Archive for the 'European' Category

Aug 11 2012

Slovakia’s clubs’ European dreams over in early August

Published by under European

Slovakia has no clubs left in European competition this season following Spartak Trnava’s 3-0 defeat at home to Steaua Bucharest in the Europa League 3rd qualifying round on Thursday night. A 1-0 win in the first leg in Romania had raised hopes that Trnava might extend their interest into the play-off round, but Adi Rocha’s 8th minute goal cancelled out their advantage. Headers from Raul Rusescu and Stefan Nikolič, in the 77th and 83rd minutes respectively, secured Steaua’s aggregate victory. There seems to be some dispute about whether the first goal, the second goal, or an injury to defensive kingpin Peter Čvirik was the real turning-point of the evening but no’one in the Trnava camp is denying that Steaua were the better team over the two legs. ‘Our miracle couldn’t last for two matches,’ said coach Pavel Hoftych. ‘European football is ahead of ours,’ added captain Miroslav Karhan. 

Obviously, the biggest disappointment will be felt by Trnava themselves, and their fans. With a crowd of almost 14,000, a relatively small away following and parts of the Štadión Antona Malatinského closed for security reasons, the home sections must have been sold out for the second leg. Steaua coach Laurentiu Reghecampf even admitted that he’d found the pre-match atmosphere ‘scary’. If Trnava had progressed as far as the group stages, you shudder to think what sort of noise their supporters might have created. 

There will also be people seizing on this result, and the earlier European defeats suffered byŽilina, Senica and Slovan Bratislava, as proof of what a desperate state Slovak football is in.In some ways, they will be over-reacting. Žilina were given as tough a draw as it’s possible to get in the first round of Champions League qualifying, in the shape of Israeli champions Hapoel Ironi Kirjat Shmona. As for the Europa League, Senica’s defeat to last season’s Champions League quarter-finalists APOEL Nicosia in the 2nd qualifying round was to be expected, Slovan were unfortunate to lose to Videoton on away goals at the same stage - the Hungarians then showed their quality by thrashing Belgian side KAA Ghent – while Trnava’s loss to Steaua can hardly be regarded as a disgrace given the latter’s history of European success.

We should also remember that, less than a year ago, Slovan beat AS Roma to reach the Europa League group stage.  A year earlier, Žilina were mixing it with the likes of Chelsea in the Champions League. These achievements were almost supplemented by Trnava (last season) and Slovan (2010/2011), both of whom lost narrowly at the Europa League’s play-off stage. All that said, perhaps the most telling quote from the interviews after the Steaua game came from the Trnava player who noted that the Romanians ‘had three chances and scored three goals’. That is not bad luck or injustice, it is what football at the higher levels is all about. Unfortunately, the best Slovak teams are not exposed to this sort of quality on a regular enough basis in their domestic league.

One game from last spring, Žilina v Zlaté Moravce, summed the problem up perfectly. Žilina, looking half-asleep at times, were totally outplayed for 45 minutes. Zlaté Moravce had three clear opportunities to score, but missed them all. They then retreated into defence in the second-half and a 38 year-old substitute defender won the game for Žilina, who, of course, went on to claim the title. It was less an example of how good sides win when not playing well than of getting away with it because the opposition lacked the quality and winning mentality to punish sloppiness. 

It’s easy to observe that the Corgoň Liga lacks quality, but far harder to see how it could improve. Occasionally, it does provide proper footballing occasions involving two decent sides who don’t give each other an inch. If there were more contests like April’s Žilina v Trnava game, or last Sunday’s between Trnava and Slovan, for example, Slovak teams might find themselves a little better prepared when they come up against good foreign opposition. It’s sad to reflect that it will now be eleven months until any of the clubs here get the chance again.

James Baxter

 

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Jun 29 2012

European Draw Reaction

Published by under European

 

If you didn’t already know the European competitions were bloated, overblown affairs, the fact that the draws for this season’s have just been made – just a month or so after the last campaign’s finals – should put you in the picture. And yet, while I’m increasingly resistant to the hype and big-business aspects of these tournaments, I love the draws for the early rounds. When your team’s name is going into the hat alongside those of, say,Albania’s Skenderbeu Korce, or Kups Kuopio of Finland, you know you’re embarking on an exotic adventure. It’s not going to end in glorious victory eleven months on, but there might be some fun along the way.

 

Aspects of these draws have come to resemble a reunion. I’ve been paying attention to them for 13 years now, ever since the one that paired Sigma Olomouc with Sheriff Tiraspol in the 1999/2000 UEFA Cup. Sheriff always finish in Moldova’s top two so are no strangers to the early European rounds. They’re in the Champions League this season and will travel to Armenia on the 17th or 18th July for the first leg of their tie with FC Ulisses. FC Zestafoni (of Georgia) and FK Ventspils (of Latvia) are two other perennials of the draws, like former schoolmates who never miss the annual get-together. And every year, there are clubs who may have entered the competitions before, but whose names seem new, like CS Grevenmacher (from Luxembourg) or JJK Jyväskylä (Finland again). A groundhop that took in some of these outfits would be a wonderful thing indeed.

 

Slovakia’s representatives in this season’s competitions face, on balance, difficult qualifying round games, champions Žilina perhaps most of all. Their opponents in the Champions League second qualifying round are Israeli side Hapoel Ironi Kirjat Shmona. Hapoel (as I shall be calling them from now on) were founded in 2000 and won the first domestic title in their short history last season. The basis of their success is surely the wealth of owner Izzy Sheratzky, whose firm makes GPS systems and tracking devices for finding stolen cars. The squad has three Israeli internationals within it, as well as players from Argentina, Macedonia and Serbia. Captain Adrian Rochet insists that the real star last season was coach Ran Ben Shimon, but he has since moved on, to be replaced by Gili Landau. Žilina striker Tomáš Majtán admits that Hapoel were the opponents he and his team least wanted. It’s possible, then, that the Israelis, despite being unseeded in the draw, will start this tie as favourites.

 

Senica and Slovan Bratislava both face Hungarian opposition in the Europa League. Senica, who enter at the first qualifying round stage, are up against MTK Budapest. Both clubs were losing finalists in their respective domestic cup competitions last season, but MTK combined their knockout exploits with promotion from the second tier, to which they’d been relegated a year earlier. Established in 1888, and counting prominent members of the capital’s Jewish community among their founders, MTK have a rich history, which also includes 23 Hungarian championships. Their ground, the Hidegkuti Nándor Stadium, owes some of its fame to the film Escape to Victory, parts of which were shot there. On a personal note, I can also say that it’s one of the most ramshackle, weed-strewn venues I’ve ever visited and that the one game I’ve seen there – a 0-0 draw against Szombathely Haladás, played on an excrutiatingly cold day – is possibly the direst I’ve ever witnessed. Yet I’d go back like a shot! The first leg of the upcoming tie, which will be played in Slovakia, will be Zdeněk Psotka’s first competitive match in charge of Senica. As he says, the fact that (rather curiously) his side met MTK less than two weeks ago in a friendly at least gives him an idea of what to expect.

 

Slovan enter the Europa League one round later and find themselves up against Videoton Fehérvár, champions of Hungary in 2011 and runners-up last season. Like Žilina, you suspect that Slovan would have wished for a gentler beginning to their European campaign. Midfielder Marko Milinković is clearly anticipating two tough matches, suggesting that Videoton will be a stronger side than Győr, Slovan’s opponents in a January friendly. The Hungarian side is coached by Paolo Sousa, formerly of Swansea and Leicester, amongst others, and features several foreign players, including veteran defender Marco Caneira, winner of 25 Portugese international caps.

 

Slovan should play their first leg at home, but may switch their games, as Trnava are due to host their first leg against Ireland’s Sligo Rovers the same night. With respect to Sligo, who qualify by virtue of finishing second in the Irish league in the 2011 season, Spartak will probably be the happiest of the Slovak sides with the draw. Coach Pavel Hoftych is looking forward to the likely contrast between Sligo and the eastern European sides Trnava met in their run to last season’s Europa League play-off. As defender Luboš Hanzel points out, Hoftych will certainly ensure that Sligo are properly scouted. Given the chance, the Irish team enjoy scoring goals, as Galway United (beaten 8-0 and 7-1 in the 2011 campaign) will ruefully confirm. They may also enjoy a slight advantage in match fitness, as they are now approaching the halfway point of their league season, whereas the Slovak version will still be in its very early stages come mid-July. Even so, it would be a surprise if Trnava’s greater experience of European competition didn’t prevail over the coming two meetings.

