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The Long Road To Cardiff

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Welcome one and all to another EvilDave story! This will be a little different to my last few efforts, more akin to 'A Continent From The Couch - Euro 2020 In The Media.' Playing on FM17, I'll be chronicling every single game of the 217 games of the 2016/17 Champions League campaign, starting in the first qualifying round and following all the way through the showpiece in the Millennium Stadium. In the real world, Monaco announced themselves as a force to be reckoned with, Arsenal suffered their annual last-16 humiliation, Leicester were England's only representatives in the last eight, and Real Madrid became the first side to retain the trophy in the Champions League era, beating Juventus 4-1 in the final. Will this be a case of art imitating life? Or will another side get their name on the famous trophy?  Tune in to find out...

Boltfelagid B36 (FRO) vs Valletta (MLT)

The first tie of the 2016/17 UEFA Champions League – alphabetically speaking of course, given the governing body’s insistence on standardised kick-off times – came in the Faroe Islands, where natives B36 took on fellow island-dwellers Valletta of Malta.

Despite their hosts having the advantage of being in the middle of their domestic season, it was the Maltese visitors who took the lead, and appropriately enough through a cross. Argentine striker Santiago Malano, a summer signing from the second tier of the Chilean league – a remarkable piece of scouting, you have to admit – rose highest after just seven minutes, meeting a cross from veteran left-back Roderick Briffa and nodding it back across goal and into the far corner.

Valletta would have been favourites coming into the game, and the early goal did them no harm whatsoever as they racked up an impressive number of shots in the opening 20 minutes. However, a strong home support at Gundadalor helped the Torshavn outfit back into proceedings, and they arguably had the better of the play as half-time approached.

Into the second period, their momentum paid dividends almost immediately. A lapse in concentration in the Maltese defence allowed twice-capped Faroe Islands international forward Jogvan Nolsoe to pounce on a loose ball, and he tucked a shot under Lithuanian goalkeeper Bartkus to level the scores. Try as they might, B36 were unable to get the second goal that would have put them in a strong position heading into the return fixture, but despite Valletta’s away goal advantage, they knew they would have to work hard to avoid a disappointing first-round exit.

Boltfelagid B36 1-1 Valletta (Nolsoe 52; Malano 7)


FC Santa Coloma (AND) vs Alashkert (ARM)

The First Qualifying Round was also the stage for the Battle of the ‘A’s, with Andorra and Armenia waging war via the proxies of Santa Coloma and Alashkert respectively. The away side were expected to come through their Pyrenean test with a lead to take back to Yerevan, but Armenian sides had been embarrassed before and the result was by no means certain.

Nevertheless, the visitors were determined to let their superior quality show, and there was nothing the hosts could do about the opening goal. With 14 minutes on the clock, a well-worked passing move ended with Mihran Manasyan sending a deflected shot beyond the reach of the goalkeeper, and Alashkert nerves were settled. Santa Coloma, for all their home advantage, mustered just one effort on target in the first half, and needed significant improvement if they were to retain any hope of progressing.

For the most part they were at least able to defend reasonably well, but a moment of madness midway through the second period saw the Andorrans shoot themselves in the foot in some style. A harmless ball in from the right was kept in on the far touchline, but before the second cross came in, the referee had blown his whistle and pointed to the spot. Centre-back Andreu Ramos had inexplicably bundled over Manasyan off the ball, and so Alashkert midfielder Artak Grigoryan had a golden opportunity to double his side’s lead. He did so with the aid of the left-hand upright, and the Caucasian side are now even firmer favourites to make the second stage of qualifying.

FC Santa Coloma 0-2 Alashkert (Manasyan 14, Grigoryan pen 72)

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16 hours ago, mark wilson27 said:

I do like these sort of stories. Looking forward to see who will be liftingthe trophy at the end

Thanks Mark! 217 matches seems like an awful lot, but I'm looking forward to seeing whether or not the virtual teams can spring a surprise or two!

Flora (EST) vs Lincoln Red Imps (GIB)

For their first Champions League game of the new campaign, Gibraltarian champions Lincoln swapped the Mediterranean for the Baltic in a bid to reach the next stage, but would be up against a tough test in the form of Tallinn outfit Flora. Mind you, almost any opponents, you assume, would be a tough test for a side from Gibraltar.

Not that the Red Imps’ performance in the opening 45 minutes did anything to highlight the apparent gulf between the two sides. If anything, it was a nervy-looking Flora who seemed to be feeling the pressure, the Lillekula crowd holding its collective breath as George Cabrera rattled the post around 20 minutes in. It would be the nearest either side came to scoring in the first half, and for a fired-up visiting side, the upset seemed very much alive.

However, as is so often the case in these affairs, as the second half wore on, so did the legs of the inferior team begin to fade, and a relieved Estonian crowd watched their side begin to dominate first possession, and then chances. Visiting goalkeeper Lolo Soler was the busier of the two men from around the hour mark onwards, and it seemed a case of when, rather than if, the goal would come.

In the end it came 15 minutes from time, and the Gibraltarians can perhaps take solace in the fact there was only one. There was nothing pretty the long ball over the top from Markus Poom – the midfield son of legendary goalkeeper Mart – but Hannes Anier was able to beat his man to it, run through on goal and slot under the dive of Soler to hand the hosts the win. Lincoln showed glimpses of their potential in defeat, but will need a monumental display in Gibraltar to turn the tie around.

Flora 1-0 Lincoln Red Imps (Anier 76)


Tre Penne (SMR) vs The New Saints (WAL)

No preliminary qualifying round would be complete without a representative from San Marino, and this year it was Tre Penne who won the honour of representing the Republic in Europe’s top competition. Up against them and looking to avoid an upset were perennial Welsh champions TNS, who would nod doubt have been delighted with their draw.

If they had any ideas of their trip being little more than a beach holiday to nearby Rimini however, they were sorely mistaken. Gerard Pique has, to my knowledge, never visited San Marino, but had he been in the crowd he would have been on his feet after four minutes, when home defender Davide Cesarini did his best impersonation, bursting out of defence and then finishing a low cross with aplomb to give Tre Penne the lead. Alas, the lead would last just six minutes, the English Welshmen getting back on terms rapidly courtesy of a 25-yard rocket from midfielder Aeron Edwards.

From kick-off, it got better for the visitors. A sloppy pass was quickly picked off in midfield and TNS flooded forward, the ball eventually coming to Steven Saunders – a full-back deployed on the right wing for this game – whose low drive skidded in to make it 2-1 after just 11 minutes. A breathless start quietened down a little, but the first-half scoring was not done there. Just after the half-hour, another Welsh attack saw Wes Fletcher fouled in a dangerous position, and the free-kick found Saunders unmarked inside the area, the Scotsman completing his brace emphatically.

With three away goals conceded, Tre Penne’s prospects looked grim at best, but they could take heart from the knowledge that they at least won the second half. In addition to holding TNS at bay for the remaining 57 minutes, they also got a second of their own to retain a glimmer of hope, and incredibly it was another goal for a defender. Not to be outdone by former Dumbarton man Saunders – who, remember, had the advantage of a more advanced role – Cesarini nodded in a late corner to grab a double of his own, and earn Man of the Match honours in the process. Tre Prenne are still strong favourites to be eliminated, but they were far from disgraced on this occasion.

Tre Penne 2-3 The New Saints (Cesarini 4, 85; Edwards 10, Saunders 11, 33)

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On 12/04/2019 at 10:45, oche balboa said:

Nice one, will follow 

Cheers oche, glad to have you along!

July 6th, Champions First Qualifying Round, Second Leg

Alashkert (ARM) (2) vs (0) FC Santa Coloma (AND)

With a 2-0 away win under their belts from the first leg, Armenian champions Alashkert came into this one confident that, barring disaster, they would be heading into the second stage of qualifying. For opponents Santa Coloma, they just wanted to avoid heading back to Andorra humiliated.

If that was their goal, then conceding within 40 seconds of the opening kick-off was far from an ideal first step. Before the visitors had evening touched the ball, Ukrainian forward Yuriy Fomenko fired off a shot that bounced clear off the leg of an Andorran defender. Seconds later, he was fed again by Artak Yedigaryan, and he made no mistake to put the tie beyond Santa Coloma. Seven minutes later, a loose backpass from national team hero Ildefons Lima allowed the same man to race through on goal unchallenged, and Eloi Casals in goal was powerless to stop Fomenko doubling the advantage early on.

A shellshocked Santa Coloma just could not get a hold in the game, and it came as little surprise to anyone in Yerevan when a third goal followed before the interval. This time Fomenko turned provider, drifting into the left channel before sending in a low cross which the late-arriving Artak Dashyan swept home, and the only question that remained was how many Alashkert intended to rack up before declaring.

As it happened, they would stick at three – a combination of safe passage secured and their opponents eventually waking up resulting in a dull second period, which largely saw fans treated to a show of possession football from the hosts. The Andorrans failed to register a single shot on target, a poor show for a team chasing the game from the outset, and in truth this one could have been stopped after 10 minutes. Alashkert will chance their arm in the next round, while for Santa Coloma it’s all over for another year.

Alashkert 3-0 FC Santa Coloma (Fomenko 1, 8, Dashyan 27)
Alashkert win 5-0 on aggregate


Lincoln Red Imps (GIB) (0) vs (1) Flora (EST)

After impressing the handful of onlookers who paid any attention whatsoever to the first leg of a Champions League qualifier between the Estonian and Gibraltarian champions, Lincoln Red Imps went into the second half of the tie with every chance of overturning the scoreline after going down fighting in a one-goal defeat.

