points.

About points, every game in Europe earns the country the team plays for points. These points are all added up then divided by the number of teams playing in Europe for that country. Half-points for a draw. The final divided score at the end of the season is added to the previous four seasons score, and this is how coefficients are worked out. Coefficients being the "not-that-complicated-as-the-press-claims" way of deciding who starts in what round, who gets seeded, and what countries get the most sides in Europe. So Banants here got 0 points despite the closeness of the match. 0-1 is the same as 0-11 is the same as 5-7.

***

After the draw, I made a few comments on the ties. I repeat them for posterity as follows:

"TNS v Cliftonville has me interested in a perverse sense.

Honka v Nomme (Well, I look out for Estonian sides and Finnish sides. Think the Finns will be too strong!)

Fulham v NSI. Not a team I am familiar with, so there's the sense of the exotic in the early rounds.

Aalesund and Renova should get past weak British opposition.

Koper have a tough tie. 50/50 in gut feeling, depends how both teams travel. Koper didnt do anything like how I'd have hoped last year.

Qarabag have a Lithuanian side I am unaware of - Banga - so should get through.

After our discussion of Rad, they get a very easy Round 1 tie.

Jagielliona/Irtysh is another tough tie for me, as I'd like to see both Polish and Kazak football on the up.

Ditto Minsk/AZAL, though an Azerbaijan win there would be a bit of an upset.

Olimpija/Siroki and Zeta/Trnava are too tough to predict also.

Could it be easier for Elfsborg? If they arent in Round 3 they need a strong look at themselves.


"

Alan Hansen, I'm not.

I note it is dangerous to link "unknown" teams with "easy" teams, and unfortunately all fans fall into that trap. Even though I try to be 'enlightened' I do too!

**

AZAL Baku finished 4th in Azerbaijan last season, and their manager, Nazim Suleymanov, was confident. They had drawn Minsk, in theory a tough task, but Nazim was still confident. He claimed if AZAL didn't qualify for the 2nd round, he would quit as manager. He certainly couldn't have been happy when Minsk got the opener and away goal eleven minutes in! A free kick from the centre circle found its way out deep on the right to the Minsk winger, he passed it swiftly through two players and it founded its way to Voronkov who rifled it into the net.


0-1 Minsk, and Suleymanov was probably rephrasing his brash predictions. The stadium for this match I loved, with vast pictures of footballing heroes around 3/4s of the stadium. It was unique, exotic and so very football! Not to worry for Azeri fans, a floating header from a corner three minutes later saw them level, Ibekoyi with the header. It was a cracking game with plenty of chances for more goals, but none followed. So 1-1, good result for Minsk. Nazim was praying to the footballing gods for an upset in Minsk.


AZAL didn't look outclassed by Minsk, but the away goal will probably prove crucial as they didn't look too dangerous in front of goal either. Looks like the AZAL manager WILL lose his job then!


***

Qarabag, a side who first came into prominence KOing Rosenborg 2 years ago, and another Azeri side, made no errors in the first round, sweeping four away from home against the outmatched Lithuanians Banga. 2-0 at HT, 4-0 at FT. Efficient, ruthless and calculating performance. Qarabag have come so close to making the Group stages in the last two years, but their lack of seeding brings them up against higher quality opposition and they bow out. Would this be their year? A familiar Scottish writer certainly hoped so!

***

I praised Rabotnicki as the Macedonian Arsenal to Liverpool fans last year and they were a damp squid. Sods law. This year they were in Round 1 against Trans Narva, one of the few and short appearances by an Estonian team in this write up. Sorry, Gavin. The M.A. (Macedonian Arsenal) made short work of Estonian minnows, comprehensively winning 4-1 away from home. The only bright spark was a the ten minute period before and after half time, when the Estonians were briefly level once more.

***

Rad swept Tre Penne 6-0. Tre Penne are a team from San Marino. Rad are Serbian, and I had made the error of mistaking them for OFK Belgrade, another Serbian team.

***

Tromso (Norway) got a convincing win over Daugava of Latvia, 0-5.

