CHAMPIONS LEAGUE: Playoff first-leg update

ChampionsLeague

The play-off round for Europe’s premier club competition got underway this week with the clubs involved desperate to reach the lucrative group phase starting next month. The draw ensured a number of intriguing ties and Tuesday’s first legs did little to disappoint. Lyon face a tough task to qualify after a 2-0 home defeat to Spanish side Real Sociedad, while Zenit St Petersburg all but ensured their progression with an emphatic 4-1 win away at Portuguese club Paços Ferreira. Czech champions Viktoria Plzeň overcame NK Maribor 3-1 to give themselves a two-goal cushion heading into the return leg in Slovenia next week. 

The remaining first leg matches in the play-off round for the Champions League were played last night, with some of the regular participants in the competition over the years enjoying mixed success. Arsenal all but ensured their progression to the group stage with an emphatic 3-0 win against Fenerbahçe in Istanbul, while Schalke still have it all to do in the second leg having been held to a 1-1 draw against PAOK Salonika at home. Austria Vienna are clear favourites to progress after recording an impressive 2-0 win at Dinamo Zagreb, and Basel have almost certainly booked their place after beating newcomers Ludogorets Razgrad 4-2 in Bulgaria. Finally, the all-East European clash between Steaua Bucharest and Legia Warsaw remains evenly poised after a 1-1 draw.

OLYMPIQUE LYONNAIS 0-2 REAL SOCIEDAD

An impressive performance from Real Sociedad saw them take a firm grip of their play-off tie against Lyon with a 2-0 victory at Stade de Gerland.

After a 10-year absence, Real marked their return to the competition in style with Antoine Griezmann and Haris Seferovic both scoring spectacular goals to upset their more illustrious opponents. Lyon’s misery was compounded in the second half as defender Milan Biševic was sent off for a second bookable offence.

The Basque outfit were on the front foot from the outset, with Carlos Vela in particular looking menacing. He found the side-netting with the first clear opening of the match, before hitting the post with a low effort after 12 minutes, following good work from Seferovic.

The Mexican striker turned provider in the 17th minute as Real opened the scoring in stunning fashion. His cross from the left was acrobatically volleyed low into the corner by Frenchman and boyhood Lyon fan, Griezmann. The same player went close to doubling Real’s advantage before the break, forcing a good save from keeper Antony Lopes from a tight angle.

After the interval, the home side tried to impose themselves on the match but shortly after Maxime Gonalons had missed the target with a header they found themselves further behind. Seferovic received a bouncing ball on the left about 25 metres from goal and sent a dipping half-volley past Lopes.

Lyon almost got a goal back late in the game, when Gonalons rattled the crossbar with a close range header but their task was made even harder when Biševic brought down Vela for his second yellow card on 75 minutes.

PAÇOS FERREIRA 1-4 ZENIT ST PETERSBURG

A hat-trick from Roman Shirokov helped Zenit to a commanding lead over Champions League debutants Paços after the first leg of their tie in Portugal.

The hosts began brightly with Sérgio Oliveira’s long range shot forcing a good stop from Zenit keeper Yuri Lodygin. He went close again with another effort from distance, but Paços’ good early work was undone just before the half hour mark when Shirokov got his first goal of the evening. Danny progressed down the left flank and sent over a low cross that found its way through to Shirokov, who finished smartly into the bottom left-hand corner.

Clear-cut chances were at a premium at the start of the second half, but Paços found their way back into the game in the 58th minute when André Leão nodded in after Ricardo’s header had deflected off Shirokov. The Portuguese side’s joy was short-lived however, as Zenit restored their advantage just two minutes later. It came from a set-play as the Paços defence were unable to deal with a low corner at the near post and Shirokov was on hand to take advantage with a simple finish from close range.

Paços dug deep and went close to restoring parity again on a number of occasions, most notably from Carlão, whose header forced another good save from Lodygin. However, they were made to pay as two further goals from Zenit late on effectively sealed the tie. A free-kick from Aleksandr Kerzhakov came back off the crossbar and went in after hitting the unlucky Paços keeper Degra. The best goal of the game then came in injury time when the clinical Shirokov found space on the edge of the area and arrowed a strike past Degra into the top-left corner.

VIKTORIA PLZEŇ 3-1 NK MARIBOR

An 89th-minute goal from Michal Ďuriš gave Viktoria Plzeň a two-goal lead to take to Slovenia for the second leg of their tie against NK Maribor.

Both sides had reason to feel confident, having enjoyed an unbeaten start to their respective league campaigns after five games, but it is the Czech champions who will now fancy their chances of progressing.