In the first game, they came out fast in a bid to put pressure on Flora, but with the Tallinn side having the lead and no real incentive to push forward, the opening stages settled into a pattern of impotent Lincoln possession, with the away side content to sit back and await opportunities on the counter – opportunities which were few and far between.

The second half was much of the same, and despite having 60% of the ball in the first hour, Lincoln had created next to nothing. They needed to take risks, seemed either unwilling or incapable of doing so, and time rapidly ran out. The best chance of the game actually fell to Flora, big target man Joonas Tamm heading wide after proving too much for the defence to handle in the air, and the final whistle blew with the score goalless. Flora, however unconvincing their performances, will be glad of the win, while Lincoln can at least be pleased with avoiding a Santa Coloma-style hammering.

Lincoln Red Imps 0-0 Flora
Flora win 1-0 on aggregate

Edited by EvilDave

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The New Saints (WAL) (3) vs (2) Tre Penne (SMR)

The first leg between Shropshire-based TNS and Sammarinese Tre Penne was the highlight of the opening matchday, with the two sides sharing five goals and showing plenty of attacking intent – and yet despite that, it was two defenders who grabbed four of the goals between them. Steven Saunders and Davide Cesarini took to the field again for part two, with the home side holding the advantage.

That was an advantage that would grow larger just after a quarter of an hour into the game. Saunders’ two goals had come from a right wing position in the first leg, but his counterpart on the left, Llandudno-born Rob Parry, opened the scoring in Oswestry, easily beating his man down the flank before cutting inside and sending a rasping shot in off the far post.

Three minutes later, Tre Penne had a mountain greater even than the Titano of their homeland to climb. Liverpool youth product Jon Routledge, in his first season with TNS after a lengthy spell at Hamilton, crashed home from the edge of the area after a free-kick was only partially cleared, and his new employers extended their lead to 5-2.

Facing a huge deficit and knowing that even three goals would only force extra-time – in which case the fitness of their fully-professional opponents would almost certainly shine through – the Sammarinese side seemed to settle for something all too familiar to their nation’s footballers: damage limitation. Two shots, both from the boot of Italian striker Andrea Moretti, forced the Welsh keeper into saves, but that was as good as it got for the plucky underdogs. It would be back to their nightmarishly-complex domestic league for Tre Penne, and on to a tougher tie for TNS.

The New Saints 2-0 Tre Penne (Parry 18, Routledge 21)
The New Saints win 5-2 on aggregate


Valletta (MLT) (1) vs (1) Boltfelagid B36 (FRO)

The closest thing the first legs came to an upset was in Torshavn, where favoured visitors Valletta opened the scoring only to be pegged back by hosts B36. The Faroe Islanders would need an even better performance if they were to get the better of their Mediterranean opponents in the away leg, especially without the benefits of home advantage.

To their credit, they started brightly, Valletta’s Bartkus the busier of the two goalkeepers in the opening exchanges. However, once the Maltese champions had settled into their rhythm they were able to dictate the pace of the game, and while clear-cut opportunities were hard to come by, eventually the focus of play shifted increasingly towards the Faroese defensive third.

The visitors made it to the break on level terms, but within seconds of the restart they were behind. Goalscorer in the first leg, Santiago Malano, created this one by pressuring a defender into an error, and unselfishly laid the ball square for playmaker Llewellyn Cremona to sidefoot through the legs of the keeper. Just 10 minutes later the roles were reversed, Cremona bursting into the penalty area only to be tripped by Gestur Bogason Dam, and Malano powered home the spot-kick to make it 2-0 on the night and a safe-looking 3-1 on aggregate.

Bogason Dam attempted to redeem himself shortly afterwards, delivering a fine cross which was volleyed wide by Danish substitute striker Seb Pingle, but that would be as close as B36 got to a fightback. Weary legs on their part and strong game management from the Maltese outfit ensured it would be Valletta moving into the second round of qualifying, with B36’s attentions diverted back to domestic matters once again.

Valletta 2-0 Boltfelagid B36 (Cremona 46, Malano pen 57)
Valletta win 3-1 on aggregate

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July 13th, Champions Second Qualifying Round, First Leg

APOEL Nicosia (CYP) vs Flora (EST)

With the first round of qualifiers – games featuring only those sides from Europe’s eight ‘weakest’ leagues – done and dusted, the second round saw the introduction of a few teams with genuine pedigree. Cypriot champions APOEL may not be household names, but they will forever have their fairytale 2011/12 run to the last eight to look back on – with only Real Madrid ending their run. The current crop may not quite be of that calibre, but they would be strong favourites to overcome Flora, who struggled past Gibraltar’s Lincoln in the first round.

Their status as favourites was evident from the outset, with the visiting Estonians pinned quickly back in their own half as the hosts attacked. The Cypriot champions fielded not a single player from their native land in their starting line-up, and it was an Argentine – one-cap, two-goal Facundo Bertoglio – who came closest to troubling the scorers in the first half, his free-kick curling beautifully over the wall only to strike the foot of the post and bounce out to a grateful Flora defender.

While the visitors held out well in the first 45 minutes, it took just 10 for their defences to be breached in the second. A free-kick on the halfway line allowed full-back Roberto Lago space on the left, Flora were slow to close down, and his ball in fell kindly for Greek substitute Giannis Gianniotis to volley in off the legs of a defender. Five minutes later, Lago was involved in his side’s second, reaching the dead-ball line and seeing youngster Marten Kuusk block his cross with his hand. Up stepped centre-forward David Barral, and the veteran Spaniard made no mistake.

There was plenty of time for APOEL to press home their advantage, and with 15 minutes to play they struck again, compounding a nightmare evening for young Kuusk. This time the attack came down the right courtesy of right-back Zhivko Milanov, and the Bulgarian’s low cross was knocked over the line by the centre-back with Barral lurking in wait. 3-0, and surely tie over.

Joonas Tamm, the only man in the referee’s notebook at this point, thought otherwise. With a few minutes remaining the giant striker got his head to a corner and grabbed a valuable away goal in the process – although with his side 3-1 down against superior opposition, they would need a hugely impressive performance to upset the odds in the return leg.

APOEL Nicosia 3-1 Flora (Gianniotis 56, Barral pen 62, Kuusk OG 75; Tamm 82)

Crusaders (NIR) vs Red Bull Salzburg (AUT)

On paper, Seaview in Belfast would play host to one of the biggest mismatches of the round. Crusaders, surprise Northern Irish champions, would welcome Red Bull Salzburg, the Austrian giants bankrolled by the energy drink superpower, and their 3,000 or so loyal followers were hoping for little more than to avoid a pasting. Victory was almost completely out of the question.

By the time Billy Joe Burns earned himself a yellow card after just 12 minutes, Salzburg had already taken three shots at the Crusaders goal – one high, one wide, and one straight into the hands of Sean O’Neill from Valon Berisha. The hosts barely laid a foot on the ball, chasing shadows wearing Red Bull shirts, and yet a combination of Austrian profligacy and dogged defending somehow kept the scores level at the break.

Into the second period, the visitors grew increasingly frustrated. Declan Caddell joined Burns in the book not long before being substituted, but even a trio of changes from the Austrians – Lazaro, Gulbrandsen and Lainer entering the fray – could not bring about the breakthrough. Crusaders tired but continued to throw their bodies in the way, Red Bull constantly finding themselves unable to find the killer ball. Of their 23 shots, just 10 hit the target, and O’Neill was equal to all of them.

After three minutes of added time, and not a single shot in anger from the Northern Irish side, Seaview erupted in cheers. A goalless draw had been unimaginable before kick-off, and yet the semi-professional outfit had given themselves a fighting chance in the second leg. They had somehow emerged unscathed from a Red Bull siege, and for one night only, they were heroes.

Crusaders 0-0 Red Bull Salzburg

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Dinamo Tbilisi (GEO) vs Zrinjski Mostar (BIH)

The early qualifying rounds of European competition are a goldmine if you happen to be a fan of anything Eastern European, with seemingly endless former Soviet, Yugoslav and Eastern Bloc sides taking to the stage. Dinamo Tbilisi are a Soviet powerhouse fallen on tougher times, while Zrinjski Mostar are Bosnia’s hope in this year’s competition. This could prove a close one.

All notions of a cagey start were blown out of the water in the opening minutes however, as the Bosnians mounted successive attacks on the Dinamo goal. From one of these Sergiy Litovchenko was forced to tip a shot round the post, and Oliver Petrak’s corner resulted in an almighty scramble, defender Slobodan Jakovljevic getting the decisive touch from all of a yard out.

You might have expected Dinamo to roar into life, but their opponents simply wouldn’t let them. The hosts edged possession, but lively pressing from Zrinjski ensured that creating chances was a tough task indeed. The closest to a leveller the first half saw came through winger Giorgi Papunashvili’s rising drive, but the Bosnians reached the break in the lead and looking good for a first-leg lead.

They soon had the ball in the net for a second too, although Croatian midfielder Mate Pehar was denied by the linesman’s flag – much to the chagrin of team-mate and countryman Petrak, who was booked for his remonstrations. That did seem to jolt the Georgians into life, although again the visiting defence continued to hold firm.