***

Elfsborg, a Swedish side seeded to reach the Playoff round in 3 rounds time, took on Fola Esch of Luxembourg. Luxembourg club sides do produce surprises more frequently than their national team, but you had to look elsewhere for surprises here, as the highly rated Swedes took them apart 4-0. Job done.

***

A rare bright spot for Estonia! Nomme, one of the most brilliantly named teams in Europe, held FC Honka of Finland to a 0-0 draw, in Vantaa. This gave the Estonians every chance of making it to Round 2. The top Estonian side in the competition, Levadia Tallinn, had been given a bye to Round 2, and were seeded as a result of their win over Wisla Krakow the other season. Would we see two Estonian sides in Round 2?

***

Varteks used to be a known side in Europe. Now they are called Varazdin, and started against Lusitanos, of Andorra. They even had the charity of giving the Andorrans a goal early in the second half through Bertran, but goals from Safaric (2), Glavica, Glavina and Vugrinec gave the Croats a useful 4 goal lead to take to Andorra.

A helpful person from Bert Kassies European football forum tells me that Varteks was the name of the sponsors, but they have left, so the team is now named after the town. This has been very unpopular with the fans, so soon they might revert back to the familiar name, even if that company provide no money whatsoever anymore.

I also found out the nickname of Varazdin is "the dressmakers" as Varteks is a clothes maker. See, you go in for the football and learn all kinds of interesting facts about society!

***

Ferencvaros, crack Hungarians, were back in Europe after a lengthy absence, and had a nice task, more Armenians. Ulisses, whose naming so similar to my least favourite book gives them an uphill task for sympathy from me, were subsequently bossed away 3-0 in Hungary.

***

Paksi scored early against Santa Coloma of Andorra, and that was the only goal of the game. The Hungarians are a side we shall mention in greater detail to come.

***

Welsh rarebit here. Neath took on Aalesund. Aalesund were on the hands of a rare Scottish victory in Europe last season, but have improved massively since then. Welsh teams are amongst the ten worst club nations in Europe. Sorry Jon, Phil et all. There did however look to be a massive shock on the cards, when Lee Trundle opened the scoring for Neath, and it was an away goal into the bargain. Yes, the very same Trundle once of Swansea. And a great goal it was too, a stunning unstoppable free kick sailing in from the edge of the box. The keeper could do nothing about it, and the Welsh lead away from home! Aalesunds fans looked like a Welsh dragon had stepped on their ancestors graves!

The Norwegians were on the ropes for ten minutes or so, until Aalesund leveled. The Welsh defence should have prevented several passes around the box, and the goalkeeper shouldn't have been beaten by Fuhre from outside the box, but fumbled and let the ball go over him and in. Disaster for the Welsh, and it only got worse from then on. The wind was in the Norwegian sails, like the Viking ships of old (the link was too obvious for me to avoid, sorry) and the Welsh side backed right away from the Norwegian attack, giving them plenty of space.

Any closing down by at least three players would have prevented Sylling Olson's goal, but back off they continued to do, allowing to snake around them and slot the ball. Again from just outside the area, but once more the goalkeeper failed to deal with a reasonably savable shot and now it was 2-1 Aalesund. Still a good result to take to Wales, but it was not to be for Neath.

Into the second half, once more the defence backed away instead of closed down, and Aalesund swiftly tore through the defence, leading to the beleaguered goalkeeper taking down the attacker in the box. A yellow card to add to the goalkeepers terrible day at the office, and a penalty to face to boot! To give credit to the Neath keeper, no one could have saved the penalty, swift and powerful into the top corner. Great penalty by Ulvestad.

Welsh heads were down, the defence continued to be rubbish, and despite the referee being charitable and deny a second penalty that looked nailed on, they let Aalesund keep the ball anyway, and soon after Sellin scored the 4th. Again from outside the box, again the keeper should have done better.

Neath started with a great opportunity. They ended beaten badly, with their confidence utterly ruined by a serious of bad errors throughout the defence. It didn't look good for the Welsh 2nd leg.

***

Dinamo Tbilisi took on Milsami, won 2-0.

***

Trnava of Slovakia had the Montenegrin side Zeta, and came away with a highly impressive 3-0 first leg win.