 

 

Champions League 2nd Qualifying Round (17/18 and 24/25 July)

 

MŠK Žilina vs Hapoel Ironi Kirjat Shmona

 

Europa League 1st Qualifyng Round (5 and 12 July)

 

FK Senica vs MTK Budapest

 

Europa League 2nd Qualifyng Round (19 and 26 July)

 

Slovan Bratislava vs Videoton Fehérvár *

Spartak Trnava vs Sligo Rovers

 

*Venue of first leg to be confirmed.

 

 James Baxter

 

 

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Mar 13 2012

Hearts v St Mirren

Published by under European

Hearts 2 St Mirren 2 
Plenty of action at Tynecastle – but still no Marián Kello
 
Coming from England and now living abroad, my relationship with Scottish football has always been a fairly distant one. Yet it’s also been tinged with a little romance. This has a bit to do with Celtic and Rangers but less than you might expect. Of course, these clubs are grand institutions with rich histories, passionate supporters and a fantastic stadium apiece. But they also inspire a certain ambivalence in me, partly because, in the late 80s and early 90s, there was an assumption that all supporters of English clubs should have an affinity with one or other of them. I never quite saw the point of pretending a great love for a club from far away on the dubious grounds that a section of its fans liked to play at being paramilitaries. I thus left Glasgow’s ‘big two’ alone and indulged myself in feelings of silent contempt when, say, Manchester United fans displayed their Irish banners or City fans (or West Brom fans for that matter) started their ‘no surrender to the IRA’ chants.
 
For me, the appeal of Scottish football came more from quirky things like team and ground names (Queen of the South, Heart of Midlothian, Cappielow, Ochilview), from growing up in an era when some of the finest players ever to have graced England’s top leagues (such as Alan Hansen and Kenny Dalglish) were moving south, and because there was a proportionate exposure to it on TV. You used to be able to watch the Scottish Cup Final after its English counterpart had finished, for example. Best of all, there was Archie Macpherson, who used to present a Scottish preview for BBC’s Football Focus. Archie was an excellent broadcaster but one who often seemed to be battling against adverse circumstances. I recall him once attempting to report from the centre-circle at Pittodrie as a blizzard blew his umbrella inside out. Sometime later, he started a piece from Ibrox just as someone on the Rangers staff decided it was high time the volume levels of the stadium PA system were checked.
 
All these things have made me want to experience more of the Scottish game first hand, but realism dictates that a serious north of the border ground-hop is something I’ll probably only ever do in my head. Dreams of Glebe Park in Brechin or Arbroath’s Gayfield may never be fulfilled. Still, at least I can now claim an ‘Edinburgh double’. Nearly 18 years after I saw my first ever ‘live’ Scottish game – a truly dire 0-0 draw between Hibernian and Kilmarnock at Easter Road – I pitched up at Tynecastle last weekend to see which of Hearts or St Mirren would progress to the Scottish Cup semi-finals.
 
Scotland is clearly a nation that’s crazy about football but I’d say Edinburgh is far from its most football-mad city. The biggest stadium in town – much, much bigger than Easter Road and Tynecastle put together – is the Murrayfield rugby ground. The city-centre sports shops also seem to stock a lot of rugby stuff, while Hearts and Hibs shirts get less window-space than those of England’s big football clubs. That seems a shame, because Hearts and Hibs have made their different contributions to the city’s history, indeed to their country’s history. I was especially fascinated by the fact, commemorated in a memorial near Haymarket station, that Hearts were the first British club whose players signed up en masse to fight in World War I.
 
Walking to Tynecastle from the centre of Edinburgh reminded me just a little of walking to QPR’s Loftus Road. You know you’re going the right way because there are plenty of people in football colours ahead of you, the shops and businesses – cab firms, take-aways, launderettes – are very much those of the inner-city, and you don’t see the ground until the last minute, when it suddenly appears at the end of short, terraced streets. It could only be in Scotland, though, because these streets are lined with the sort of solid, stone-built tenement blocks that you hardly see in England.
 
The ground itself is a beauty, Archibald Leitch’s old main stand contrasting nicely with the steep-sided modern stands on the other three sides. Sit high enough in the Wheatfield stand and you have a view east across the city to the castle and even to Arthur’s Seat, the dramatic rocky crag that overlooks the Hibs ground. Another feature I’ve always associated with Scotland became apparent to me as I entered ; the smallness of the pitch. I read years ago that the smallest pitch in England would be about the average size for Scotland – and the Tynecastle pitch looked small by any standards.
 
There were other throwbacks too. I was delighted to find that both teams were to play in their traditional colours. Hearts have got rid of the broad white stripe that spoiled their maroon for a while, and St Mirren didn’t have the ugly patch on the back of their striped shirts that English sides with similar strips are forced to wear in order to make identifying players’ numbers easier. Best of all, there was no idiot PA announcer prancing around on the side of the side of the pitch and drowning out the very atmosphere he claims to be attempting to whip up. In fact, there were no announcements at all until the 27th minute, the time of St Mirren’s first goal, when we learned that there had been ‘technical problems’.
 
For the first 30 minutes of the match, the Hearts team appeared to have more than just ‘technical’ problems. In fact, the neat, compact visitors from Paisley made the home players look as though they’d come onto the pitch straight from a hangover-busting fry-up in a nearby café. As well as looking brighter and more keyed-up, St Mirren had got their tactics right, their three-man central midfield enabling them to dominate possession. Their problem was that they only scored one goal during this period, a well-placed left-foot free-kick by Graham Carey, as opposed to the three or four they should have scored. Hearts’ equaliser after 37 minutes was an example of how the simple things done well can compensate for all-round inferiority. Danny Grainger took an inswinging corner and Craig Beattie headed down and in.
 
Manager Paulo Sergio didn’t let that deflect him from a necessary substitution, though. He took off hapless midfielder Adrian Mrowiec, sent on Rudi Skácel and reorganised his men into a diamond formation. Now it was St Mirren looking ropey. After 48 minutes, Beattie crossed from the left and Skácel’s glancing header made it 2-1. In a way, the visitors’ response at this point, though more prosaic than their attractive football of the opening period, was the most admirable aspect of their performance. Led by Steven Thomson, their battling number 8, they dug in hard, stemmed the flow of Hearts attacks and gradually got back into the game again. And the move that led to their 83rd minute equaliser, started and finished by Nigel Hasselbaink via a deflection off Marius Zaliukas, was an excellent passage of play. There was time for St Mirren to miss a chance to win the game and for their goalkeeper Craig Samson to get away with handling the ball outside his box, but it finished honours even at 2-2.
 
In truth, the Samson incident was one of a string of controversial refereeing decisions. St Mirren had two penalty appeals turned down in the first-half, Beattie had a goal wrongly ruled out for offside, and there might have been a foul in the build-up to St Mirren’s second goal. But Sergio and St Mirren boss Danny Lennon, to their credit, preferred not to talk about any of these afterwards, concentrating instead on the fact that it had been a fine cup-tie which neither side had deserved to lose.
 
I’m more than happy to concur with that – controversy is all part of the fun – but the day did have two mildly disappointing aspects for me. Firstly, Marián Kello didn’t play. With his contract up at the end of the season, he is out of the Hearts side for ‘political reasons’. With Ján Mucha’s chances limited at Everton, Slovakia can be thankful that another Scotland-based goalkeeper, Dušan Pernís, continues to get regular games at Dundee United. Secondly, the crowd at Tynecastle was under 9,000. The Scottish Cup deserves better than that, I feel, especially when neither Hearts nor St Mirren have much else to play for this season and must surely see the competition as a fine opportunity to secure an honour and get into next season’s Europa League. An early kick-off for TV probably didn’t help, nor did Hearts’ decision to charge full-price for tickets. The day wasn’t all about throwbacks after all.
 
Still, after witnessing this game, I can guarantee that there would be worse places to be next Wednesday night than St Mirren Park for the replay. A Hearts win would increase the possibility of an all-Edinburgh final – they won the cup as recently as 2006 but Hibs haven’t won it for a remarkable 110 years. Historical curiosities like that, and the way they are  embraced so readily, are yet another essential part of Scottish football’s appeal.
James Baxter

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Dec 27 2011

Message From Fat Eck: Eurovision Long Contest, Part 1

Published by under European,Guest

Okay, Britski Belasi. Okay then. You’ve just got yourself a deal. You guys want to know why I love your website? You seriously want to understand why a fat middle-aged bloke in Glasgow found himself gutted when Slovan exited this year’s Europa League (Yeah, they may have been eliminated as soon as the draw was made but least Slovan actually qualified for the thing, unlike a couple of ”relatively recent European Finalists” within a few train stops of my house)? You want to know? Erm – no you don’t. 