That is, until the 87th minute. Papunashvili was again involved, crossing from the left only to find a Zrinjski head. However, his side regained possession, and after working the ball from left to right on the edge of the area, found forward Otar Kvernadze in the space he needed to fire home at the near post. The small but vocal crowd of some 2,300 at the Boris Paichadzis Arena roared in celebration, and the scores for level.

For all of three minutes. A Bosnian attack broke down 30 yards from goal, Saba Lobzhandize played a hopeful ball into space for substitute Tsotni Meskhi to chase, and when his team-mate got to the ball ahead of his man, he timed his run to perfection to meet the incoming cross and glance a volley past the goalkeeper. Zrinjski will feel unfortunate not to have taken at least a draw back to Mostar, but will still have high hopes of going through after a decent performance in the Georgian capital.  

Dinamo Tbilisi 2-1 Zrinjski Mostar (Kvernadze 87, Lobzhanidze 90; Jakovljevic 8) 


Dudelange (LUX) vs Celtic (SCO)

If Dinamo and Zrinjski were billed as two sides matched closely with one another, then the clash between Luxembourgish champions Dudelange and Scottish giants Celtic was quite the opposite. Celtic had been upset plenty of times before in the early qualifying stages of European competition, but there were very few people willing to bet against anything other than a comfortable victory for the Glasgow side across the two legs.

From the outset, Celtic dominated possession, controlling the ball for roughly two thirds of the game at the Stade Josy Barthel. Dudelange were quick to retreat into a defensive shape in a bid to catch their visitors on the break, but the opportunities were few and far between, Brendan Rodgers’ men careful not to leave any gaps at the back as they slowly moved forward.

For the best part of half an hour, the hosts defended resolutely. However, there was nothing they could do about the move that opened the scoring, a quick passing move finishing when Manchester City loanee Patrick Roberts threaded a pass between two defenders for Moussa Dembele to latch onto and fire home. The 1-0 lead held comfortably until the break, and Celtic were in cruise control.

That control would not last though, thanks to the ever-present threat posed by their captain’s temper. Scott Brown had picked up a first-half booking for going in late on Mario Pokar, and just after the hour mark he found himself trudging off the field early, the Celtic skipper carelessly bundling substitute Joel Pedro to the ground and receiving his marching orders. It was a glimmer of hope for Dudelange, and moments later Craig Gordon was forced into his first save of the game.

He would be called into action again shortly afterwards when Dominik Stolz fired from range, but despite the hosts finally getting a toehold in the match, they could not find their way past a Celtic side hampered by the loss of a key midfielder. The Luxembourgish champions would have been pleased with a narrow loss had it remained even numerically, but with a defeat and an away conceded, their failure to level the match almost certainly ends their hopes of an upset.

Dudelange 0-1 Celtic (Dembele 28, Brown s/o 60)

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Dundalk (IRL) vs FC Kobenhavn (DEN)

In the same vein as Celtic, Kobenhavn would have been disappointed to begin their qualification process so early on. Whilst not boasting the same historic pedigree as the Glaswegians, the Danish champions were used to group stage football of one form or another, and would have expected a relatively smooth passage against Irish underdogs Dundalk.

Seven minutes in, there was little reason for that prognosis to be re-evaluated. Left-back Ludwig Augustinsson hit a well-weighted ball in behind the home defence, and Cardiff City flop Andreas Cornelius lofted a beautiful chip over Gary Rogers on the diagonal from fully 20 yards – a wonderful goal and a superb start for the Danes.

However, 10 minutes later everything changed. For reasons only he will know, Kobenhavn skipper Matthias Jorgensen decided that the best way to deal with opposing centre-back Brian Gartland’s possession on the edge of the box following a corner was to clean him out from behind, and the man known as Zanka saw red with 70 minutes still to play. Just two of them had elapsed by the time Stephen O’Donnell’s first-time effort deflected beyond the goalkeeper, and the hosts were right back in the game.

With the extra man, Dundalk’s supposed inferiority was very quickly overcome, and with all 3,000 seats in Oriel Park cheering them on, the hosts began to dominate. Kobenhavn remained a threat purely down to the quality remaining in their ranks, but what was billed as a one-sided affair proved anything but.

In the second half, it was the visitors who began to tire, fatigue setting in after prolonged periods of chasing the extra man whilst also attempting to create chances of their own. The 10 Danish representatives were visibly flagging as the clock ticked into the last quarter of the game, and when a burst of speed came, they couldn’t keep up. Veteran forward Dean Shiels started the move by laying the ball off 30 yards from goal, and timed his run to perfection to meet substitute David McMillan’s flick-on, burst past his marker and shoot low beyond Robin Olsen in the Kobenhavn goal. There was no comeback from the Danes, Rogers making a late save to deny Federico Santander in stoppage time, and Dundalk claimed a famous win to take with them to the Danish capital. Would they have enough about them to complete the shock?

Dundalk 2-1 FC Kobenhavn (O’Donnell 22, Shiels 77; Cornelius 7, Jorgensen s/o 19)


Fimleikafelag Hafnarfjardur (ISL) vs Alashkert (ARM)

With relative giants appearing in the previous two ties, you would have been forgiven for thinking that this clash, between the champions of Iceland and Armenia, belonging in an earlier round of qualifying. However, that would be to do a disservice both to Iceland’s growing stature as a footballing nation, and Alashkert’s emphatic win over Andorran opposition in the last round. This one lacked big names, but promised plenty of intrigue.

What it actually delivered was a game defined by its stop-start nature, niggly tactics from the Icelandic hosts preventing the visitors from getting anything going. Five men in the white shirts of FH found themselves in the referee’s notebook over the course of the 90 minutes, the foul count hitting 21 for the home side alone, and Alashkert found themselves kicked off the field despite enjoying the majority of possession.

Despite finding the target with five of their nine efforts on goal – compared to just three from the same number by the home side – the Armenians would head back to Yerevan at a disadvantage. Given that they committed just five fouls in the match, it is perhaps a cruel irony that the goal came from the penalty spot, Atli Vidar Bjornsson converting after Dmytro Khovbosha was adjusted to have pulled back Veigar Pall Gunnarsson in an attempt to reach a cross. It was a lucky break for the hosts, and one they took gleefully.

Otherwise, this was a less than spectacular affair that will leave Alashkert somewhat disappointed, having found themselves behind despite playing the better football. On the other hand, FH will travel to Yerevan knowing that a repeat performance could well be enough to see them through, so expect plenty more Icelandic fouls in the Caucasus.

Fimleikafelag Hafnarfjardur 1-0 Alashkert (Bjornsson pen 21)

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22 hours ago, mark wilson27 said:

Kobenhavn losing thats a shocker, well in the early rounds anyway

Cheers Mark - that's what an early red card'll do to you I suppose! A big shock as you say, but with the second leg at home you'd assume they'll be alright.

Hapoel Be’er-Sheva (ISR) vs BATE Borisov (BLR)

After the scrappy, attritional and largely unappealing clash between FH and Alashkert, neutrals will have at least hoped for something a little more exciting from a Champions League stalwart. Belarusians BATE have won the last 10 domestic titles and reached the group stage of UEFA’s premier competition five times in that period, so would be hoping for more success in this year’s edition, beginning away in Israel.

But if BATE were hoping for Hapoel to roll over they had another thing coming. Three minutes in, a swift counter saw wonderkid-that-never-was Ben Sahar roll the ball through for Maor Buzaglo, and the winger beat veteran keeper Sergey Veremko to the delight of the home fans. Not to be outdone, a 70-yard lung-busting run from full-back Alexey Rios saw his cross drilled in on the half-volley by Igor Stasevich just 10 minutes later, and the 14,500-strong crowd had a game to watch.

The scoring rate dropped off a little at that point, unfortunately for those with money a 6-6 draw, but it was apparent that neither side would be happy with the status quo. As marginal underdogs, Hapoel wanted a lead to take to Belarus, while BATE were looking for more away goals to add to Stasevich’s emphatic finish. As the first half drew to a close, it was the hosts who got their wish, a free-kick from 20 yards smashed through the wall by Buzaglo to make it 2-1 at the interval.

Once again, the lead would not last. Five minutes after the interval, a free-kick from half-time substitute Valeriane Gvilia rattled the crossbar, Rios was the first to react, and his chipped ball to the back post found the head of Vitaliy Rodionov to make it 2-2. It was not to be Rodionov’s last involvement.

Although both sides enjoyed further chances over the course of the second half, the biggest talking point came just three minutes after the second equaliser. From another set-piece, the striker was harshly judged to have been brought down by his opposite number Sahar – a decision provoking protests so fierce that two Hapoel players were booked in addition to the man committing the foul – presenting Stasevich with the chance to make it 3-2 from the spot. His penalty was hard and low, but not beyond the reach of Guy Haimov, the 31-year-old getting a strong hand to the ball and pushing it into space left of the goal where it was duly thumped upfield by a defender. Hapoel survived, neither side netted again, and this tie is still hanging very finely in the balance.

Hapoel Be’er-Sheva 2-2 BATE Borisov (Buzaglo 3, 43; Stasevich 13, Rodionov 50)


IFK Norrkoping (SWE) vs Astana (KAZ)

One of the more recent additions to Europe’s footballing map, having joined UEFA from the AFC in 2000, Kazakhstan have developed significantly in recent years thanks largely to substantial investments in a handful of clubs. Capital side Astana are one such outfit, and would pose a tricky test for Swedish side Norrkoping, who qualified after winning their first domestic title for 16 years in 2015.