Maribor were the first to register an effort on target, with Goran Cvijanovič forcing Plzeň keeper Matúš Kozáčik into a solid early save. It was not long before the home side started to apply some sustained pressure however, and from their fourth corner in quick succession they took the lead. Darida fired the ball back across goal and Marián Čišovský was on hand to turn it in at the back post. Plzeň continued on the front foot and Darida, Milan Petržela and Čišovský all went close to doubling their advantage.

Slovenian champions Maribor were finding it hard to get any kind of offensive rhythm going and their task became even harder in the 58th minute when the influential Darida converted Jan Kovařik’s low cross from the left.

Ante Čačić’s side needed inspiration from someone to keep the tie alive and Aleš Mejač was the man to provide it with a wonderful goal after 66 minutes. The midfielder deftly controlled a clearance outside the area and then sent a dipping shot into the far corner of the net, with the Plzeň keeper helpless.

Plzeň poured forward in the closing stages as they looked to restore the two-goal advantage that their performance deserved. Ďuriš and Petržela both saw efforts go wide of the target, before Ďuriš struck the potentially decisive blow in the context of the tie, coolly steering home František Rajtoral’s cross in the last minute.

FENERBAHÇE 0-3 ARSENAL

Arsenal responded to recent criticism in style with a resounding win over Fenerbahçe in Istanbul that will almost certainly ensure their participation in the group stage for a 16th successive season.

Much has been said about Arsenal’s lack of signings this summer and their opening day league defeat had increased the pressure further going into this match, but the Gunners had far too much for a desperately poor Fenerbahçe side. The one negative for Arsenal was an injury to defender Laurent Koscielny, which exposes an already threadbare squad and must surely prompt Arsène Wenger to bolster his ranks in what is left of the transfer window.

The pattern for the first half was set early on, with Arsenal dominating possession but unable to create clear-cut chances. Olivier Giroud glanced a header narrowly wide and Theo Walcott briefly threatened in the final third, but the biggest talking point of the half was the injury to Koscielny. The Frenchman suffered a deep cut to the face after being caught by a high boot from Pierre Webo and was forced from the field. With no recognised centre-half on the bench, Arsène Wenger had no option but to move Bacary Sagna inside with youngster Carl Jenkinson coming on at right-back.

The enforced chance did not have an adverse effect on Arsenal and in the second period they were able to find the incisiveness to their play that had been lacking up until the break. The opening goal arrived in the 51st minute, when Aaron Ramsey slipped a clever pass in behind the hosts’ defence for Walcott who sent the ball across goal for Kieran Gibbs to turn it in at the back post.

Walcott was denied by Fenerbahçe keeper Volkan as Arsenal pushed for a quick second, and they got it just after the hour mark when the outstanding Ramsey picked the ball up in midfield, strode forward and hit a low shot that squirmed though Volkan’s gloves on its way into the bottom corner.

Arsenal’s superiority was rewarded with a third goal after 77 minutes, when Michal Kadlec, who had been given a torrid time by Walcott throughout, bundled over the England winger in the area and Giroud stepped up and coolly slotted home from the spot. Arsenal were indebted to two late saves from Wojciech Szczesny for preserving a clean sheet, but a goal for the hosts would have flattered them and the tie is now surely beyond the Turkish side.

SCHALKE 04 1-1 PAOK SALONIKA

Greek side PAOK stunned Schalke in Gelsenkirchen, with Miroslav Stoch’s goal 17 minutes from time giving them a precious away goal to take into next week’s second leg.

The visitors, clearly buoyed by their re-instatement at the expense of expelled Ukrainian side Metalist Kharkiv, responded well to going a goal down and Stoch’s equaliser gives them real hope of causing an upset and reaching the group stage.

After an uneventful opening half-hour, Schalke broke the deadlock through Jefferson Farfán. Ádám Szalai held off several challenges in the box before laying the ball off to Farfán, who showed great composure to slot into the corner off a post. The goal seemed to bring the game to life, with Szalai just failing to get on the end of a Joel Matip knock-down and Christian Fuchs clearing an effort from Liam Lawrence off the line at the other end.

Julian Draxler and Szalai were thwarted in their attempts to add to Schalke’s lead either side of the break, and they were made to pay for their inability to score a second when Stoch replied for the Greeks in fine style on 73 minutes. Picking the ball up on the left, he drifted in from the flank and hit a wonderful curling effort past the despairing dive of keeper Timo Hildebrand.

The Royal Blues had a late chance to restore their lead and travel to Greece with an advantage but Jacobo saved well from Benedikt Höwedes, to ensure that the tie remains finely balanced.