You only think you do. You think you want to know why I was only slightly less devestated to see Slovakia fail to make the Euro 2012 finals than Scotland (but a whole lot more surprised). But really – trust me – you don’t. No. You don’t really want to know why I was the one Rangers fan who hung arond after the final whistle to enjoy one last look around Tehelne Pole while the rest of my comrades sloped off miserably to catch the first bus to the airport after a 2-2 draw with Artmedia’s “whipping boys” in the 2005/06 Champions League. If you’d had ANY idea how long the explanation would take, you’d never - ever – have asked.

 

But you did. You asked. You asked the one question which had anyone who’s ever previously met me sitting up straight in bed at 3am shrieking “Oh god no! Someone else has asked Fat Eck about why he’s so interested in continental football!!” And may god have mercy on your souls, coz see this – see this scroll of cyber text, longer than Filip Sebo’s non-scoring run at Ibrox - this is only Part 1 of the answer.

 

For me – for me, you see, it’s always been about Europe. And when I say “always”, I’m only out by roughly seven years:

 

I asked my mum to buy me the Borussia Moenchengladbach strip for my 8th birthday. I’d seen them losing to Liverpool in the European Cup final just a few months earlier. You can imagine how she got on with that request in the sports shops of North Ayrshire in 1977. In the days before television saturation of the global game I only saw foreign sides when they played an English or Scottish team in Europe. And the relative insularity of TV coverage across the continent meant the strips weren’t generic in style like now. By the time Panathinaikos played Legia Warsaw in the Champions League in the 90′s, the only difference between both sides’ home and away strips, right down to the font of the numbers on their backs, was their club badges. So although Liverpool were a far greater side in the 70s and 80s, Moenchengladbach’s strip was just so different from the run-of-the-mill Umbro or Admiral jobs, seen every weekend on Sportscene or The Big Match, that I just had to have it. Mum asked around. Think I ended up with Meccano.

 

It’s truly always been about Rangers. But when I first fell in love with European football it was just the sheer romance of such difference from the Saturday afternoon norm (and back then, Saturday afternoon wasn’t just the norm – it was all there was). European football wasn’t like switching from black and white to colour but more like from VHS to DVD. It was the floodlights, the UEFA flag flying over Leitch’s Main Stand, the fact that Rangers would sometimes wear different shorts or socks or even their away strip – at home! In the seventies it was unusual to see John Greig or Derek Johnstone wearing an actual captain’s armband. When you’re a kid, in 70′s and early 80′s Scotland, this stuff is unbelievably exciting and glam. As were the visiting sides. If it wasn’t bronzed Italian stallions in finely cut skinny strips posing like the egomaniacal individuals they were - long before the day when such guys were captain of Rangers – then it was your automaton, robotic Eastern European sides, playing in a cheap, bland, self-coloured outfit with a startlingly romantic crest and playing with the discipline and communal efficiency you’d expect from guys who were probably gonnae be executed if they went back over the Iron curtain without an away goal.

 

As I grew up and the international barriers came down, as football in each individual country became a street of the global village, and Rangers began wearing all sorts of strips and fielding thoroughly polyglot sides even in the flippin Glasgow Cup, my attitude to European football hardened and my obsession deepened. If we can win on the continent we’ll almost always have enough quality, by default,  to do it simultaneously in Scotland. So for me Rangers should always target Europe, we should always build towards that.

 

The disproportionate size of Old Firm resources compared to all other Caledonian rivals ensure Rangers qualify for Europe every season and a club of our size should never be content with just winning such a small domestic league. The achievements of Scottish clubs in Europe down the decades is pretty phenomenal for a nation of our size, if all our clubs were demographically representative of their geographic location. But for clubs with the infrastructure and fan base of Rangers and Celtic to have just one European trophy each and only seven finals between them, in half a century of continual access to continental competitions, is pretty shameful.

 

With the Scottish domestic scene so poorly regarded – rightly or wrongly - by the rest of the world, what Rangers do in UEFA competition shows my club in the starkest relief. That’s where we can be truly, objectively judged as a football entity. At Ibrox, not winning the SPL is failure, no matter how close we come. In Europe we don’t have to win a trophy or even reach the semis to demonstrate competence or even greatness. We just have to compete with the best. Compete. It’s on the international club scene that the relative greatness of any Rangers side is gauged in a true light, one which reflects on Scotland as a whole. Continental football is, if you like, the only arena available to Rangers which is consistently big enough for our ambitions and for our sense of our selves.

 

But the contextualising comes later in life. Declaring it the big boy’s playground is only the self-justification of an adult who still goes weak at the knees when the Zetas, Zenits and Crvena Zvezda Beograds of this planet come to town. No offence to Hamilton Accies but familiarity does breed a certain amount of contempt. With European football, especially home matches in UEFA competition, it’s the subtle changes to a familiar setting which excite. The proximity of the exotic is intoxicating. It’s like concert-going – some acts are less well known but, like seeing Gillian Welch at the Barrowlands, rock your boat particularly hard because you know and love their work so well. Barcelona at Ibrox is like having U2 in your living room.

 

To pick one Ibrox European night out of them all is difficult. I remember my dad getting me out my bed, when I was 8 years old, to watch the BBC Scotland Sportscene highlights of us beating Juventus in 1978/79. Even though Ibrox was 30% rubble for that game, the floodlights, Juve’s strip, Rangers in ALL-blue, the foreign ref - this was all as visceral as the result. I remember being so chuffed that, in the next round, we became the first team to beat PSV in Eindhoven and I’ll never forget the utter emptiness of the Thursday night home leg against Cologne – the weather delaying the European Cup quarter-final just heightened the tension. I watched it live on the telly at my Gran’s and vividly recall sitting on her living room carpet, devestated. Dieter Muller introduced me to the dark emptiness of conceding the away goal. By age 9 I knew exactly what the European Cup was and how it related to the other European trophies. And not just because my cousin was a Celtic fan.

 

I was 15 before I had a first-hand experience of Ibrox Euro nights. Internazionale of Milan in 1984. A pivotal moment in my life. The teenage me also had tickets for U2 at the Barrowlands that night – friends had arranged a bus to the gig and as I was the guy who’d introduced Under A Blood Red Sky to the entire school, there was an expectation that I’d be first name on the list. Rangers were 3-0 down from the first leg and I had, at that point, every U2 single and album ever released. I had another 3 years of U2 fandom ahead of me but their Joshua Tree tour and album was the last I paid them any attention. I’ve been to a total of ten concerts in my entire life to date. Something inside me in 1984 already knew this was how it would go and why. Bono and The Edge made history in Glasgow that night – Rangers didn’t. But I wouldn’t have swapped places with my musical mates for the world. My aunt and uncle took me to see Inter in Govan and it was a magical occasion. Maybe it was the fact Karl-Heinz Rummennigge, Liam Brady, Giuseppe Bergomi and Alessandro Altobelli – who’d scored in the 1982 World Cup final and scored against us that night - were all on the pitch or perhaps the fact Rangers wore white and Inter were in their famous nerazzuri home strip … it was more likely the fact Rangers won 3-1 on the night and gave us all a great buzz – but I was hooked forever.

 

Inter killed the tie in the first half after we’d got off to a great start and you got the impression they could score any time they wanted to. When we went 3-1 up, Rummenigge strolled up the pitch from centre, with Craig Paterson and co all unable to stop him, waltzed to the edge of the box and crashed one off the under-side of the bar. It was a message to say “by all means have your night in front of your fans - but don’t get too uppity” but the message I got was that this was the level I wanted to see Rangers live at. The ground was far from full and we were never seriously going through and, in all honesty, the Aberdeen or Dundee United sides of that time could well have put Inter out - but the atmosphere was electric and the glamour of the whole night consumed me. Frank McDougal and Davie Dodds were just annoying localish bampots playing for north eastern upstarts. Bergomi and Rummenigge were gods, playing for a club used to fielding nothing else.

 

If that diluted first taste of Europe had left me so exhilirated I could only imagine what it must be like to be seriously challenging for a place in a European final. I was born too late to remember anything about Rangers winning the 1971/72 European Cup Winners Cup but while being top of the pile in Scotland is an essential minimum for a happy life, the rest of my Rangers-supporting existence has been largely up or down dependant on how close we’ve come to recreating that continental success.