***

The Faroes v Iceland is one of the great derbies of the early rounds, if we can call it a derby. Here we had ÍF Fuglafjørður vs KR Reykjavík, IF v KR for short. The Faroes took the lead, but KR scored thrice to get a good away result.

***

IBV of Iceland got a 1-0 win over St Patricks Athletic, one of the better Irish sides, thanks to a 50th minute penalty from Andri Olaffson.

***

I know Hacken well, as the star of my summer RFF team, Mathias Ranegie, plays for them. They were nearly embarrassed, as five minutes from time da Cruz of Kaerjeng scored, to make it 1-0 for the Luxembourg side. In the 4th minute of added on time, Ostberg saved the Swedish blushes with the last kick of the game, an equaliser. Not a great start for the Swedish side though.

***

Wales v Northern Ireland, TNS v Cliftonville, Darlington and Johnstons first half goals meant a 1-1 draw in Wales. Another bad result for a Welsh side.

***

Fulham got into Europe via the Fairplay award, given to the three best countries for fairplay in the previous season. They took on a Faroes side who have never scored more than two goals in European history, as a first leg 3-0 win practically sealed it for the English.

***

Jagiellonia took forever to score against Kazak Irtysh, finally getting a goal via Frankowski in the 80th minute. They looked nervous though, could have easily added more to that one goal, but just couldn't find the back of the net. Early season jitters, but so often they can be crucial. Irtysh were lucky to escape with just the one goal defeat.

***

Maltese Birkirkara vs Albanian Vllaznia, but Vllaznia are developing a reputation for being hard to beat, and here they fought out a tight away win, the only goal from Sukaj coming as early as the 2nd minute.

***

Renova v Glentoran ended 2-1 to the Macedonians, Nixons first half injury time goal producing the crucial away goal for Glentoran. Had Bajirami not scored with three minutes to go, the result would have been even better for the Northern Irish side.

***

Hooray! Koper have scored in the 84th minute! Oh. Shakhtar Karagandy have scored in the 94th. Slovenian sides are on the slide, and a 1-1 home draw to the Kazaks was not the best cure for it.

***

A 0-0 away to Siroki of Bosnia was a far better tonic for Olimpija though. Since Dusan Kosic took over as manager of the Slovenian side ravaged unfairly by finance in the last decade, they have been a form side. Once a major player in Slovenia, the future looks bright for them.

***

And Flamurtari, beaten 2 years ago by Motherwell 8-2 on aggregate, surprised me with a good 3-1 away win over Buducnost of Montenegro.

You can travel all over Europe, but a 1000 odd fans chanting "Cheat" at a player who gets away with a handballish incident in the box sounds the same all over!



SECOND LEGS


I'd said Koper being held 1-1 at home was a bad draw. In Europe, away goals count double, so if there is a score tie, the most away goals wins it.

For example, Koper v Karagandy ended 1-1 in Slovenia. Advantage Karagandy. If the second leg ended 2-2, Koper would advance, as the aggregate score would be 3-3, but Koper would have 2 away goals to the Kazak's 1.

Osterc scored midway through the first half for Koper, to give them belief of an away win. Karagandy's Konysbayev scored just before half time, leveling the tie on aggregate.

A level tie with no away goal advantage at the end of both legs goes to extra time, and maybe even penalties. That looked on the cards here, until with six minutes left, Konysbayev scored his and Karagandys 2nd, to win the tie 3-2 on aggregate and send the Slovenians out very early.

Last year Koper went out of the Champions League in Round 1, 5-4 on aggregate to Dinamo Zagreb. Once more this season, it was close but not close enough, and an early exit.

***

Metalurg Rustavi scored early, and lead 2-0 on aggregate against luckless Banants. So far so good. Then, with twenty minutes to go, they needlessly gave away a penalty, and Du Bala converted. 1-1 on the night, and here is the twist - suddenly, another goal for Banants would put them in a qualifying position. They pushed hard for it, and gave the Georgians some frights, but Rustavi held on in a match they should never have been in trouble in.

