An engrossing tie in Turkey saw homeside Fenerbahce steal a one-nil victory against Portuguese heavyweights Benfica.
Fener edged into an advantageous position after Egeman Korkmaz bundled in a late winner. Benfica protested that the goal hadn’t crossed the line, and even though the referee was vindicated in his decision, the corner which led to the game-changer was dubious at best.
With Benfica famously menacing at home, it remains to be seen whether the sole goal will be enough to see Fener into the final, but the Turkish giants have put themselves in control going into the return fixture.
In England, we tend to take a snobbish approach to the Europa League. Managers such as Harry Redknapp and Martin O’Neill have openly belittled the competition, while clubs have invested less in the tournament knowing that sustained involvement could derail a promising league campaign.
UEFA’s decision to introduce the third-placed teams from the Champions League group stages adds prestigious names into the tournament, but essentially undermines the legitimacy and status of Europe’s second tier competition.
Across the continent, however, it is clear that the competition—the former UEFA Cup—still holds an enormous emotional sway. The celebrations of Athletic Bilbao, Atletico Madrid and FC Porto in recent seasons are testament to its continued appeal, while the emotional reaction of Cristian Baroni was evidence of the value of success to the player and the supporters.
It is incredibly rare to see a player crying at the half-way stage of a contest, or even a quarter of the way into a two-legged tie, but Baroni’s expressive exhaustion after missing his first half penalty gave an insight into the emotive significance of the match, the tie and the competition.
Fenerbahce’s cosmopolitan side occasionally struggled to find rhythm and fluidity tonight, but on the occasions that they did, their African forward pairing of Moussa Sow and Pierre Webo looked primed to capitalise and trouble the Benfica backline.
Sow might have moved out of the spotlight of Western Europe when he opted for Fener on his departure from Lille in 2012. Evenings like tonight, however, demonstrate that his talent hasn’t dimmed, and the physicality of his game still burns as brightly as ever.
One prodigal first half leap aside, Sow was unable to trouble the Benfica defence as much as he would have liked to, and a powerful header onto the crossbar was the sum of his endeavour.
His attacking partner, the experienced forward Pierre Webo was also a threat, but a silly yellow card received late on has taken the shine off the outing, and will see the Cameroon frontman miss out on the second leg in Lisbon.
One of my favourite narratives in football is that of Bela Guttmann and the Hungarian curse. Having won two European Cups with Benfica, the legendary manager departed the club in acrimonious circumstances, having disputed with officials over a proposed pay rise. The rumour suggests that before leaving his post for good, the influential boss is alleged to have knelt on the hallowed turf of the original Estadio da Luz and cried “Not for a hundred years will Benfica win the European Cup”.
While the Portuguese side battled manfully against Fener, and against a partisan home crowd, they struggled to threaten effectively, and, ignoring a late effort from substitute Nicolas Gaitan, rarely looked like securing an away goal.
While Benfica will still have a significant say in the outcome of this tie, a potential place in the final will only be a small step towards the glory days of the Guttmann era.
It was poignant that the last time these two clubs met was back in 1975, in the Portuguese club’s first game since the departure of club icon Eusebio. Benfica are unlikely to replicate the 7-0 victory they achieved nearly 40 years ago in the second leg, and they appear a significant distance away from the glory days of the pre-Curse years.
The Fallen Giants may be on the rise, and currently topping the Portuguese ZON Sagres Primeira Liga, but it will be some time before they are once again challenging at the pinnacle of continental competition.
While the victory and the tears of Baroni will be the main headlines to emerge from Thursday evening’s battle, subtle viewers will have been encouraged by the blossoming progress of Salih Ucan.
The Marmaris-born teenager was plucked from Turkish rivals Burcaspor last summer, and for a transfer that came to less that €1,500,000, the Istanbul giants look to have secured a gem.
Still raw at this level of competition, the playmaker’s silky skills and creative vision were on show briefly following his arrival as a late substitute.
With excellent technical ability, and a delightful eye for the pass, Fenerbahce can be quietly confident that in the Turkish youth international, they have a player who will go onto a higher level of European competition.
The Fenerbahce squad features no fewer than six Premier League alumni, and outings like this prove to the wider footballing community that there is life after a departure from one of Western Europe’s big leagues.
I have long had a great respect for the Turkish top flight, and even though the likes of Dirk Kuyt, Emre Belozoglu and Joseph Yobo may be entering the latter stages of their careers, they carry themselves with an air of composure and experience that makes them effective performers both in the Turkish league and, this season, in Europe.
Nigerian Yobo has become an elder statesman of the game during his time in Istanbul, while Reto Ziegler has matured greatly since his days as a buccaneering left back at Tottenham Hotspur.
After being let go by Chelsea, both Miroslav Stoch and Raul Meireles have developed their game in the Super Lig, and the pair would surely relish the prospect of meeting their former employers in the final at the Amsterdam Arena on the May 15.