 

My instinctive generic memory of Rangers at Ibrox is the thrill of the teams coming down the tunnel and, unfortunately, conceding away goals. That gut-wrenching moment where, in a 40,000+ crowd you actually hear the ball swish the rigging because everyone’s holding their breath. It always seemed like the same goal we lost too. No matter the opponent – Italian, Czech, Russian or Greek – in my black recollections it was always some wee tricky midfield ponce stroking a daisy-cutter from one corner of our box into the opposite bottom corner of the net. There was the feeling that the “real” European sides always kept a clean sheet at home. We rarely managed this and I thought it symptomatic of our inability to reach a respectable level in Europe on a regular basis.

 

In that case the home games of our run to the 2008 UEFA Cup final Manchester should provide my favourite Ibrox Euro night memories. To see my team finally shut up shop completely, and not through intimidation or brutality but just sheer defensive class - the very aspect of the game my club is most renowned for – was the proudest moment of my Gers-supporting career.  But it was a four-match “moment”. It was a four month “moment” and, apart from the Werder Bremen destruction - the night I saw for the first time in my Ibrox-attending life that Rangers were proper, serious, gut-instinct candidates to make a European final - the games were so tension-filled that no real celebrating took place.

 

Panathinaikos, Werder, Sporting Lisbon and Fiorentina at Ibrox were all first legs. So as classily competent as the team was, there was no finality or decisiveness about those games and, to be honest, the further Rangers got in the 2007/2008 UEFA Cup the more junketeers and tourists seemed to appear in the stands as the tickets got more expensive. I’d spent my entire adult life dreaming of a Rangers team which could keep a clean sheet at home and would play European nights WITHOUT floodlights – not because it was a July pre-qualifier but because it was an April/May semi-final – and here it was; here we were not losing a goal in ANY of our UEFA Cup home games and keeping a clean sheet against Zeta, Red Star Belgrade and Barce-flippin-lona in our earlier Champions League campaign, here we were in our first European semi-final for 36 years and the team were being BOOED OFF THE PITCH at half-time! That spoils the Ibrox memories of a momentous run.

 

Objectively, the best European run of my life did not end in a final appearance. In the first season of the Champions League Rangers elminiated Leeds United in the qualifiers. This cross-border clash ensured we became the first British team to set foot in the most lucrative club competition of them all and we didn’t lose a game all season. The noise at Ibrox against Leeds was the loudest I’ve ever experienced and that run was the closest our club has ever come to getting the one remaining monkey off our backs – Celtic have won the European Cup and we haven’t. Two groups of four, the winners went through to the final. In the only season of the Champions League where group runners-up got nothing, Rangers finished second in the group. In the first match we came from 2 down to draw with eventual trophy-winners Marseille and we didn’t lose home or away to the French giants, Brugges or CSKA Moscow. One more goal in France, in our penultimate match, and we’d have been in our first ever European Cup final, the first ever Champions League final - and we’d have played Milan exactly the same way Marseille played them in Munich but … hey …

 

My favourite Ibrox European goal was Scott Nisbett’s against Brugge in that 92/93 season. It was a cross-cum-tackle which took a freakish bounce on a night we were down to ten men and trying to hold on for a draw in the pissing Glasgow rain. We won and that super non-strike summed up the pluckiness and grit of that side – their refusal to let what others saw as “silky smooth style” intimidate them from their very real talents – and duly put us closer than we’ve ever been to the biggest club game in the world. Every time I see it replayed on telly – the surprise in the face of the Brugge keeper, the commentator’s voice and the swelling Ibrox roar - it brings a lump to the throat as the combined senses of vindication, ecstasy and relief come flooding back. We wore, that season, one of the few away strips we’ve ever had which instantly looks like a Rangers strip and battled on to override our naivety with true determination and esprit de corps.

 

There was a real feeling of “what the hell” about 1992/93 (it created an expectation the nine-in-a-row team could never live up to again) and, of course, everyone feels that one more goal in Marseille would have set us up for an inevitably poetic equalling of Celtic’s 1967 triumph: We were in the middle of winning a  domestic treble, also during a run of nine-in-a-row league titles – all as per Jock Stein’s Lisbon Lions - and we should play Milan while they’d played Inter. But a set of personal circumstances meant I didn’t get to the Brugge or CSKA Moscow games that season: I just watched them on telly. It’s as a result of how I felt missing those games that I’ve never missed another home Champions League game, be it group stage, knock-out or qualifyer. First thing I tick on the season ticket renewal form every summer is “all home European games”.

 

The night we drew 1-1 with Inter to become the first Scottish Club to progress to the knock-out stages of the Champions League is up there. It was a moment of personal catharsis because it was Inter, the club I’d seen on my first ever European night at Ibrox, 21 years previously.  They were already through and their fans were magnificently sporting at the end. It was a beautiful night but for me there was a slight sense of anti-climax. This was a moment I’d lived for – a stage of obvious competence I’d wanted so badly for so long for Rangers. The pain and longing was exacerbated by the attendant increased publicity around European club football after 1991, all games live on the television and Ibrox close to sold out for every clash.  By the time it happened I felt like I was never going to see Rangers get out of a European group stage. Before that 2005/2006 campaign we’d reached the group stages of the Champions League SIX times without progressing and, just to put the boot in, the previous season saw us in the UEFA Cup’s newly conceived Group Stage: We won the first two games by an aggregate of 8-0, there were 5 teams in the group, three teams went through and we only had two more games to play yet we STILL failed to flippin’ qualify!

 

So by the time the final whistle had gone for the Inter match the following season and the whole stadium waited to hear if the Artmedia-Porto game in Bratislava had gone our way, I was ready to faint with the tension (just as well they didn’t show the game live on the Ibrox big screens because Porto had a shot from ten yards into an empty net which would have put us out but the ball stuck in the Tehelne Pole mud, a yard from the goal-line. That would have killed me stone dead). I’d always imagined it would be like this when we finally did make it through – I always imagined it’d go right down to the last kick of the group. But I’d also imagined Ibrox would go utterly bonkers – absolutely crazy – that the team would do two or three laps of honour and that no-one would want to go home.The final whistle went in Slovakia. We were through. Thirteen years of hurt evaporated. Ibrox did erupt and I did go bonkers. The players … gave us a wave and everyone went home. That was it. Over. I was utterly underwhelmed. The grief we’d been through with the Champions League – the desperate search for the right manager, the profligate splattering of cash at every European journeyman pro we could find, the slaughterings by the Scottish media and rival fans, our Chief Executive Campbell Ogilvie helping to invent the flamin’ tournament itself - all this seemed to indicate that we were DESPERATE to get out of a Champions League group. All this seemed to indicate that we’d be ECSTATIC to finally do so. And yet there was barely as much as a song or a lap of honour when we finally managed it. Just a cheer, a wave and Ibrox emptied only slightly slower than it did when we threw away a 2-goal lead against Falkirk three days earlier. Maybe everyone else knew what I was about to find out – that qualifying for the knock-out stages wasn’t half as bloody exciting as playing in them:

 

Perhaps it’s because I spend too much time obsessing about Rangers in Europe, too much time fantasising about order and efficiency, maintaining clean sheets at home and mapping out a realistic strategy for making the final of a European comeptition. Perhaps I think about it so much every season that my favourite European night at Ibrox was one which just blew the socks off me, and evaporated all my expectations. Getting through a Champions League Group stage took us 13 years of trying and 13 years of heart-ache. We would either go out by the skin of our teeth, all guns blazing like we did to CSKA Moscow in 1993 or at Bayern in 1999/2000. Or we’d be utterly humiliated and never at the races as when Panathinaikos were thumping us 3-1, with goals from the half-way line and Juventus were inflicting our record Ibrox European defeat as back-up goalie Billy Thomson rolled about flapping at ever more distant Italian legs in the Broomloan Road goalmouth. Either way, it was a story of unending pain and misery. So when we eventually did get through, I wanted an insurance policy against elimination. I wanted us to get the biggest and best of opponents so that we’d be in a no-lose situation. We’d earned that right.

 

The 1992/93 campaign was actually our most successful ECL ride ever – we finished second in one of two quarter-final groups and were, in Marseille, just a goal away from the European Cup final, but the early format meant we still didn’t get out of the group. The 2005/2006 progression was as symbolic as it was financially vital. But it was a major moment in Scottish football history. So I didn’t want Villarreal in the last 16. I wanted a team who were objectively regarded as bigger and better than Rangers on all fronts. I wanted a team with a long European history. I wanted no pressure or real expectation on Rangers and I wanted an away trip to a smashing big super stadium. I wanted Milan, Barca, Benfica, Bayern, Liverpool, Arsenal, Ajax or Juventus. In fact there were only two sides in the last 16 draw that season who had never previously made a European final. One was Lyon, a team already synonymous with the Champions League itself. The other was Villarreal who’d done nothing other than knock Celtic out the UEFA Cup two seasons previously.