In the opening exchanges, Astana put paid to any and all theories that jet-lag and tiredness from travel would have an effect on the game. A cross from the right was cleared up rather than out, forward Patrick Twumasi was able to collect inside the area, and his lay-off to the edge of the box was thumped home by Ivan Maevskiy after just four minutes. Astana had the away goal and all the momentum, and the hosts looked worried.

However, the Kazakhs’ period of early dominance did not yield further scoring, and while the Swedes were rattled – two players going in the book before half an hour was played – they were able to take some of the sting out of their opponents’ rapid start. Fouls played their part, but so did a threat on the counter, and late in the first half they made one stick. A cut-back from Niclas Eliasson was met by David Moberg-Karlsson 10 yards from goal, and the man Sunderland once paid £1 million for and never played pulled his latest club clinically level.

From the on the game ebbed and flowed a little more evenly, with Astana keenly aware of the danger posed by their hosts. Tumasi remained the game’s most dangerous player, the Nigerian’s pace always a threat to the Swedish defence, but he was unable to find the breakthrough. For their part, Norrkoping tried to force the issue with the introduction of a third striker in the form of Kalle Holmberg, but the deadlock remained unbroken.

With four minutes remaining, the hosts’ ill-discipline came back to bite them, Andreas Johansson picking up his team’s seventh yellow card and his second to see him banned from the return leg and his team a man down for the dying moments. The whistle blew with the score still 1-1, and there is everything to play for in the Kazakh capital.

IFK Norrkoping 1-1 Astana (Moberg-Karlsson 37, Johannsson s/o 86; Maevskiy 4)

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Legia Warszawa (POL) vs Vardar Skopje (MKD)

From the Manchester of Sweden to the capital of Poland, and the opening fixture in this season’s competition for hometown club Legia. They are another club to have enjoyed European adventures before, and would be hoping for another memorable campaign. Standing in their way were Macedonians champions Vardar, who would need to be on top form to have any chance of taking an advantage back to their own capital.

Those chances, already slim before kick-off, were reduced to almost nil after just 11 minutes of play. Some quick passing on the edge of the Vardar box saw the visiting defence struggling to keep up, and a gap formed for Georgian forward Valeri Qazaisvili to run through and open the scoring. Already it looked like something of a mismatch had been drawn, and Macedonians were in for a long night.

In truth they were never really in the tie, and it was left only to see whether or not they could keep the scoreline respectable. Giant Czech striker Tomas Necid had played the decisive ball into Qazaishvili for the opening goal, and midway through the half grabbed one of his own, towering over the defence to meet Thibault Moulin’s corner and power it home. Five minutes later he volleyed another cross against Tome Pacovski’s post when attempting to add a third, but the ball broke kindly for him to knock in the rebound and put the game, and indeed the tie, beyond Vardar after just half an hour.

To their credit the visitors did not give up, but neither did they look like scoring themselves. They mustered eight shots on goal, only one of which found the target, but compared to 25 for the Polish champions, this was far from an even affair.

As if to add insult to injury, in the second minute of stoppage time a speculative effort from substitute Tomasz Jodiowiec was deflected past Pacovski by the unfortunate Eugene Novak for 4-0, and the damage was well and truly done. Vardar would need a miracle to turn this one around, and their tiny band of just seven travelling fans faced a long journey home. For Legia, this was a case of a good job well done.

Legia Warszawa 4-0 Vardar Skopje (Qazaishvili 11, Necid 25, 31, Novak OG 90+2)


Liepaja (LVA) 0-1 Trencin (SVK)

If the identity of the previous game’s winners had been obvious before the outset, this tie was a little harder to call. Slovak champions Trencin were arguably the narrow favourites to sneak past Latvian counterparts Liepaja, but with neither side having any European pedigree of note, it was a tough one to call. Liepaja would at least be looking to make the most of home advantage in the first leg.

With 2,000 fans cheering them forward at Daugava, it looked in the early stages as if that may well be the case. Georgi Eristavi could only be stopped by a reckless lunge from Aldo Baez, and the Argentine midfielder found his name in the book after just five minutes. However, the free-kick came to nothing, and the hosts’ early pressure came and went without the scoreline being troubled.

Indeed, neither goalkeeper had a save to make until the 39th minute, when Trencin’s Georgina international – winger Giorgi Beridze – sent a low drive skidding towards the near post that needed the hand of the goalkeeper to keep out. The interval came with the game still lacking in both goals and any real quality.

Mercifully, there would be one moment of magic in the second half, and it would decide the game. Midway through the second period, and with little to no movement ahead of him, Dutch striker Rambelo Janga, a man who had hit 21 games in the previous campaign for second-tier Dordrecht, caught his shot from 30 yards perfectly, sending the ball crashing into the back of the net and stunning the Latvian fans into silence. It was the only incident worth mentioning, and it puts the Slovaks in an excellent position to move on to the next stage of qualifying.

Liepaja 0-1 Trencin (Janga 66)

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Ludogorets Razgrad (BUL) vs Partizani Tirana (ALB)

Like BATE before them, Ludogorets are a side with a growing affinity for the Champions League. With domestic dominance in their native Bulgaria theirs after five league titles in a row, the Razgrad outfit had reached the group stage for the first time last season. This time round, Albanian underdogs Partizani stood in their way of taking another step to the same end.

Ominously for the visitors, Ludogorets showed no signs of complacency, which was perhaps one of their biggest hopes of springing a surprise. Instead the hosts got straight to business, Gustavo Campaharo – one of six Brazilians lining up for the Bulgarian champions – taking down a cross and finding the top corner from 15 yards. 10 minutes later the same man played a key part in the second, slipping a pass through for countryman Jonathan Cafu to cross to the back post, where an unmarked Wanderson tapped in for 2-0.

With any early nerves well and truly gone, Ludogorets slowed the pace down somewhat, but it was still a surprise when the sides went in at the break with no further goals. The 4,000 fans would not have to wait long for another however, Wanderson getting his second two minutes after the restart with a vicious shot straight into the bottom corner from the edge of the area. The home side were in complete control, with Partizani yet to get a shot on target.

It came as a surprise to everyone, therefore, when the visitors pulled a goal back with their first real effort. A miscommunication in defence saw two Bulgarian defenders leave a long ball to each other, allowing Albanian under-21 international Jurgen Vatnikaj to reduce the deficit just nine minutes after coming off the bench. The same man would try twice more in the remaining 20 minutes or so, achieving the rare feat of having every one of his side’s shots on goal, but there were to be no further goals in the first leg.

All of which puts the Bulgarians in a promising position for the second leg, with Partizani needing either a 2-0 win or a victory by three clear goals if they are to turn the tie around. Against a side of clearly superior ability, it is difficult to see anything other than another Ludogorets win.

Ludogorets Razgrad 3-1 Partizani Tirana (Campanharo 8, Wanderson 18, 47; Vitnikaj 68)


Mladost Podgorica (MNT) vs The New Saints (WAL)

Looking down the list of ties for the second round of qualifying, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a neutral with a particularly keen interest in this one. The only professional club in Wales had found it all but impossible over the years to turn their domestic advantage into continental progress, while Mladost of Montenegro were not being picked out for spectacular things by anyone without a connection to the club – even if they were expected to win through here.

In relation to the latter point, it was perhaps surprising then, that it was the visitors who dominated the game by almost every metric you can think of. Over the course of the 90 minutes they outshot their Balkan hosts 18-8, controlled possession for roughly 60% of the match, and forced their opponents into committing almost twice as many fouls as they did. Craig Harrison’s men put in arguably one of their best European performances in some time, and they did it against the odds.

Nevertheless, the final score betrayed a flaw in their dominance. Of their 18 attempts on goal, a paltry four of them forced Damir Ljuljanovic into saves, and only one of those four – a second-half strike from Kiwi substitute Greg Draper – looked particularly threatening. TNS never looked like conceding, and at times looked like a side of superior quality, such was the way they stroked the ball about the Pod Goricom turf, but their utter lack of final product let them down, and gave those watching an indication of why progress beyond this stage was so difficult for them year on year.

Happily for the Shropshire side, Mladost were just as poor in front of goal, even if arguably more efficient – a full quarter of their eight efforts troubling the visiting keeper. The home side seemed unable to adapt to their opponents’ tactics, struggled to get a hold in the tie, and frankly were fortunate to escape with a goalless home draw against one of the competition’s weaker sides. The second leg could go either way, but it doesn’t promise much by way of quality.

Mladost Podgorica 0-0 The New Saints

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I can't say I share your enthusiasm for TNS, Mark - I'd much rather the Montenegrins won through. Amazing how FM can influence your allegiances!

Olimpija Ljubljana (SVN) vs Rosenborg (NOR)

Following on from the dour affair in Montenegro, readers will no doubt be excited to see the name of Rosenborg appear on the fixture. The Norwegian champions, most recently famous of either knocking out and being knocked out by Celtic every season, bring a certain pedigree to proceedings that recent sides in the draw had lacked. One such side was Olimpija of Slovenia, who were hoping to follow in the footsteps of compatriots and rivals Maribor a couple of years beforehand in reaching the group stages.

With the visitors favoured only by virtue of their history, this promised to be a close one, and so it proved. An even period to open the game saw Andraz Kirm send an early sighter into the arms of the visiting goalkeeper, before Danish midfielder Mike Jensen saw an effort from distance deflected narrowly wide of the left upright. The midfield battle was fierce, and a goalless first half was at least moderately entertaining.