Banants out, but with a lot of pride, and a useful half point for the Armenian coefficient. Rustavi were through, and needed to improve fast.

***

Remember how I said that Irtysh were lucky to escape back to Pavlodar only 1-0 down? That the Poles should have been many goals up, and only their profligacy in front of goal prevented it?

Well, so turns the twists of European football. The Kazaks came out all guns blazing, and the Poles suffered a most advanced case of stage fright. The tap in after a barely saved header from Coulibaly to level the tie should have produced a massive warning for Jagiellonia, but they were rooted to the spot. Irtysh's stadium is an Olympic one, and Coulibaly ran the whole 400m track to celebrate. Before half time, Maltsev scored from well outside the box, nearer the halfway line than the box, and the Kazaks were winning. The Poles had the whole 2nd half to score the one goal that would take them through, but couldn't, and so their wasted opportunities in the first leg cost them dear. Jagiellonia had strips that looked like those of Partick Thistle, but alas for them, they also played like the Jags.

A big win for Irtysh, who moved on into Round 2. A wasted opportunity, and a massive one at that, for the Poles.

Irtysh/Jagliellona was a tie of two home games. Both teams looked more dangerous at home than away, and the Poles were more shaky away so lost.

That said, they missed an absolutely "can't miss" chance at 2-0 down which would have qualified them. You can't miss those chances in Europe.


***

Ferencvaros were already three goals up from the home leg, so a 2-0 away win was a professional performance, putting any Armenian resistance from Ulisses to sleep.

***

Buducnost got the away result they wanted in Flamurtari to make up for the home defeat, but 2-1 wasn't good enough, and so the unfancied Albanians went into Round 2.

***

Dinamo Tbilisi finished the job comfortably against Milsami, 3-1 away, the only Moldovan goal coming in injury time after a Georgian 90th minute penalty, but before a 95th minute Tbilisi goal. Yes, 3 goals in injury time!

***

Zeta v Trnava threatened to peter out. Then in the 79th and 81st minute, Zeta scored twice, and suddenly the tie was one goal away from extra time. Not to worry for the Slovakians, Ciprys scored with the last kick of the game to put it beyond any doubt. Away defeat for Trnava, but 2-1 was a safe result after their big home performance the week before.

***

Qarabag, having won 4-0 against Banga in Lithuania, won 3-0 in Azerbaijan to win 7-0 on aggregate. I was happy.

***

The first cracks in Elfsborgs side were shown as they were held 1-1 by Fola Esch. The first leg result meant the Swedes qualified, but being held by a Luxembourg side regardless is never a promising result.

***

Nomme got their great draw away in Finland. Could they capitalise? The Estonian defence was a comedy of errors in the first half, and only great goalkeeping and some bizarre misses kept Honka off the score sheet early on. But then the Estonians rallied, and had two great chances, one going just wide of the post, the second a bouncing ball just tipped clear by the Honka keeper. Honka came back roaring, and again a good save prevented them taking the lead. Right at the end of the half, Nomme had a great run to the edge of the box, their player pulled the ball back, it was met with a big kick, but rolled just to the wrong side of the net. You couldn't get closer from scoring.

Sadly for Estonian fans, that was the pivotal moment. Shortly after half time, Honka got in the box, and this time Demba Savage made no errors, slotting it home. 0-1, and now Nomme needed 2 goals to avoid an early exit. They had a brilliant chance, as the Estonian forward rounded the fallen keeper but dilly dallied too long on the ball allowing the keeper to snatch it fairly. The Estonian defence were being magnificent though. Soon after Savage rounded the keeper and shot viciously into the net, but the last man on the line chested it away. But it wasn't to be for Nomme. In the briefest instant of a second, Honka just beat the offside trap, and Dudu scored the clinching goal for Honka. Nomme had done so well, and tried so hard, but squandered some vital chances, and you just can't do that at this level.

Had the early chances in the first half gone in, had the great chance at 0-1 gone in, Nomme would have qualified. Instead, Honka escaped.

***

Could Lusitanos get 4 goals and KO Varazdin? No. The only goal came on 62 from Brlecic, but the tie was as dead as a Victorian lady long before.