 

When the last 16 draw was made I was sat at my anodyne desk in that big open-plan office in which we’ve all entered data at one time or another, waiting for news from the one manager in our office allowed access to the internet. She had the UEFA.com website up and a female Rangers-supporting friend would run from that PC round to my corner of the office as soon as we were picked out the Nyon bowls:

 

HER: “Alex, it’s Valencia!!”

 

ME: “Oh, interesting  … wait … What? Valencia urnae in it!!” (she runs back round the corner then, after 30 seconds, re-appears)

 

HER: “No – it’s Liverpool!”

 

ME: “Damn! Well …Okay – but that means possible trouble when we go down to Merseyside. Mmmm. Okay though.”

 

HER: “No. Wait a minute – Liverpool drew Benfica … hang on …”

 

ME: “What the fu…” By this time I was climbing the walls and my Celtic-supporting colleagues were on the floor. She re-appears, knackered:

 

HER: “It’s Villarreal – I knew it was a team with Vs and Ls in their name – it’s Villarreal!”

 

ME: “Ach, shite!”

 

I knew Villarreal were a hell of a side but I was scared their small ground and their lack of any trophy-winning history, especially in Europe, would allow people to think Rangers were favourites. I knew we were playing a top Liga team, a world class side - it was as simple and dangerous as that – but I worried that the fact it wasn’t Real Madrid or Barcelona would put The Teddy Bears (The Gers) under unrealistic pressure. Also, I wanted just a little more glamour. I wanted a more famous club. The fact that Villarreal had beaten Everton in the qualifying rounds and eliminated Manchester United from a group stage in which the Spaniards conceded just one goal, actually seemd a bit lost on me, for all my worrying about properly contextualising our opponent.

 

What happened though was that the lack of history behind the club known as the yellow submarine, allowed every Rangers fan to focus clearly on the quality of the actual playing staff we were up against and to drink in the occassion itself. At Ibrox that night a damp, blustery dark February night, I finally got that feeling I’d been so dissapointed to find the Inter game lacked. The moment of finally qualifying for the knock-out stages was an anti-climax – the moment of actually playing in those knock-out stages was like an electric current running through your body, for over 2 hours. I’ve rarey been so drawn into the moment, hardly ever so enveloped in a game and an event. Everyone else watched La Liga on Sky every Sunday night. Most Bluenoses knew more about Villarreal than I did and all my worry about under-estimating them proved to be self-involved, over-anxious piffle. Ibrox rocked from beginning to end. Not always in a good way – Alex McLeish was under real pressure as manager that season and there was frustration at the failure to introduce Belgian trickster Thomas Buffel to the action earlier  – but this crazy, helter-skelter season had been building up to this tie, this moment in time.

 

I was already booked up for the away leg at El Madrigal and I just wanted us to go over there with a fighting chance. It turned out both games would be epic. Both score draws which could have gone either way. That they didn’t and that Villarreal managed one more away goal than us is because they were the better side, no argument, but Rangers lived with them – Rangers scared the living daylights out of them and I’ve rarely been prouder of us. But that was a matter of reflection – the Ibrox first leg allowed no such luxury.

 

This was a monster tie for both clubs. Considering Villarreal had Riquelme, Juan Pablo Sorin, Marcos Senna and Diego Forlan in their team – guys who were or would become captains of Argentina, European Championship-winning naturalised Brazilians, top scorers at World Cup finals – and Rangers had wee Stevie Smith and Chris Burke playing, we were the team living up to the occasion more spectacularly. And the occassion was living up to and beyond everything I’d ever dreamed of. The Champions League knock-out stages exceeded my expectations of them. This was one occasion I just couldn’t think myself out of, worry my way through or calculate Rangers around. We were past the point in the competition of “coming up short”, all that was left was glory. This was just great fun. End of.

 

Our big Croat striker Dado Prso, scorer of four goals in a single Champions League match for Monaco against deportivo La Coruna, decided to handle the ball in his own box in the first seven minutes. Villarreal scored their penalty. A player I adored – a player so reliable for Rangers – had a brainstorm and cost us. It was that kind of game. Chris Burke – a player I never really warmed to and whose attitude I trusted as little as his fortitude -  dribbled, kicked and punched his way through the middle of a South American international-laden midfield and defence to tee up Peter Lovenkrands for an absolute barn-stormer of an equaliser. It was THAT kind of game. Burke was amazing. He tore their Argentine captain, Arruabarrena to pieces and he had to be replaced by Juan Pablo Sorin … the actual captain of Argentina.

 

Diego Forlan looked a mile offside as our stoppers, Kyrgiakos and Rodriguez stood and watched him waltz the ball into our goal. The referee gave it and in the stands we all just looked at each other, dumbfounded. It was only when we got home and watched the highlights on STV and the new offside laws about passive and active play were explained to us that we realised the ref and his linesmen were also world class. Kind of. Villarreal had the ball in our net twice more – at least one of them should have been allowed. Rangers had a clear penalty denied for a Villarreal hand-ball in the last seconds but not before we’d equalised, for a second time, through a Pena own goal in the 82nd minute. Alex McLeish turned the game into a battle we could compete in, rather than an on-the-deck exhibition of passing and dribbling which Villarreal would cruise through. The clash of styles was as aesthetically pleasing as it was intellectually engrossing. And a Rangers team which had heard fan protests outside the main doors of Ibrox in December went out there and got steamed in with the never-say-die attitude which coarsed through the stands.

 

In all my worrying about this game from the moment the draw had been made I’d actually done myself a favour. I’d convinced myself we were playing a club we’d get no credit for beating but who had so much more money and resources than us because of the league they played in. I’d become so neagtive about the match that when I walked into the Govan Rear stand that night and took my seat, the whole occasion just ambushed me. There was no goal-difference, points or co-efficients to fret over. There was little point in considering quarter-final opponents or beyond. Rangers were, finally, just slap-bang in the middle of the business end of the Champions League and we had to sink or swim. This was so captivatingly momentous that you couldn’t think beyond this 90 minutes and the pace of the game, the desire of both clubs (both were playing their first ever match in the Champions League knock-out stages) forced all extraneous thoughts and worries from your head. It was visceral. Just as I thought there were no secrets in UEFA competition anymore I discovered I wasn’t as smart as all that:

 

Villarreal, El Submarino Amarillo, werent Spanish after all. They came from a new country – the hinterland of all the big leagues where money you have now means more than histroy you didn’t have yesterday. These clubs are the glamorous names of tomorrow and the dazzling all-yellow fatigues of Villareal’s polyglot Latin mercenaries rung as true as the all-white of Real Madrid, the black and white stripes of Juventus or the big red bib of Ajax. It was the perfect counterpoint to the traditional Rangers home strip our own polyglot mercenaries wore that night. The Red and Black socks with the white shorts went out and got ripped into an emerging European force of stars. That buzz I had as a kid when Gordon Smith and Alex MacDonald turned over Juventus – that buzz was back. The 2-2 draw with Villarreal on 22nd February 2006 is my favourite European night at Ibrox so far.

 

But that’s only half the story – half of a story which, I promise you, does include Slovakian football at some point.

Alex Anderson

 

 


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Dec 16 2011

Slovan Bratislava 2-3 Red Bull Salzburg

Published by under European

“Three Unnecessary Goals”

was the headline carried by Dennik Sport next to an interview with Slovan coach Vladimir Weiss yesterday in response to his team’s disappointing end to their European adventure here in Bratislava on Wednesday night.

When the Europa League Group F fixtures were arranged back at the end of the summer, several thoughts crossed my mind when I realised that this was one of the two group stage matches I’d be able to attend. Primarily, that it would most likely be a dead rubber of a match, played out in front of next to no-one on a freezing cold, dark winter’s night at Pasienky.  In reality, it wasn’t that bad.  Salzburg had everything to play for in terms of qualification, Slovan had pride to play for and the hope they could add to their solitary group stage point with one last opportunity to top up the coffers ahead of the winter transfer window.  In terms of the conditions, well it was a far cry from the summer evening qualifiers against Tobol Kostonay & APOEL Nicosia but it could have been a whole lot worse.  A dry night, with the temperature above freezing was all we could ask for ahead of the latest ever competitive fixture to be played outdoors in modern-day Slovakia (14.12 was a few days later than Zilina v Spartak Moscow last season).