DINAMO ZAGREB 0-2 AUSTRIA VIENNA

Two second-half goals saw Austria Vienna take a stranglehold on their play-off tie with Croatian side Dinamo Zagreb after the first leg.

It was an impressive display from the unfancied visitors who withstood pressure from the hosts to hit back with two unanswered away goals after the break and put themselves within touching distance of the group stage. In stark contrast, it was a hugely disappointing night for Dinamo who also had Ante Rukavina sent-off, and the result was enough to see the club dispense with the services of coach Krunoslav Jurčić.

After a slow start, Dinamo began to impose themselves and created their first real opening when full-back Josip Pivarić got to the byline and set-up Zvonko Pamić, but he could only fire over first time. For the most part, Austria were coping well but they almost conceded when a wicked free-kick from Pamić evaded their defenders, only for Junior Fernándes to direct his header straight at visiting keeper Heinz Lindner. He was called into action again when he had to make a routine stop from an Ivo Pinto long-range effort, but he did even better to keep out another Fernándes header on the stroke of half-time.

The resumption saw Dinamo continue pushing forward, and they went close to opening the scoring when forward El Harbi Hilal burst through the midfield and hit an effort from range, which again forced Linder into a good save. The hour mark saw Austria gain some forward momentum and they looked certain to take the lead when Tomáš Jun directed Florian Mader’s corner towards goal, only to see Josep Šimunić clear the ball off the line.

The hosts inability to break down their stubborn opponents came back to haunt them shortly after when Austria moved the ball quickly in midfield and released the onrushing Leovac down the left, who finished smartly past Oliver Zelenika. Things went from bad to worse for Dinamo with the dismissal of Rukavina for a dangerously high challenge just after he had come on, and Austria compounded their misery when Marko Stankovic rifled in a shot from the edge of the box 15 minutes from time.

LUDOGORETS RAZGRAD 2-4 FC BASEL

Basel are on the verge of securing their place in the group stage after an entertaining 4-2 first-leg win away at Champions League newcomers Ludogorets.

Last season’s Europa League semi-finalists were asked some questions by the plucky Bulgarian outfit, but their greater European experience helped them establish a two-goal advantage for the return-leg in Switzerland next week.

Basel started the game in confident mood and were rewarded with an excellent early goal from Mohamed Salah. The talented forward raced on to a through ball from Fabian Frei before clinically firing across Vladislav Stoyanov.

The early set-back seemed to galvanise Ludogorets and they responded impressively, which led to an equaliser midway through the first half. Marcelinho benefitted from some great hold-up play from Roman Bezjak and expertly lifted the ball over the onrushing Yann Sommer and into the net.

Basel went close to regaining the lead through Marcelo Díaz’s fierce drive shortly before the break, but Ludogorets continued to take the game to Basel early in the second half and shocked their more illustrious opponents with a second goal on 50 minutes thanks to Ivan Stoyanov’s first-time finish from a Júnior Caiçara cross.

The Swiss side were soon back on level terms however, as Salah again finished in style after being expertly picked out by a through ball from Marcelo. It proved to be a turning point in the game as the last quarter firmly belonged to Basel. Debutant Giovanni Sio added a third goal, when he coolly converted Valentin Stocker’s neat flick. Ludogorets were then guilty of some wasteful finishing, before Basel completed the scoring from the spot in the 84th minute. Fabian Schär slotted home from 12 yards, after Caiçara had been dismissed for bringing down Salah.

STEAUA BUCHAREST 1-1 LEGIA WARSAW

An away goal by Jakub Kosecki gives Legia a slender advantage after the first leg of their play-off tie against Steaua ended in a hard-fought 1-1 draw.

The tie remains nicely poised, but Legia will be marginally the happier of the two sides having come from behind to cancel out Federico Piovaccari’s opener and give themselves every chance of reaching the group stage for the first time since 1995/96.

The Romanians made the more confident start and Legia needed goalkeeper Dušan Kuciak to be alert early on, as he rushed off his line to deny Piovaccari from applying the finishing touch to Nicolae Stanciu’s astute pass.

Kuciak was again called into action after half an hour when he saved from Cristian Tǎnase, but he could do nothing to prevent Steaua from taking the lad shortly after. Alexandru Bourceanu found Piovaccari with a raking pass, and the striker lifted the ball over the advancing Kuciak to the delight of the home fans. The goal seemed to energise Legia in the closing moments of the half, and Steaua had Ciprian Tǎtǎruşanu to thank for ensuring that they went into the break with their lead intact, with the keeper making a fine save to keep out Jakub Wawrzyniak’s header.