Three minutes into the second half, the first real flashpoint emerged. An Olimpija attack down the left was forced infield, the tempo dropped, and Danijel Miskic was forced to turn back towards his own goal. What he probably didn’t expect was to be felled by a vicious challenge from behind, and the Hungarian referee had little option but to brandish a red card in the direction of Frederick Midstjo. Down to 10 men away from home, Rosenborg suddenly had a problem.

Sensing their opportunity, the hosts rightly pushed forward. Veteran striker Leon Benko was thrown on to give another option up top, while the visitors looked to sit deeper, remain disciplined, and keep them at bay. It worked too – Olimpija’s profligacy saw Kirm’s early effort remain the only one of 13 shots to hit the target, and for all their possession they created little of genuine threat.

Of course, their profligacy would cost them too. With just under 10 minutes remaining, substitute Mushaga Bakenga hit a low shot from 20 yards out under a defender’s attempted block, 37-year-old goalkeeper Aleksandr Seliga hurt himself as he moved across goal to dive, and the ball rolled over the goal line almost apologetically. The 10 men had somehow pulled off the win, and Olimpija’s big opportunity had passed them by.

Olimpija Ljubljana 0-1 Rosenborg (Midtsjo s/o 48, Bakenga 81)


Qarabag Agdam (AZE) vs Ferencvaros (HUN)

Long gone are the days when Hungarian sides instilled genuine fear into European opponents – the evolution of the game and the huge riches available to other nations have left the once-mighty Magyars behind. Rising up to challenge even their status as a mid-tier nation are the likes of Qarabag and Azerbaijan – clubs and countries with access to greater wealth, and who are determined to move on from the ‘footballing backwater’ image many have imposed upon them.

In this particular battle of ancient vs modern, it was the latter who made the first impression – but not necessarily a positive one. Just three minutes into the game, Emir Dilavi decided the best way to prevent his man reaching a pass that hadn’t even been played was to bring him down 10 yards off the ball on the edge of the area. Norwegian official Magnus Strombergsson showed him a yellow card, and Dilavi was joined in the book 10 minutes later by team mate Julian Koch.

Between the two rash tackles, the scoring was opened. Azeri champions Qarabag fielded five homegrown players in this tie, all defensive – the back four and holding man Qara Qarayev, who would later be booked himself – and precisely none of them featured in the move for the goal. Brazilian playmaker Richard took a pass from Spanish winger Dani Quintana, and played a perfect ball inside the full-back for Albanian winger Ansi Agolli to run onto. The 34-year-old took the pass in his stride before hitting a weak shot that Denes Dibusz should have down better with, but the keeper could only get a weak hand to it as it flew past him to give the Baku-based side the lead.

That, Qarayev’s booking aside, was the only major action of the first half, which ended with Ferencvaros beginning to fight back against their hosts. They did so with a peculiarly aggressive playing style – a high-tempo, shoot-on-sight set-up in attack combined with close marking and clumsy fouling off the ball. They would finish with 19 fouls and 15 shots, with three of the former earning bookings and only two of the latter on target.

On the other hand, the hosts and their 1,600 fans would grow increasingly confident in both their lead and their opponents’ wayward shooting, and in the second period were able to get more of a foot on the ball despite the tackles flying in. Richard in particular looked to be enjoying himself, controlling the attack from the tip of a midfield diamond, and he was unlucky not to score himself, striking the bar with a free-kick after being brought down by Leandro – the third green shirt to earn a booking. In the end, one goal would prove enough, leaving things set up intriguingly for the return game in Budapest.

Qarabag Agdam 1-0 Ferencvaros (Agolli 10)

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Red Star Belgrade (SRB) vs Zalgiris Vilnius (LTU)

Red Star Belgrade – or Crvena Zvezda to give them their Serbian name – are an evocative team. One half of Belgrade’s eternal derby with arch-rivals Partizan, a bastion of Yugoslav football and the last side from Eastern Europe to lift the continent’s greatest prize back in 1991, they have been the making of some of football's greats. Lithuanian champions Zalgiris, while a force to be reckoned with in their Baltic homeland, summon precious little emotion.

Something the Serbians have a reputation for, rightly or wrongly, is a passion that sometimes transgresses the rules. Here however, it was not a Serbian that earned the first booking from the referee. Mitchell Donald, an Ajax youth product who somehow found himself at Russian nobodies Mordovia Saransk before signing for Red Star, tackled a little too enthusiastically midway through the half. 10 minutes later, Damien Le Tallec – who bizarrely enough had been a team-mate of Donald at Mordovia, having got there via Rennes, Dortmund, and countless comparisons with his FM wonderkid brother – followed suit, cynically tripping an opponent on the break and taking one for the team.

The biggest goal threat for either side in the first half was Ghanaian striker Richmond Boakye, on loan at the hosts from Italian side Latina. After a quarter of an hour he nodded a free header wide, after half an hour we fired a shot just over from a very tight angle, and in injury time at the end of the half he improvised a flick to reach a cross, but only sent it into the arms of the goalkeeper.

The second half began with a booking – left-back Aleksandr Lukovic collecting his side’s third – and then the game changed. Bosnian forward Bahrudin Atajic led a rare attack for Zalgiris, the two centre-backs inexplicably both elected to close him down on the edge of the area, and that opened acres of space for attacking midfielder Elivelto to run into. The ball came, the turning defenders tried desperately to make their ground, and the shot was hammered into the top corner past a diving goalkeeper to stun the Marakana into silence. With half an hour to go, Zalgiris led Red Star away.

Boakye continued to work hard at the other end, but was bafflingly withdrawn, replaced by Milan Pavkov inside the last 20 minutes. With the advantage, Zalgiris fell back, frustrating Red Star with 10 men behind the ball, and the frustration only increased. As the clock ticked towards the final five minutes, Lukovic mistimed a lunge trying desperately to win the ball on the halfway line, and the hosts would have to play out time with just 10 men.

The chance came – a perfect cross from Slovoljub Srnic reaching Pavkov in half a yard of space – but the finish didn’t, and as Armantas Vitkauskas fell on the ball, Red Star’s hopes of an equaliser evaporated. At the final whistle, Zalgiris celebrated a famous victory, while the hosts trudged out to boos, jeers, and worse. The return in Lithuania promises to be quite the game.

Red Star Belgrade 0-1 Zalgiris Vilnius (Lukovic s/o 83; Elivelto 61)


Seinajoen Jalkapallokerho (FIN) vs Sheriff Tiraspol (MDA)

The problem, some might say, with the early qualifying rounds of the Champions League, is that there are far too many matches which hold next to no interest for anyone other than the teams involved in them. Some sides, like Red Star of the previous tie, at least have enough weight for the casual observer to notice them. The majority, like Finnish champions SJK and their Moldovan counterparts Sheriff, do not. Even the latter, with their quirk of being based in breakaway Transnistria, incite little more than a shrug to anyone outside of Moldova.

Sometimes, the name recognition of the clubs involved is compensated for by some thrilling football. More often than not, it isn’t – as was the case here. In the largely non-descript town of Seinajoki in Western Finland, the first 45 minutes of this particular game passed almost entirely without incident, two shots on target failing to stretch either goalkeeper, and little sign of either quality or hope that either club could realistically aim to make the group stage of the competition.

Mercifully, the second half sprang to life. Like several sides from former Soviet republics, Sheriff are a multi-national side these days, and so it proved as Brezovic of Croatia fed Jabbie of Sierra Leone 30 yards from goal, who in turn slid a pass through for Jo – no, not the Manchester City failure – to calmly finish beneath the goalkeeper. Less than a quarter of an hour later, the hosts were back on terms, Matej Hradecky outjumping Dionatan Texeira – whose most recent employer was, of course, Stoke City – from a corner to restore parity.

That would be as good as it got goals-wise, but there was still time for one more incident of note. With just three minutes remaining, Mehmet Metemaj – the only man from either side to have earned himself a space in the referee’s notebook – stuck his foot in a little too strongly on Ricardinho, sending the Brazilian tumbling and earning himself an ever-so-slightly early bath. Sheriff couldn’t take advantage, SJK couldn’t spring a surprise, and so we go back to Tiraspol with the scores tied in a week’s time.

Seinajoen Jalkapallokerho 1-1 Sheriff Tiraspol (Hradecky 62, Hetemaj s/o 87; Jo 49)

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Valleta (MLT) vs Dinamo Zagreb (CRO)

Of all the clubs to make it through the first round of qualifying, Maltese champions Valletta were perhaps the side that every other side would have been secretly hoping to draw. As a club and a country, Valletta and their native island have almost no footballing pedigree, and the fact that they had struggled past Faroese opposition was hardly a promising sign. On the other hand, Dinamo Zagreb were one of the strongest sides in the draw, and were overwhelming favourites to move on.

As with many of the smaller sides still in the draw, Valletta were in no mood for a thrashing. Their priority was from the outset, and they stuck to it resolutely throughout the game – don’t get embarrassed. They were expected to lose, but they were going to make it as difficult as possible for their more illustrious opponents to break through. Lining up in a defensive 4-5-1, they successfully dug in and frustrated the more adventurous Dinamo for much of the first half, keeping them safely at bay.

Until the 37th minute, when defender Steve Borg manhandled his mark at a corner and gave the Croatians a penalty. Up stepped playmaker Sammir confidently, and his shot was firmly struck to the goalkeeper’s right. Unfortunately for him, Dzuiguas Bartkus guessed correctly, the power on the penalty made it a comfortable height for Valletta’s last line of defence to push away. Dinamo had blown their best chance of the half, and it remained 0-0 at the break.