European Football in Bratislava

James Baxter penned the preview to this match, identifying some of the personnel likely to be missed by Slovan tonight.  Namely Marko Milinkovic and Momodou Bagayoko, certainly the Ivorian would have made a big difference tonight.  In terms of the result James predicted a single goal away victory and in that respect wasn’t too far off the mark.  I don’t think anyone could have expected the match to unfold quite the way it did though!

James had travelled down from Zilina for only his second taste taste of European football this season, and arrived in time for a few ‘warmers’ on the Bratislava Christmas Market prior to kick-off.  No sign of any football fans there, but we’d heard that a good crowd could be expected from Salzburg, 960 tickets having been requested by the Austrians. Fortunately some insider knowledge drew us to the best punch on offer, and we were suitably warmed well ahead of the 19.00 kick-off time.

Vouchers were exchanged at the gate with the minimum of hassle, and as we made our way around to our seats, we speculated as to whether we’d take an alcohol-free beer or a tea prior to kick-off.  It being a competitive European match at low-grade Pasineky, with travelling supporters no-less, I certainly didn’t expect to be served any alcohol.  Tea was decided upon, but much to our delight ‘vereny vino’ was on offer, and real beer too.  Hot wine in hand, we knew we were one of the first 1,000 spectators in the ground – we had the free stickers to prove it. The crowd was looking pitiful as the players made their way in from the warm up, there were still barely a thousand people in the ground.

Europa League in Bratislava

You really didn’t want to be a late-comer at this match.  Surely a large majority of the crowd missed either one or both of Slovan’s goals as they made their way in from the warmth of the pubs.  Slovan took the fastest ever 2-goal lead in the Europa League proper with both goals coming from Miloš Lačný inside 6 minutes.  For the first, good pressure from Slovan down the left together with some indecisive defensive play saw Lačný rob the right-back of the ball, a challenge which was disputed by the Austrians, and calmy finish past keeper Alexander Walke. The second wasn’t all too disimilar, although this was created by a fantastic through ball from Marian Had, and Walke would surely have been disappointed by his feeble attempt at saving Lačný’s shot.  Maybe he’d been watching videos of Lačný since he arrived at Slovan and wasn’t expecting quite as much power, or accuracy on the shot…

So, Slovan were 2-0 up after 6 minutes.  And that was as good as it got.  Vladimir Weiss’ best moments as a coach with Slovan or Slovakia have come by grinding down better opposition with a solid defensive performance and then hitting them late on with a vital winner.  The situation here was exactly the opposite of how Slovan usually go into games.  With Lačný, Sebo & Halenar in the starting XI, the intentions clearly weren’t all defensive tonight, but if 2 goals for Slovan had been offered before the match, you’d take them no question, regardless of the goal-times, so now it was time for the solid defensive bit.

Salzburg’s first goal came from the penalty spot on 19 minutes.  A free-kick on the edge of the box was lofted towards the goal by Jakob Jantscher and it caught Karim Guede’s hand.  To be fair, the wall was probably encroaching, and Guede’s hand was up and the ball struck it.  In real-time it was hard to spot, but the shot was probably on target, so there can’t be many arguments about the decision.  Some get given, others don’t, but it was 2-1.   Salzburg’s equaliser was where Bagayoko would have come in handy.  His replacement Kristián Kolčák was caught playing the ‘B-level’ football he is more familiar with, and played a ridiculously sloppy pass out to Red Bull’s dangerous Brazilian Leonardo.  Leonardo picked up the pass, ran at ease past Klabrusky and the rest of Slovan’s defense who were retreating badly, and slotted impressively past Hrosso, 2-2 before we knew it.  You will never get away with this kind of football in Europe, this was embarrassing defending.  Weiss was obviously fuming but there was little he could do from the side-lines.  Kolčák is not a bad player in terms of technique but he lacks experience and physique.  He was badly exposed here and when a player like Leonardo starts running at a Slovak defence, there will only be one outcome.

“MIT TRADITION UND HERZ GEGEN KOMMERZ” was the message from the Slovan fans’ to the visitors away to our left.  The visiting Austrians probably did number around 900 and some of them kept singing throughout.  Not the kind of noise 900 visiting Germans or Rapid Wien fans would generate but it is clear the commercial club who played most of their matches in front of a half-empty stadium have fans who are willing to travel.

Slovan fans try to make amends with Andy Hudson

I don’t think there could have been anything more welcome than another hot wine at half time, but we knew it was only a matter of when Salzburg would take the lead and how many they would score in the second half.   The goal was always going to come, but did it really need to come in such a fashion, just 6 minutes after half time? Filip Sebo lost the ball in midfield, and the resulting attack led to Jantscher’s cross being turned into his own net by Marion Had.  If he’d have left it, there would have been no danger, if he’d have booted it out of the ground, it would also have been fine, but Had tried to do something delicate, and the result basically completed the compilation of shocking defensive moments by Slovan in Europe this season.

Slovan did create a few more chances, one 3 against 2 opportunity was very reminiscent of the way they failed to score against 9 men of PSG.  But the matched petered out with the result exactly as required by Salzburg.  I couldn’t believe my eyes when Lukas Hartig came on towards the end.  We now had 4 strikers on the field, I think that’s the first time I’d ever seen that from Slovan. Playing a 4-2-4 formation we totally lost our structure and never looked like scoring.

"We Love Red Bull"

Salzburg celebrated with their fans as Guede limped away from the bench, the players now have 3 weeks rest before the January preparations begin, but Slovan looked shattered.  They gave their all again, but came up short, especially defensively, but also tactically.  We’ve seen it before, there are glimpses of quality, but wild inconsistency like this is what has led to Slovan finishing bottom of the group with just the 1 point.

Their achievements have netted them €1.07 Million, nothing by European standards, but still something in Slovakia.  The question is how they shape up come Spring.  Contracts need to be renegotiated, some players need to be released and others signed to be in a stronger position going into Europe next season.  For now, a stadium worthy of European football and performances to match the achievements of Legia Warsaw, Wisla Krakow and Viktoria Plzen remain a distant dream here in Bratislava …


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Dec 12 2011

Slovan v Salzburg Preview

Published by under European

When Slovan Bratislava completed their remarkable aggregate victory over AS Roma in the last round of Europa League qualifying back in August, they were no doubt dreaming of further glamour and glories to come. They probably did not give much thought to the prospect of battling away with a bunch of fellow central Europeans on a long, dark December night at Pasienky. Such is reality, however, as Slovan conclude their Group F campaign this Wednesday at home to Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg.

The tie may lack glamour but at least it isn’t devoid of interest. Salzburg, surprisingly, have an excellent chance of progressing to the knock-out stages and will do so if they win or, alternatively, equal Paris St Germain’s result against Athletic Bilbao. Slovan cannot qualify but will be keen to complete a largely creditable group stage showing on a positive note, as well as to atone for the 3-0 defeat they suffered in the reverse fixture in late September.

There is little doubt that Salzburg was the scene of Slovan’s poorest Europa League showing thus far. Having competed on even terms in the first-half, they capitulated in the second, providing a stark contrast to the resilient performances, both home and away, against Bilbao and PSG. The last game, in Bilbao’s atmospheric San Mamés stadium, definitely suggested that Slovan are learning how to play European football. They fell behind to Bilbao’s first really threatening attack of the game but responded with a performance which combined sensible defending with enough dangerous attacks to keep the Basques on the alert. The last 15 minutes of the first-half were dominated by the Slovak team. Juraj Halenár hit the bar with a superb strike from a free-kick and Filip Šebo, exploiting the space behind the home defence as they pressed a little too high up the pitch, scored a well-taken equaliser. The start of the second-half was fairly even but Bilbao’s superior skill came more and more to the fore as it went on and they just about deserved their winning goal, scored 15 minutes from the end.

It is arguable whether the bigger disappointment for Slovan in Bilbao lay in the result or in the fact that Mamadou Bagayoko and Marko Milinković picked up their third bookings of the stage and will have to miss the Salzburg match. Bagayoko has been arguably the team’s best player in Europe this season and his pace and energy up and down the right flank will be difficult to replace. Presumably, one of Ivo Taborský, Lukáš Pauschek or Kristián Kolčák, all of whom have played at left-back at various points in the tournament, will be asked to make the switch to the right, while Marián Had and Martin Dobrotka continue their (mostly) solid central defensive partnership.

Milinković is one of those players who never seems to be in a hurry but is more capable than most of opening up a defence with a touch of finesse. Erik Grendel comes closest to replicating his qualities and will probably join Halenár and Igor Žofčák in an attacking midfield trio behind lone-striker Šebo. As for the area between them and the back four, Karim Guédé failed in what appeared to be his mission to pick up a third yellow card of his own in Bilbao, and thus should take his place alongside Jiří Kladrubský.