The Polish side had shown little attacking intent in the opening 45 minutes, but they stunned their hosts eight minutes after the restart when an unmarked Kosecki swept in Miroslav Radović’s cross. Legia then went close to adding a second through Dominik Furman, whose effort only just cleared the crossbar. Steaua responded strongly in the closing stages but they could not find a winner, despite Florin Gardoş, Adrian Popa and Adrian Cristea all threatening the Legia goal.

JOHN COATES

PSV 1-1 AC MILAN

Once again the all-new Phillip Cocu PSV team showed great maturity and went onto record a more than well-deserved draw against Serie A giants AC Milan in the first leg of their Champions League play-off.

The Eredivisie side dominated throughout the first-half, hitting the woodwork and forcing Milan ‘keeper Christian Abbiati into several vital stops. Yet against the run of play, the only goal of the half came courtesy of a Stephan El Shaarawy header. Slovenian striker Tim Matavž restored parity on the hour mark to leave the contest wide open ahead of the second-leg battle at the San Siro next Wednesday.

The Eindhoven side nearly went 1-0 up in the opening minutes when Adam Maher touched Matavž’s shot a fraction wide of the Milan goal. Abbiati was kept busy as the Milan keeper saved from Georginio Wijnaldum before Cristián Zapata deflected young left-back Jetro Willems’ strong on-target drive behind.

Unfortunately for Cocu’s men, Milan took the lead with their first attack. Ignazio Abate overpowered Memphis Depay and crossed for the unmarked El Shaarawy to head home leaving goalkeeper Jeroen Zoet helpless. Moments after, Zoet was called into action again as he tipped Mario Balotelli’s effort onto the bar.

However, it was still Abbiati who was the busier between the sticks, the 36-year-old making two great saves from Maher as Phillip Cocu’s side pressed for an equaliser. The lively PSV playmaker then crashed a shot against the crossbar from just inside the area after outmuscling the bigger frame of Zapata.

The midfielder trio of Stijn Schaars, Park Ji-Sung and Wijnaldum held the AC Milan midfield at bay and the latter getting forward at every opportunity and stringing some tremendous passing around. Linking up well with wingers Depay and Maher and later, Florian Jozefzoon.

Milan emerged for the second-half looking stronger and only a superb interception by Willems at the back post prevented El Shaarawy from doubling the score. The young lions of PSV responded by giving the Rossoneri a taste of their own medicine and scoring on the counter attack. Abbiati could not hold central defender Jeffrey Bruma’s 35-yard swerving shot and the previously quiet Matavž happily nodded in the rebound.

Milan almost forced a winner in the closing stages, but Zoet made a fine save from substitute Andrea Poli to keep the level. PSV will be the unhappier of the two sides, as the chances missed inside the first period could have seen them home and dry.

WILL BURNS

Shakhter stun Celtic for famous play-off victory

SHAKHTER KARAGANDY 2-0 CELTIC

Celtic travelled back to Glasgow from Kazakhstan beaten and red-faced after they lost their Champions League play-off 1st leg to minnows Shakhter Karagandy.

Celtic started the match on the attack as a Kris Commons corner was met by Virgil Van Dijk’s header only for the centre-half to see his effort cleared off the line by the plucky Kazakhstani defence, from the resulting corner – Van Dijk seen his powerful header palmed away to safety by the ‘keeper before it cleared to safety by Shakhter. Just 17 minutes in the home side took the lead somewhat against the run of play, Gedismanus Vicius launched his throw-in to the heart of the Celtic box Nikola Vasiljevic headed the ball on towards the back post as Finonchenko slid in to knock the ball past Forster as the Celtic defence were all at sea to give the hosts’ the advantage. Celtic almost replied instantly as Kris Commons’ long-range pile driver crashed against the underside of the crossbar before bouncing out to the grateful grasp of Shakhter ‘keeper Mokin. Shakhter caught Celtic on the break; they couldn’t take advantage of this situation as Khizhnichenko fired wide.

Celtic continued to pour forward after the restart looking for the away goal but left-back Izaguirre blew his chance after a tidy move when he really should have done much better. Celtic had their best chance soon after Izaguirre again causing problems for the home side crossed to find James Forrest with a free-header but he could only direct it straight to Mokin. It took until 13 minutes from time Celtic were made to rue those missed chances as a Shakhter break ended up with a Vicius shot which was deflected into the net by the head of Khiznichenko to double the lead and send the home fans into raptures. Celtic had two more chances in the last 5 minutes to try and grab the away goal but a Van Dijk free-kick and a Mulgrew header both failed to find the net.

It was an embarrassing night for Celtic as they were deservedly beaten they have it all to do next week at Parkhead if they are to avoid a Champions League exit before the group stage gets underway.

JAMIE CURRIE

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