Irritation was now becoming to come into play, and while Valletta failed to find a shot on target all night, their parity was winding up the visitors. Maltese hero Michael Mifsud came on as a substitute just after the hour mark, and within seconds the 36-year-old was chopped down by Mario Musa at the cost of a booking. Given the clear frustration on the part of Dinamo, it was a surprise that he finished the game on his own in the book.

Finishing the game even clearer than the referee’s notebook would be the scoreboard, as remarkably not one of Dinamo’s 24 shots found its way beyond Bartkus. Annoyance and desperation no doubt accounted for the inaccuracy of some of the later attempts, but a huge amount of credit must be given to the Maltese minnows and their disciplined, resolute defending. Although the Croatians would almost certainly get the job done at home, they would return there with their pride sorely wounded at a failure to win in the Mediterranean.

Valletta 0-0 Dinamo Zagreb

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July 20th, Champions Second Qualifying Round, Second Leg

Alashkert (ARM) (0) vs (1) Fimleikafelag Hafnarfjardur (ISL)

A week after an uninspiring game in Iceland, FH took their narrow lead on what was the longest trip of the Champions League so far, from the Arctic Circle to the gateway to the Middle East in a bid to hold off the threat of Armenian champions Alashkert and move one step closer to their nation’s first representation in the Champions League proper. The first leg had been marked for FH’s habit of breaking up the play with fouls, and onlookers were hoping for something more freeflowing in Yerevan.

Early signs were promising, with the home side appearing to have half a yard on the visitors across the pitch, allowing them to get their passing game going quickly. The goal they craved came quickly, but in bizarre circumstances – a harmless long ball into the channel inexplicably headed into his own area by Belgian full-back Jonathan Hendrickx, Mihran Manasyan to fire beyond former Manchester City reserve Gunnar Nielsen after just nine minutes. With the tie now level, either side could potentially go on and claim the win.

With momentum on their side, Alashkert naturally pushed forwards, although they had to be careful. FH’s first attempt at a riposte and a vital away goal came through one-time Rangers forward Steven Lennon’s swerving effort, and shortly afterwards the same man set up Atli Gudnason for a shot which Arsen Beglaryan had to scramble to cover after a deflection. On the whole though, it was the hosts who looked the more likely to score.

Eventually they did, and at the worst possible time for FH. As the fourth official lifted his board to show a single minute of first-half stoppage time, Alashkert earned a throw by the corner flag to the right of the Icelandic goal. Artak Yedigaryan found a free man, and from there the hosts triggered a training ground move which saw three men play first-touch passes, and the fourth – Narek Beglaryan, no relation to his goalkeeper – shoot first-time on the half-turn beneath Nielsen to make it 2-0 on the night and put his side ahead for the first time in the tie.

Faced with an aggregate deficit and just 32 jet-lagged fans trying desperately to cheer them forward, FH struggled. Alashkert were growing increasingly confident in possession – they would finish with 63% of the ball – and looked threatening whenever they came forward. A half-hearted penalty appeal for a challenge of Emil Palsson – the midfielder booked for his protests when no foul was called – summed up their night, and eventually time simply ran out on them. Alashkert overturn the first-leg deficit to head into round three of qualifying, while FH make a long, disappointed journey back to Iceland. 

Alashkert 2-0 Fimleikafelag Hafnarfjardur (Manasyan 9, Beglaryan 45+1)
Alashkert win 2-1 on aggregate


Astana (KAZ) (1) vs (1) IFK Norrkoping (SWE)

When this tie was drawn, the clash between the respective champions of Sweden and Kazakhstan looked to be one of the trickiest to predict. After a tight first leg in Scandinavia, Norrkoping now travelled more 2,500 miles east in a bid to triumph in the Kazakh capital. Given their impressive defensive record at home, the hosts went in as marginal favourites, but there was very little in this one.

The first effort of the match went to Djordje Despotovic, the hosts’ Serbian striker taking the place of the injured Patrick Twumasi. A very different threat to the tricky Nigerian, Despotovic met a left-wing cross powerfully with his head, but keeper Michael Langer was equal to the effort. Moments later, captain Daniel Sjolund looked to put the Swedes ahead from range, but his fiercely-struck effort lacked precision and so flew wide.

The first half remained goalless, the match flowing evenly between the two ends without either side looking excessively dangerous. For Astana, getting the ball out wide and into Despotovic, being played as a traditional target man, seemed to be the order of the day. Norrkoping, on the other hand, seemed to be taking a more intricate approach in possession, while also looking to go direct on the counter. It set up an intriguing second period.

The defining moment of the match came just two minutes after the interval, and was the result of an aberration veteran defender Markus Falk-Olander. Faced with a deep free-kick dropping into the penalty area, the 30-year-old elected to lead with his hand rather than his head, palming the cross away and conceding a downright stupid penalty. Macedonian midfielder Agim Ibraimi was the man tasked with converting from the spot, and it was easy to see why – his spot-kick found the very top corner of Langer’s goal, and the hosts had the lead.

It was a lead they would hold comfortably into the final five minutes, when suddenly the urgency of the situation seemed to dawn on Norrkoping. They knew one chance would come their way, it came to Sebastian Andersson – a three-cap Sweden striker they would have backed to finish from 10 yards out – but his half-volley of a bouncing ball was sliced off the outside of his boot, sailing harmlessly wide. Not long later the final whistle blew, and Norrkoping were done. Astana march on, and will be confident of doing so again after a solid showing here.

Astana 1-0 IFK Norrkoping (Ibraimi pen 47)
Astana win 2-1 on aggregate

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BATE Borisov (BLR) (2) vs (2) Hapoel Be’er-Sheva (ISR)

In terms of entertainment value, BATE and Hapoel put on arguably the best match of the first legs. The Belarusian and Israeli champions shared four goals between them, the latter twice taking the lead before being pegged back quickly. Those two away goals made group stage regulars BATE narrow favourites to go through to the next stage, but they could not afford to take things for granted.

That was especially the case when the visiting side kicked off with the throttle open. Just three minutes had elapsed when Denis Polyakov pulled down Ben Sahar as the latter looked to shoot inside the area, and the one-time Chelsea wonderboy picked himself up to tuck home the penalty and put his side ahead. Just under 10 minutes later, the lead was doubled in more fortunate circumstances – Maharan Radi’s shot from 25 yards was dreadful, but far enough off target that it turned into a perfect pass to the unmarked Ovidiu Hoban lurking at the back post. BATE wanted a flag for offside, it never came, and the Borisov Arena was stunned.

But BATE have not been regulars in the Champions League for nothing, and looked to quickly put their awful start behind them. Midway through the first half, first-leg goalscorer Stasevich crashed a shot off the post from range, and five minutes later the deficit was halved. Mikhail Gordeychuk made the goal with a superb run down the right, beating two men as he jinked towards goal before cutting the ball back to Vitaliy Rodionov to tap in from inside the six-yard box.

 That lifted the noise levels in Belarus’ ninth-largest city, and it was their side that had the momentum. Five minutes before the break, a chipped free-kick was cleared but the hosts quickly regained possession, and this time it was a burst of pace from Alexey Rios that afforded him the space to square for Rodionov, who converted from an almost identical possession to complete the comeback.

Incredibly, there was more action before the whistle. On an increasingly rare foray forward from the visitors, Sahar was again chopped down in the area, and Hapoel had a second penalty. This time Sahar went hard and low down the middle, but Artem Soroko got a boot to it as he dived and made the save, denying the Israelis a lead and a crucial third away goal.

Regardless of the miss, it would not matter. In a second half marked by BATE pressure and Hapoel counter-attacking, it was the latter who grabbed the all-important goal that would see them through to the next stage. It came when a Belarusian attack broke down, was instigated by a clever ball into space by Sahar for Maor Buzaglo, and ended with Radi beating not one but two defenders to the ball to tuck a shot in at the near post. That left BATE needing two goals in 12 minutes, and another comeback was beyond them. A shock of shorts, Hapoel move on, while BATE wait for another year without even the consolation of Europa League football.

BATE Borisov 2-3 Hapoel Be’er-Sheva (Rodionov 29, 39; Sahar pen 5, Hoban 14, Radi 78)
Hapoel Be’er-Sheva win 5-4 on aggregate


Celtic (SCO) 2-0 Dudelange (LUX)

If Hapoel’s win over BATE counted as a shock, anything other than a comfortable Celtic victory against Luxembourgish champions Dudelange would be seismic in comparison. The Scots had picked up a narrow away win in the first leg, and on paper there was simply no way that the visitors could claw this one back.

As if to prove a point, Celtic doubled their advantage after just seven minutes. There didn’t seem to be a huge amount of danger to the away side when Stuart Armstrong fed Patrick Roberts 30 yards from goal, but after dropping the shoulder to go past one player, he took a touch to make space and then proceeded to bend a sumptuous effort into the corner of Jonathan Joubert’s net and put the outcome of the tie beyond all doubt.

By this point there was very little to play for, but that did not mean the players on the field behaved as such. Two Dudelange men wound up in the referee’s book before the half-time whistle – and would be joined by two more after it – while Celtic’s Kieran Tierney also earned a caution for a nasty tackle on Mario Pokar. Celtic, as you might expect, had plenty of attempts to extend their advantage, but their shooting boots weren’t laced up properly and the break came with the score still only 1-0.