Though it’s likely to be a cold night with little glamour or romance in the air, I have a feeling we could be in for a decent game on Wednesday. Slovan should have that end of term feeling about them which often causes teams to play with greater freedom, and their efforts in Bilbao ought to have finally convinced them that they are capable of troubling the defences of some of Europe’s better teams. Halenár, with his readiness to join Šebo in attack whenever possible, as well as his longer experience of European football, seems to be key to their best football going forward and may be thinking it’s high time he registered a goal in this competition. If Slovan do bow out of Group F with a strong performance on Wednesday, they will leave us wondering what they might do if, as they surely will, they find themselves in Europe again next season and some of the current squad stick around.

For all that, though, Salzburg are the ones with the bigger motivation. With their corporate identity and three-quarters empty ground, they might be an unloved club but at least they can’t be accused, unlike some, of disdaining the Europa League. Having got slightly the better of their two clashes with PSG, drawn in Bilbao and beaten Slovan at home, they will now be keen to finish the job and progress to the last 32. Also, their Slovak winger Dušan Švento will have an added incentive to do well, given his long-running feud with Slovan coach Vladimír Weiss. It will be a lot closer than in Austria but I think Salzburg will have just about enough to ensure their continued participation in the competition.

Prediction : Slovan 1 Salzburg 2

James Baxter

James also recently posted a Corgon Liga mid-season review over on SFUnion.

5 responses so far

Nov 28 2011

Mario Pecalka scores in Tel Aviv Derby

Published by under European

Mario Pecalka is apparently enjoying his time in Israel.  Here he is scoring the first goal in Hapoel’s 3-1 victory in the Tel Aviv derby.  Mario is already loved by team-mates and fans alike – especially since any player scoring in the derby becomes an immediate legend in the fans’ eyes:

Many thanks to Shahar Varshal for this.

One response so far

Nov 04 2011

Paris & Bratislava; a tale of two footballing cities

Published by under European,Guest

Delighted to welcome old friend and Paris resident David Williams to the blog with his account of another disappointing night for Slovan Bratislava in the group stages of the Europa League:

Earlier this year, during a week’s break in Eastern Europe, your guest blogger and a couple of fellow Parisian holiday thrill-seekers had the pleasure of accompanying former schoolmate BritskiBelasi and his elite selection of expat Slovak football cognoscenti to Slovan’s victorious Champions League home leg against Kazakh champions Tobol Kostany.

That balmy Zlatý Bažant fuelled July evening at a surprisingly atmospheric Pasienky- a perfect caricature of this Westerner’s vision of Eastern European stadia, with its stark, modernist floodlights and scoreboard, despite its patent limitations as a football ground and spiritual home for Slovan – couldn’t be much further removed from adrenched and rather dreary Parc des Princes in early November.

Of course, no sane person would spurn a visit to the “City of Light”, but Paris really is a lot more pleasant in the springtime, or at least before the clocks go back. As long-term 1920s resident Ernest Hemingway once remarked “All the sadness of the city came suddenly with the first cold rains of winter, and there were no more tops to the high white houses as you walked but only the wet blackness of the street.”

Thus it was, unseasonably mild temperatures apart, that Hakim and I returned, accompanied by Jérémie and Stéphane this time, to see our summer crush in the flesh for a second time as they sought to replicate the kind of performance that earned them a draw at home to PSG, one of the self-declared most financially ambitious clubs in Europe, their bombast bolstered in recent weeks by the continuing clamour surrounding David Beckham’s mooted arrival in January.

Pre-match expectations settled on a modest but essential victory for the home side given PSG’s variable form in Europe, in stark contrast with their domestic dominance of 9 wins in the last 11, including impressive victories against Montpellier and Lyon.

From the off, there were clear differences in quality and approach between the two teams, with PSG attacking relentlessly, but without much success, through a tasty quartet of Erding, Pastoré, Nenê and Menez, while Slovan made a virtue out of necessity with 10 men behind the ball. This pattern lasted right until midway through the second half when PSG finally broke the deadlock, a cruel turning point coming just seconds after Halenar’s horrendous miss from only 10 yards following Guede’s excellent work down to the right byline. Subsequently, PSG sat back and allowed a much more adventurous Slovan to take the game to them in their own half, and the match at last developed something of an ebb and flow.

More authoritative match reports can doubtless be found elsewhere, but in a scrappy match more notable for heavy rain and poor control rather than high quality and silky skills, players who impressed for an outpaced, outmuscled Slovan included Martin Dobrotka, an assured presence at the back all night long, and Filip Šebo, who had a mild penalty claim in the first half and looked an excellent all-round package… despite a performance where nothing quite came off for him. Slovan may look hard at their midfield which struggled to break after Parisian attacks, frequently being harried and chased off the ball all too easily. However they did construct some long passing moves towards the end of the game, winning in the process their only two corners of the match in the closing minutes right in front of their delighted fans – a hearty 250-strong contingent who provided robust supportfor their team from beginning to end, despite being massively outnumbered and horrendously abused by the PSG fans, for whom perhaps the 0-0 draw a fortnight ago still rankled [could be their non-admittance to the game which rankled-Ed.]

As for the atmosphere generated by the home fans, much has changed in recent years since the dissolution by the French authorities of the six sets of “ultras” which used to command the two kops (Boulogne and Auteuil) behind the goals. In brief, repeated clashes between different factions led to the death of a Boulogne fan in 2010, banning orders for those in the hierarchy and a principled boycott by many former ‘foot soldiers’ who stayed away en masse from home games in the 201011 season, while the club was ‘cleaned up’ and sold to Qatari investors and a more family friendly clientele encouraged to fill a half-empty stadium (my previous midweek visit to the Parc in May 2011 was before some 27,000 spectators, about average for the season but over 20,000 short of full capacity).

This season, however, PSG have become the best supported team in France with an average league gate of 40,610, thanks to strong performances and heightened expectations following the arrival ofArgentine record signing Pastoré (for a mere €40 million). While the atmosphere last year was noticeable for its youthfulness (shrill teenagers mimicking the coarse hooligan culture they had grown up with), the middle aged demographic had now returned in a respectable midweek crowd of over 35,000. The two Kops were in good voice, particularly after the goal when the cannabis-perfumed Kop d’Auteuil exploded into life, culminating in a somewhat classless “Poznan” celebrationthat obviously brought to mind PSG’s nouveau-riche counterparts Manchester City.

Given the apparent volatile nature of Slovak football, it is probably best that I let more seasoned observers pontificate on Slovan’s prospects for the Corgon Liga, now that their Europa ambitions have been extinguished, and on their potential (likely?) European involvement next season.

As for PSG, they just about redeemed themselves and now have a good chance of qualifying for the latter stages of the Europa – a competition in which their new owners expect them to be a lot more than just also rans. After their strong start to the first third of the Ligue 1 season they will also surely be hoping for a top-three finish come May time and Champions League football next season, but would definitely have to strengthen and/or become much more clinical in front of goal to have any realistic chance of reaching the knock-out phases, a feat their great rivals Marseille only achieved in 2010-11 after three consecutive failed attempts.

 David Williams

9 responses so far

Oct 29 2011

Racism rearing it’s ugly ahead again.

Published by under Domestic,European

As is widely known in football blogging circles, the European Football Weekends crew started their recent ‘Oktoberfest’ with a trip to Bratislava, to watch the Slovan v PSG game.  Unfortunately, the guys were standing in the middle of the Slovan Ultras when they experienced an example of the racism which is sadly still present in the game in Slovakia.

I am delighted that James Baxter has written this article, confronting the issue from inside Slovakia:

I was not at the Slovan Bratislava v Paris St Germain Europa League game on October 20th but there appears to be little doubt that the visitors’ Siaka Tiéné was subjected to racist abuse as he made his way from the field following his 80th minute sending-off. What is in even less doubt is that UEFA’s official report of the match made no mention of the incident. Nor did accounts in the Slovak media. Once again, it seems, racism has occurred at a football match in Slovakia and no’one seems too bothered.

Several factors make this all the more difficult to understand. Firstly, there are now a number of black players in the domestic league, including Koro-Kone and Diallo at Trnava, Bello, Ceesay and Mabouka at Žilina and Guédé and Bagayoko at Slovan. I can’t help but ask myself what went through the minds of the latter two when they heard Tiéné being abused. Also, we get all the UEFA-sponsored campaigns and slogans here ; ‘kick racism out of football’, ‘show racism a red card’ and the rest of them. There was another launched last weekend, less than 48 hours after the Slovan match. Isn’t all this just a tiny bit meaningless when real incidents of racism are not even reported, still less confronted?

