So that was it. The last qualifiers have been played, the names of the participants to the two European club tournaments are known. With every round it becomes less interesting for people like me who love to discover new teams, new stadiums, new sets of fans, … In the early qualifying round we still have teams from Georgia, Belarus, Albania, Kazakhstan, … whereas with each round those smaller teams vanish and in the end only the big clubs (same ones every season) remain. The group stage is usually the last part where some new faces can be seen.
That said, the qualifying play-offs were quite spectacular and there were enough surprises:
Let’s look at the Champions League play-off first. Even when you know you go straight into the Europa League group stages if you lose, that is small consolidation when you miss the money jackpot called Champions League.
Two encounters were simply dramatic. First of all there was the encounter between Belgian champions RSC Anderlecht and Serbian champions FK Partizan from Belgrade. After a 2-2 draw in Serbia, Anderlecht were sky-high favourites to proceed to the group stage of the Champions League. Two goals by Brazilian striker Cléo however brought Partizan on a surprising 0-2 in Brussels, and the tie looked decided. However, with huge determination Anderlecht faught back to 2-2 with a diving header from 17 year old talent Romelo Lukaku and a superb shot from distance by Gillet. This meant extra time had to be played, but both teams seemed a bit tired and not many chances could be seen in the extra time. Penalties, the most cruel way to decide which team gets the CL jackpot and which one doesn’t, had to be decisive. It looked for a moment that Anderlecht goalie Silvio Proto would become the hero as he managed to stop two Serbian spot-kicks. He was however let down by his teammates: while Gillet and Legaer managed to score their penalties, three other "Mauves et Blancs" (Suarez, Biglia and Boussoufa) managed to kick the ball far over the bar. To shoot 3 penalties in the shoot-out over the goal is unseen before ; apparently there was a problem with the pitch right at the penalty spot (although the Partizan players needed to use that same spot) … Exit Anderlecht in the most dramatic fashion, and Partizan return to the CL after more than 5 years absence.
Almost equally heartbreaking was the way how Sampdoria Genua of Italy lost their place in the Champions League. After a 3-1 loss in Bremen they had a mountain to climb in the return leg in Italy, but 2 early goals (Pazzini striking twice in the first 13 minutes) put Sampdoria in the dreamt-of position. Werder saught the crucial away goal but when Cassano scored the 3-0 with 5 minutes left, Sampdoria seemed all but qualified. However, what was the saying again about Germans never giving up before the final signal? Deep in injury time, Rosenberg scored the crucial away goal that brought the tie on 3-1 and extra times followed. When Pizzaro then quickly scored the second German goal, the hearts and dreams of Sampdoria were broken and with an extremely narrow escape Werder once again proceeded to the group stage.
A true delight was the return of the Iberian derby Sevilla FC – SC Braga. The Portuguese team lead 1-0 from the first leg and went 0-1 up due to a goal from Matheus after Sevilla goalkeeper Palop couldn’t hold on to a not even very hard shot from distance. Then in the second half the Braga coach brought Lima in the game, and this substitute sealed the fate of Sevilla when he scored the 0-2. Luis Fabiano brought some tension back (thanks to the fumbling goalie of Braga) but only one minute later Lima scored into an empty net to make it 1-3 (again Palop wasn’t looking good, being way too far out of his goal). The spectacle was still not over: first Navas made it 2-2 with 5 minutes to go but less than a minute later (again!) Lima scored from a corner kick: 2-4. The 3-4 by Kanouté was only good for statistics fans. 3-4 on the night and 3-5 on aggregate, Braga making their debut in the Champions League after a delightful game.
The qualification of Tottenham Hotspur was far less sensational. In the first leg in Switzerland, opponent BSC Young Boys was 3-0 up at half time but Spurs managed to get back to 3-2. In their own White Hart Lane stadium, Spurs were way too strong for the Swiss and easily won 4-0 to reach their first CL.