There would only be one more goal in the game, frustratingly for the 53,000 who had come out to watch their side take on a bunch of part-timers from Luxembourg, but at least it did come for the hosts. Nir Bitton slid a ball down the right for Cristian Gamboa to scamper after, and not only did the Costa Rican international reach it, but his sliding cross breached the corridor between defenders and goalkeeper to find Scott Sinclair lurking at the far post.

A 3-0 aggregate win against the champions of Luxembourg may not have been enough to satisfy the ever-demanding Celtic support, but it was more than enough to send the Scottish champions through. They would face much tougher challenges in the near future, but for now it was a case of job done.

Celtic 2-0 Dudelange (Roberts 7, Sinclair 70)
Celtic win 3-0 on aggregate

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Dinamo Zagreb (CRO) (0) vs (0) Valletta (MLT)

Unlike Celtic, Dinamo Zagreb had failed to do the first half of the job in the away game. In a deeply frustrating first leg in the Maltese capital, the Croatians had not only failed to come away with a goal or a lead, but had even seen a penalty saved into the bargain. Back on home soil in the Maksimir, they would retain their favourites tag, but would surely have to be better to avoid a massive upset.

And yet at half-time in the second leg – after 135 minutes of football against a side from Malta – the relative giants of Dinamo were still yet to score. Of course, they were still yet to concede, but that paled into insignificance, such was the frustration felt by players, staff and fans alike. Around 10,000 had paid good money to see their side overpower little Valletta, and they had categorically failed to do so.

Some credit must, naturally, go the way of the visitors, but it was not their threat on the counter that was keeping Dinamo honest. The away side did at least look interested in shooting on this occasion, but the fact was that the hosts simply could not find a way through a packed Valletta defence – they lacked invention. The fact that they had missed a penalty in the first leg did not bode well, and time begin to tick away.

Ultimately, they scraped through. The minnows tried to muster a late rally, three times in the final 10 minutes testing Dominik Livakovic in the Dinamo goal, but their race was run. A valiant attempt to defend for 210 minutes and win on penalties was thwarted, and they returned home beaten but proud. It took a long-range, deflected strike from Mario Situm to break the deadlock, it took Dinamo more than two and a half hours of football to score, and yet they went through all the same. They’ll need to do much better to go any further.

Dinamo Zagreb 1-0 Valletta (Situm 69)
Dinamo Zagreb win 1-0 on aggregate


FC Kobenhavn (DEN) (1) vs (2) Dundalk (IRL)

In the last tie we looked at, Dinamo were lucky that they only needed a goal. Anything more than that, and Valletta would probably have made it. In this one, Danish champions Kobenhavn were in the same position, an early red card for their captain in the first leg leading to a 2-1 reverse on Irish soil. A 1-0 win here would see them through on away goals, but you had to suspect, particularly after a win in the home leg, that Dundalk would pose a bigger threat to their opponents than Valletta had to theirs.

And so it proved, in the most spectacular of fashions. Midway through the second minute of play, Dundalk’s left-sided midfielder, Michael Duffy, was brought down for the first foul of the game just over 30 yards from goal. The hosts set up a three-man wall, and ironically-named left-back Dane Massey stepped forward to deliver a cross.

Or so everyone expected. What he actually did was strike a perfect free-kick, sending the ball curling with power over the wall and into the very top corner of the ‘wrong’ side of the goal, beating Robin Olsen’s helpless dive and silencing all but 150 or so of the 22,000 fans in Parken. 29-year-old Massey, an international futsal player with just 13 career league goals to his name in over 200 appearances, whose entire career had been spent in the Republic of Ireland, had performed little short of a footballing miracle.

In opening the scoring, he also erased the hosts’ away goal advantage, meaning they required two just to force extra time. Panic set in the Kobenhavn ranks, and the next 20 minutes were spent largely with Dundalk defending comfortably against anything the Danes tried to throw at them. Even as the first half went on, the hosts found themselves struggling to break through a wall of black shirts, and at half time the score remained 1-0 to the Irish underdogs.

Not long into the second half, the hosts levelled – or so they thought. Federico Santander coolly slipped a shot beneath Gary Rogers, but was deemed to have been offside when stand-in captain William Kvist’s ball was played, to the delight of the small band of Dundalk fans. Moments later, when the veteran Rogers belied his years to tip an Andreas Cornelius efforts behind for a corner, those same voices were once again the loudest in the stadium.

Kobenhavn needed three to win and two to force extra time, but with 20 minutes to go they had none. There was no shortage of effort or personnel – by this point they had four strikers on the field – but Dundalk were defending firmly and the moment of magic needed to unlock the defence once, let alone several times, was just not forthcoming. 20 minutes became 15 and then 10, and still the scoreline held.

It would hold until the bitter end, Dane Massey’s spectacular set-piece ending up the difference on the night, and the goal that sprung the upset. Dundalk, plucky underdogs against the Danish giants, had won not once but twice on their way to a 3-1 aggregate win, and would continue in the competition against all odds. For Kobenhavn, there would be serious questions asked.

FC Kobenhavn 0-1 Dundalk (Massey 3)
Dundalk win 3-1 on aggregate

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It was indeed Mark, although hard to say Dundalk didn't deserve it. It'll be interesting to see if they can push on from there!

Ferencvaros (HUN) (0) vs (0) Qarabag Agdam (AZE)

In the first leg of this tie – the old vs new clash of the Hungarian and Azerbaijani champions – it was the Caucasian hosts who had come out in front by the narrowest of margins, an early goal settling the match in Baku. Ferencvaros knew they needed a home win to turn things around, but after a fairly poor display in the away leg, the odds were not in their favour.

Nevertheless, the wasted no time in setting about the Qarabag goal. Inside the first 15 minutes, not only was a player from either side cautioned for early misdemeanours – Bence Batik for the hosts and Michel on the visitors’ part – but the Hungarians tested Bojan Saranov on three occasions. The first was a free-kick from veteran Zoltan Gera, the national legend bending one into the arms of the goalkeeper, while the second both came from the head of Daniel Bode, one effort required a steady catch and the one drifting wide with Saranov scrambling.

Unlike at home, when the Azeris had utilised the pace and talent of their foreign legion in attack, in Budapest they simply failed to get going. Three wayward efforts were all they would record over the course of the 90 minutes, leaving the three hardy fans who had travelled with the side from Baku to question their decisions.

Ferencvaros kept going, and even with a goalless first half behind them were not discouraged. Just before the hour mark, Leverkusen loanee Ryu Seung-Woo danced his way into the box from his position on the wing before rifling in a shot that Saranov somehow got fingertips. That was enough to knock the ball onto the post, and fortunately for the visitors it was a Qarabag shirt that got to the rebound. Another dead ball from Gera almost did the damage not long after, but again Saranov was equal to the effort.

That was to be the story of the night for the home side, and good goalkeeping and wasteful shooting kept the game scoreless despite the one-sided nature of the 90 minutes. Ansi Agolli’s early strike in Baku wound up the difference between the two sides, and while Qarabag’s progression to the next phase would have surprised few at the outset, Ferencvaros will be kicking themselves not to have made the most of a dominant display at home.

Ferencvaros 0-0 Qarabag Agdam
Qarabag Agdam win 1-0 on aggregate


Flora (EST) (1) vs (3) APOEL Nicosia (CYP)

Unlike the fine balance of the last handful of ties, there were very few people looking at this one expecting anything other than a relatively straightforward win for Cypriot champions APOEL. They’d completed the first half of the job with a 3-1 home win, but Estonian opponents Flora had at least got an away goal for their troubles. APOEL would need to be professional, but you assumed that would be enough.

At least, until the game kicked off. Flora, with 2,500 fans backing their green-shirted heroes, started at pace, testing Boy Waterman inside the first minute. A second attack moments later yielded a different result however – a clipped ball over the top found striker Hannes Anier in space, and only a superb covering tackle from Inaki Astiz denied him the opening goal. However, Astiz was unable to continue in defence after pulling a muscle in his covering sprint, while Anier too was forced off after the sheer power of the challenge on the ball twisted his ankle. Early substitutions for both sides, and what flow the game had was quickly disrupted.

APOEL then began to take charge of proceedings, almost grabbing an away goal of their own when David Barral’s shot forced a save, and then Roberto Lago nodded the resultant corner just over. Lago would be instrumental in the goal when it came, but surprisingly it came at the other end – the veteran full-back beaten for pace by Anier’s replacement Zakaria Beglarishvili, and the Georgian’s effort gave Waterman no chance.

With over an hour to play and just a single goal away from going through, you would have expected a renewed wave of pressure from the home side. However, what actually transpired was a calm period of APOEL possession, the Cypriots taking the sting of out of the game and asserting their own superiority. Flora midfielder Jan Kokla earned himself a booking just before the break after four shots in as many minutes from the visitors, and they were unfortunate not to grab a goal of their own before half-time.

The second period saw more of the same, and other than a Flora rally with around 20 minutes to go, the APOEL goal was rarely threatened. The best chance of the second 45 fell to the visitors when Lorenzo Ebecilio’s ball sliced through the Flora defence, presenting Barral with a perfect opportunity one-on-one with the goalkeeper. The Spaniard’s aim was true, the linesman’s flag wrongly denied him, but the game was done. The margin may have been narrower than they would have liked, but APOEL’s place in the third round of qualifying was secure.