Several groups of people need to start taking a bit more responsibility. UEFA, naturally, are first among them. It is possible that they will eventually take some action in relation to the Slovan incidents but a fine and a quiet, friendly ‘try not to let it happen again’ is about as much as I would expect. Meanwhile, I struggle to understand the UEFA policy of pretending that incidents didn’t occur until finally passing judgement upon them. When people can get accounts of games from all sorts of sources, is there really any point in maintaining a state of denial?

The Slovak football authorities don’t emerge without blemish either. The last time (though I seriously wonder now if it really was the last time) a racist incident occurred – at Žilina last July, when home fans aimed monkey chants at Bagayoko following a game with Slovan – the SFZ did precisely nothing. Nor, it almost goes without saying, did Žilina, which brings us to the question of the clubs themselves. Too often, Slovak clubs are more likely to try to appease fans who behave unacceptably than take action against them. L´ubomír Krajčík, the Žilina fan who caused the abandonment of last April’s clash with Slovan was in the newspaper yesterday revealing that he now sits higher up in the stand than he did before. He should not be allowed to attend matches at all. As for Slovan, I’d say a concerted effort by their powers-that-be to root out the people who abused Tiéné is about as likely as the team lifting the Europa League trophy next May.

The players could perhaps help a bit more. I don’t know if the Slovan team gave their usual bow to their fans after the PSG game but I’d like to think they didn’t, as this would have been the only realistic way to immediately make clear that they found the racist chanting unacceptable. Guédé and Filip Šebo had been involved in some interesting-sounding anti-racism activities just the week before ; a display of disapproval of abuse where it had actually happened would have been a case of backing up the ideals of that campaign with a brave, principled stance.

The Slovak media are fairly useless where this issue is concerned as well and, like UEFA, failed to report the incidents involving Tiéné. Of course, when half the Slovak media is somehow connected to people who also have interests in Slovan, that is hardly a surprise. But  the press do at least show balance in their neglect of the problem ; the abuse Bagayoko was subjected to in Žilina last year was not reported either. It all makes you wonder if other incidences over the years have been similarly ignored.

When I last wrote about racism in Slovak football, last December, a lot of the emphasis was on the point that a lot of progress has been made over the last 10-15 years. I still believe that is true and there is plenty of evidence to back up such a claim, which I will not go into now.  Taking the latest incident specifically, I would actually be surprised if the perpetrators are among the 2,000 or so Slovan fans who turn up for domestic fixtures. Considering that the PSG game drew a crowd of 7,000+, mathematics alone suggests they may well not be. Also, it is difficult to imagine Guédé and Bagayoko wanting to stay long at a club where monkey noises were a regular feature of the matchday experience and it is certainly my impression that these players are liked and respected by the vast majority of Slovan fans. The same at Žilina where Ceesay in particular is something of a cult figure.

Still, the real point of all this is to say that racism cannot be tackled properly as a phenomenon when individual incidences of it are swept under the carpet. You could perhaps compare the current situation with an alcoholic who has been mostly sober for the last few years but has just had a relapse. It is no use only telling himself that he has made a lot of progress, he has to admit too that he still has some way to go. Racism in Slovak football is not as widespread or reflexive as it once was but we must all want more progress to be made. That is why what happened at the PSG game should have been properly reported and acted upon by those in a position to do so.

James Baxter

9 responses so far

Oct 20 2011

Slovan v PSG Preview

Published by under European

On the face of it, SK Slovan Bratislava enter this match with the French table-toppers in something of a rut form-wise, both domestically and in Europe.  The only form guide which will give Slovan fans any hope is, sadly, of little relevance to tonight’s match, and that is the record of French teams in the Champions League this week; P3, L3, F0, A6.  The peformances of Lyon, Marseille and Lille make sorry reading for French football fans.

With the exception of the EL Group F defeat at Athletic Bilbao, PSG’s record over the last month has been impressive.  4 consecutive wins and plenty of goals sees them sitting 3 points clear of Montpellier and Lyon at the top of Ligue 1.  This is the kind of situation Slovan’s owners and fans would also expect domestically but, sadly the picture is quite different.  Without making excuses for a squad which has showed a serious lack of cutting edge recently, especially against the Corgon Liga’s lesser teams, the strain of competitive European football matches since mid-summer is clear for all to see.

Having said that, given the recent international break, Slovan have only played 2 matches in the 3 weeks since their last European outing, the 0-3 defeat in Salzburg.  Victory away at bottom club Presov was followed by a 2-2 draw at AS Trencin in a match Weiss called ‘the best so far in the league this season’.  I assume he wasn’t referring to Slovan’s defensive performance in the first 20 minutes, which bore more resemblance to amateur football.  However, maybe the rustiness can be attributed to the longer-than-usual break, Slovan did look much more organised in the 2nd half.  I personally hope Weiss did give himself and his squad plenty of time to rest and get away from football for a couple of days, clear their heads a bit.

We have talked at length on this blog about the tactics employed by Vladimir Weiss – how he is capable of producing shocks like Slovakia v Italy in the World Cup, or Roma v Slovan earlier in this competition – yet cannot organise his team to go out and score against Dunajska Streda or Nitra.  Something which stood out to me in the Trencin match, from a tactical point of view, was the first half substitution of club captain Jiri Kladrubsky.  Kladrubsky was Slovak football’s most expensive signing when he arrived from Sparta Prague reserves last summer, and did show great promise early in the season.  Since Weiss took over from Karol Jarolim, Kladrubsky’s form has nose-dived, to such an extent he has become a fringe player.  Being substituted in the first half at Trencin was received with an angry kick of the dug-out and you feared the worse for this particular captain-coach relationship.  Yet, as a fan I was happy to see a defensive midfielder being replaced by an attacker (Milos Lacny) when Slovan were 0-2 down after 20 minutes.  It sounds so obvious, but often doesn’t appear remotely obvious to Weiss when Slovan (or Slovakia) find themselves in a situation where they need to adjust – use Plan B – i.e. play more attacking football – Sebo coming on after 86 minutes against Russia just one recent example.

Yesterday Weiss and Kladrubsky appeared in front of the media, all smiles and looking very relaxed.  Quite a contrast to Kladrubsky’s reaction last Saturday and also to some of Weiss’ other recent press-conferences where headlines have been made for all the wrong reasons.  They’re saying the right things this time, has some collective soul-searching been done?

Weiss & Kladrubsky in the PSG press conference

In this evening’s match, Weiss can play cautious again, and try to sneak something against clearly superior opposition, but what are the chances of that working, and how will the fans feel if we walk out having seen a 0-5 defeat with Slovan not even giving it a real go?  A draw would be a remarkable achievement, and yield the first point in European group stages for Slovan, but I think all the fans want to see is the team given their all and at least trying to score.

The line-up published in ‘Dennik Sport’ this morning finally resembles the one I would select – Halenar and Sebo together up front, with Milikovic, Guede and Zofcak behind.  In defense, I will be deeply concerned if Dosoudil plays ahead of Marian Had, given his performance at Trencin, and I also fail to see why goalkeeper Lukas Hrosso has walked into the starting team ahead of Matos Putnocky who played a huge role in getting Slovan this far.  These are fine details though, and there is no guarantee that this is the final selection, I do think it would be a really smart move from Weiss to select both Halenar and Sebo.

Filip Sebo will be greeted by PSG coach Antoine Kombouare who was his manager during his time in France at Valenciennes, and once again has an opportunity to show what he can do with the eyes of Europe on him.  The Slovan squad has potential, proven by the result in Rome, yet there are so many factors that must align for them to have any chance tonight.   Earlier in the week, I was feeling deeply pessimistic.  Maybe it is just the match-day feeling, but once again I have some faint (probably false) glimmer of hope in my stomach, especially given the VIPs visiting Bratislava tonight;

How will the millionaires of  PSG enjoy playing at Pasienky on cold, damp night?  For those who don’t know Pasienky, it is almost undoubtedly the worst venue hosting any European football this week.  Let’s see if Javier Pastore performs better than the last player with such a price-tag we saw at Pasienky; Marek Hamsik.

Off-the-field, and talking of VIPs, the attendance will be boosted by the presence of at least 15 travelling fans, (and they won’t be supporting PSG).  The European Football Weekends Oktoberfest roadshow is rolling into town.  Watch this space, for links to photos, reports and all the news from a weekend-long beer and football bonanza.

My prediction:   Slovan 1-3 PSG

16 responses so far

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