While FC Sheriff (see previous article) didn’t make it, and while my beloved Rosenborg BK also failed to reach the group stage (a 1-0 loss in Copenhagen meant elimination on away goals after a 2-1 score in Trondheim last week), I have an alternative to look forward to as Hapoel Tel-Aviv qualified for the group stage. The 2-3 victory in Austria against RB Salzburg should normally have guaranteed qualification but a mistake by goalie Enyeama gave the Austrians a lifeline : 0-1. An equaliser in the last minute by Zahavi assured Hapoel’s progress and sent the Bloomfield Stadium into a delirium. For the second time in a row Israel is present in the Champions League and just like last year Salzburg were blocked from the CL groups by an Israeli opponent (last year it was Maccabi Haifa beating them in the final qualifiers). I fear the Red Bull people may develop a serious phobia against any sporting team from Israel if this tradition is being kept alive 🙂
With teams such as FC Twente, Zilina (surprisingly eliminating Sparta Praha in the last qualifying round), Spurs, Hapoel Tel Aviv, Bursaspor, SC Braga all making their Champions League debuts, at least until new year the tournament will be entertaining enough also for those who don’t always want to see the same big clubs.
And of course there is always the Europa League (former UEFA Cup) to entertain the fans of obscure teams. A few nice obscure names went into yesterday’s draws. BATE Borisov is putting Belarussian football on the map again as for three years in a row they manage to reach the group stage of a European Cup. Eliminating Portugal’s Maritimo Funchal (3-0 in Belarus, 1-2 in Funchal) is a quite impressive way to do so, showing Belarussian football is progressing steadily.
We almost saw sensation as well when Liverpool were close to needing extra time to overcome Trabzonspor. A 1-0 at home was quickly erased when Trabzonspor made it 1-0 at home within the first 5 minutes. It took until the last 10 minutes of the game for Liverpool to assure qualification when they scored two late goals. Exit Trabzonspor, a pity because they had quite a promising team this year.
It wasn’t exactly a good night for Turkish football as Fenerbahçe were eliminated by Greek opponent PAOK Saloniki, while Galatasaray even found themselves eliminated on away goals by Karpaty Lviv from Ukraine. 1-1 wasn´t good enough after Lviv had already drawn 2-2 in the Ali Sami Yen stadium in Istanbul.
Two more surprise victims of the qualifying round have to be found in the UK: maybe the biggest surprise of them all was Celtic being eliminated by Dutch mid-table team FC Utrecht. Especially given the 2-0 victory of Celtic at home, few people gave Utrecht a chance to turn things around at home. But two penalties in the first 20 minutes gave Utrecht a 2-0 lead and 2-2 on aggregate. After halftime two more goals were added to the tally, and Celtic goalie Zaluska was lucky to get away without further goals against him as Utrecht collected a massive amount of chances. After an impressive display, the 4-0 scoreline means it is Utrecht proceeding to the group stage. Another British team that sees itself out by surprise is Aston Villa: after the 1-1 in Vienna, Rapid had to make the difference in Villa Park. When Emile Heskey scored 2-1 for Villa with just 13 minutes to go, Rapid Vienna seemed to be out. About 5 minutes later Rapid had scored 2 goals and turned the tie into their advantage: 2-3, Villa out.
So yes, it’s been a quite nice play-off round for those who love surprising results and small teams beating giants. And Braga being in the Champions League means that we will see top quality football in which may the most unique stadium in Europe: a stadium built between the rocks.
Note the stadium has just two stands with behind the one goal a panoramic view and behind the other goal a huge rock (which does leave room for just a scoreboard though):
As after new year the smaller teams will be out of the CL probably and the same old clubs will once again proceed, the group stages will probably be the most interesting part left of the tournament. I for one look forward to see Braga, Bursaspor, Hapoel Tel-Aviv, and such make their debut in Europe’s self-proclaimed biggest and most important club competition. Let the action begin!