Flora 1-0 APOEL Nicosia (Beglarishvili 25)
APOEL Nicosia win 3-2 on aggregate

Edited by EvilDave

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Partizani Tirana (ALB) (1) vs (3) Ludogorets Razgrad (BUL)

Much like the APOEL-Flora tie above, this one seemed on the face of things to be relatively straightforward. A 3-1 home win for the clear favourites made this a case of Ludogorets going through barring either gross stupidity or a remarkable performance from their Albanian hosts, and while either possibility was real, the odds were slim. Few expected to see an upset in the Albanian capital here given the gap in quality between the sides.

That gap was apparent from the outset in Tirana, and despite the best efforts of the Partizani faithful to get their side going, it did not take too long for Ludogorets’ vice-like grip on the tie to strengthen. Midway through the first half, a Wanderson free-kick was headed on at the near post, and Romanian centre-back Cosmin Moti had the time and presence of mind to bring it down before stabbing in the goal that made it 4-1 on aggregate.

Any hopes the Albanians had now relied on the visitors making a hash of things, but remarkably that hope was not entirely in vain. On the stroke of half-time, Yordan Minev jumped into a dangerous scissor tackle on Realod Fili in midfield, and the midfielder was quickly dismissed by the Italian referee. Ludogorets had to change their shape, and Partizani had 45 minutes with an extra man to try and fight their way back into the tie.

They gave it a good effort, but ultimately fell short. Despite dominating possession in the second half, the home side simply lacked the quality to break down a well-organised and risk-averse Ludogorets side, who were able to manage the game through to the final whistle. They knew that as long as they didn’t panic they would be heading through, and that’s exactly what happened.

The hosts did pull one back, the Bulgarians unable to clear a corner and defender Kristi Marku prodding in after a scramble, but it was some way short of the three goals that they needed even to force an additional half hour. Partizani drop out with their pride intact, but in truth this was relatively plain sailing for the superior quality of Ludogorets.

Partizani Tirana 1-1 Ludogorets Razgrad (Marku 77; Moti 27, Minev s/o 45+2)
Ludogorets Razgrad win 4-2 on aggregate


Red Bull Salzburg (AUT) (0) vs (0) Crusaders (NIR)

For all their superior quality however, Red Ball Salzburg did not have a lead to play with in the second leg of their tie with Northern Irish minnows Crusaders. The visitors had famously shut out the Austrian champions without recording a single shot of any description in the home leg, but unless their intention was to play for penalties, they would need at least one to spring the biggest shock of the tournament thus far.

In front of 10,000 fans and on their own turf, Salzburg simply couldn’t allow themselves to be undone. The first leg had been an embarrassment, and Crusaders needed to be punished accordingly. Just eight minutes in, the visitors’ defences were breached – Japanese international winger Takumi Minamino dancing down the right and crossing for Marc Rzatkowski to beat his man at the far post. Crusaders’ gameplan was torn apart inside 10 minutes, and at this point Red Bull were simply wondering how many they could rack up.

At the half-time interval, the answer remained at one. Crusaders had beaten their shot count from the previous game – one shot, none on target – but they were not about to throw caution to the wind just yet. Philip Lowry and Declan Caddell earned yellow cards for over-enthusiastic tackles as they sought to keep the score to one, and by the end of the 90 minutes they would be joined by no fewer than three of their team-mates.

By the time the clock reached the hour mark, Crusaders were tiring. Two and a half hours of desperate defending and shadow-chasing began to take its toll on Stephen Baxter’s men, and the second goal finally came. It came cruelly too, Minamino again involved by finding Jonatan Soriano at the near post, and the Spaniard’s attempt at a low cross deflecting beyond Sean O’Neill off the boot of captain Colin Coates. At 2-0, the Northern Irish outfit had little choice but to go for it.

When they did, the results were not pretty. First, an interception inside their own half led to a sweeping Red Bull break, ending with Rzatkowski cushioning a pass for Soriano to drill home for the third. Then, with five minutes remaining of the tie, Konrad Laimer met another cross from the influential Minamino with an accurate, looping header than beat O’Neill from almost a full 18 yards.

The 4-0 final score was perhaps a little harsh on Crusaders, but then again they were hopelessly outmatched. A total of one shot over 180 minutes isn’t deserving of too much praise despite a valiant defensive effort, and certainly isn’t enough to progress. For Red Bull on the other hand, the aggregate hides a largely impotent three quarters of the tie, and they’ll need to be far more efficient with their energy if they’re to make any mark on the competition.

Red Bull Salzburg 4-0 Crusaders (Rzatkowski 8, Coates og 60, Soriano 72, Laimer 85)
Red Bull Salzburg win 4-0 on aggregate

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Rosenborg (NOR) (1) vs (0) Olimpija Ljubljana (SVN)

In the first leg of their tie in Slovenia, Norwegian champions Rosenborg looked to be going the way of Red Bull – held scoreless by an inferior side that showed little interest in scoring themselves. However, where they differed from their Austrain counterparts was an ability to break through, taking a late lead despite losing Frederik Midstjo to a red card just three minutes into the second half. That put them in a very strong position heading back to Trondheim.

That particular narrative did not give Olimpija much of a chance, and while it is true that they set out their stall rather defensively for a side hoping to claw back a deficit on the road, they did not intend to play an altogether passive role in the tie. Indeed, after weathering an early Norwegian storm, the unheralded visitors threw a huge spanner in the Rosenborg works, veteran Croatian forward Leon Benko hammering home a shot from the edge of the area midway through the half. Despite having barely ventured into home territory, Olimpija were level.

That goal changed the complex of the whole tie – a second for the visitors would need Rosenborg needed three on the night, while the hosts also knew that one goal would be enough if they could keep Olimpija out. What followed was a slow, cautious end to the first half as the two teams adjusted to the new scenario, with neither outfit particularly keen to gamble at what remained an early stage of the game.

In the opening moments of the second period, what dominated was not goalscoring opportunities and attacking football, but a surprising number of fouls from the hosts. In the space of six minutes from the 50th onwards, three Rosenbrog players were shown yellow cards by Marco Guida, and that prompted the bench into a couple of substitutions. By the 70th minute, with the score still tied on aggregate, both sides had made their full compliment of changes, and the tie hung in the balance.

Two of those substitutions would make the decisive impact, and just in the nick of time. With the game in the 84th minute, Australian full-back Alex Gersbach worked himself some space down the left and slid a pass between two defenders to meet the run of Magnus Stamnestro. The midfield creator didn’t make the cleanest of contacts with his first-time, left-footed effort, but it was enough to catch Rok Vodisek off guard and beat the Olimpija keeper. From being so close to extra time, the visitors had just five minutes plus stoppages to grab a goal that would send them through on away goals.

But Rosenborg held firm, and Olimpija were knocked out despite giving the Norwegians an almighty scare. Kare Ingebrigtsen will have his hands full guiding Rosenborg any further in the competition after a less than convincing showing, but at this stage all that matters is that they’re in the draw for the next round.

Rosenborg 1-1 Olimpija Ljubljana (Stamnestro 84; Benko 24)
Rosenborg win 2-1 on aggregate


Sheriff Tiraspol (MDA) (1) vs (1) Seinajoen Jalkapallokerho (FIN)

Another tie very much in the balance after the first leg, even more so than the previous clash, was the battle of the champions of Moldova and Finland. In Seinajeon, Sheriff had given themselves a slender advantage by netting an away goal, but the hosts were behind for less than 15 minutes before pulling themselves level. In breakaway Transnistria, there was no predicting what promised to be another tight and cagey affair.

Of a combined 24 shots on goal taken by the two teams, only five successfully hit the target. That statistic alone should give you some indication of the level of quality – or, more accurately, lack thereof – the 3,000 or so fans in Tiraspol were subjected to. English referee Mark Clattenburg would also be a busy man, blowing for no fewer than 28 fouls over the 90 minutes, and with the first booking coming after just eight minutes, what transpired was a game high on effort and low on execution.

Perhaps the pivotal moment of the match came in the 41st minute when, after a brief spell of SJK possession, midfield Josip Brezovec was shown a yellow card for a foul on Matti Klinga. That in itself seems inauspicious enough, but what took place next was sheer stupidity – Welsh full-back Richard Dorman, now in his sixth season in the Finnish game, took the free-kick, and after three short passes Clattenburg blew a whistle again. Unbelievably, Brezovec had gone in late on Emil Lidman, and picked up his second yellow card just 30 seconds after the first.

Sheriff now had to play the best part of 50 minutes with just 10 men, and were forced into using two of their three substitutions at half-time to fix the damage. They also needed to keep out an SJK side who knew that this presented a huge chance to take a big step towards group stage football of one form or another, and who would doubtless be spurred on by Brezovec’s rashness. It would be a tall order for Sheriff to hold on to their slender advantage from here.

And indeed, that was precisely how the game played out. The hosts faced a barrage of Finnish pressure as the visitors pushed to get ahead in the tie, and just before the hour they succeeded in doing just that. A training ground corner routine saw Klinga’s ball reach Billy Ions – another Brit who had drifted north – at the near post, and he rolled a pass into the path of the unmarked Ville Tikkanen. The half-time substitute gleefully drove in his first ever goal for the club, and Sheriff could offer nothing in the next half hour. Something of a coup for SJK and Finland, disappointment for Sheriff, and another illustration of the importance of discipline.

Sheriff Tiraspol 0-1 Seinajoen Jalkapallokerho (Brezovec s/o 41; Tikkanen 58)
Seinajoen Jalkapallokerho win 2-1 on aggregate

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