***

No mistakes for Tromso, the 2-1 home win easing them through.

***

The previous embarrassment ended for Hacken with a 5-1 win over Kaerjeng. Though a da Cruz goal to make it 2-1 meant another goal would send Hacken out, they regrouped to score thrice more and comfortably qualify, after a number of scares.

Report card - Must try much better.

***

Vllaznia did the trick shown above. Go 2-0 up, concede, then hang on. Birkirkara with the draw for Malta, but Vllaznia limp through to Round 2.

***

Minsk v AZAL Baku. Could AZAL do it and save Nazim's job? Five minutes in, the winger danced around the Baku defence like they were traffic cones, slotted the ball into the box, and Loshankov produced the most exquisite headed goal, floating at an angle that would gave Professors of Mathematics wild dreams into the corner of the net. Our pal Nazim was swiftly updating his CV.

When facing exit in Europe, I'll tell you one thing not to do as a defence. Do not weakly head the ball down in front of you, into the path of the oncoming attacker. Do not stand awed as he takes the ball and sweeps past you. Do not let your goalkeeper rush wildly out of the goal then fall over, letting said attacker run around him. Do not let, with the rest of the defence run after him, assuming there is no way he can score from the impossible 0% angle between the byeline and the net. Do not then let him swing the ball over and your head and into the net.

In other words, don't do what AZAL did here. If that sounds like the cross between Keystone Cops defending, and majesty of a fine forward, then yes, it was both. High art and farce linked side by side. The scorer was Sascheko, the timing was eleven minutes in, the aggregate was 3-1 Minsk and the Azeri manager was a dead duck.

Usim Nduka, that very Azeri defender I slaughtered above, then completed a fine afternoon, hacking down Sascheko as he was through on goal. Fouling as the last man between the attacker and the goal carries an automatic red card in football, so off he went.

Down to 10 men, 3-1 down. You know, I often find brash predictions in football are swiftly met by retribution from the football karma gods. Poor Nazim.

A rare Azeri attack let Sachivko, with his mind on the 2nd round, deflect the ball into his own net. 2-1 and suddenly any goal for the Azeris would qualify them, despite all of this.

And you know, I was rooting for that goal. Say all you want about their indisipline, their errors, their violence, their boasting, AZAL had been tremendous entertainment. So had Minsk, both teams putting forward a memorable tie.

That next goal never came though, so Minsk beat AZAL 3-2 on aggregate. True to his word, Nazim Suleymanov left his post shortly after, resigning on that very day after the match. At his next club, he should remember this lesson. AZAL have a good squad though, and should qualify for Europe again for next season.

Hopefully then they'll take their chances better!

***

NSI v Fulham ended 0-0. The Faroes were never to score the 3 goals needed, so I shall charitably call this the English nicely handing the Faroes a point to aid their coefficient ranking. The Faroes recently falling near the bottom of the pile (51st of 53 European countries), they'll need all the help they can get.

***

Paksi finished off Santa Coloma 4-0.

***

Neath were still shaken from their calamity in Norway, and let Aalesund get the 2-0 away win to seal a 6-1 aggregate win that would have been much closer with a Welsh defence of any kind.

***

Rabotnicki saw off Trans 3-0 to add to the 4-1 away win. Rad got the 3-1 win in San Marino to add to their first leg demolition job. KR won 5-1 to comfortably win the battle against the Faores IF.

Glentoran won 2-1 against Renova. This went to penalties, and Glentoran won 3-2. Amazing result for the Irish side.

***

Delight for Slovenia, as Olimpija saw off Siroki with a good 3-0 home win.

***

A shocker in Northern Ireland, as TNS scored early and that was that. A Welsh victory in Europe? Surely not.

***

And finally, St Pats recovered from 1-0 down to win 2-0 in Ireland and send IBV crashing out, both goals coming before half time. The Icelanders played a short passing game, and the Irish didn't start well but got the two goals. At the very end, only the post kept IBV out and the Irish in Europe. Tight, but that's how these things go.


And that was the first round that was.

The 2nd and 3rd will follow over the weekend.