DAVID SMITH - Friday, April 6, 2012
Hannover 96 vs Atlético Madrid
Europa League - Thursday April 5, 2012
Steve Cherundolo and Hannover put up a fight in their quest to reach the Europa League semifinal, however a pair of second-half goals from Atlético proved too much to overcome as the Reds followed 2010 finalists Fulham as a second American-bearing team in three years to be defeated by the Spaniards.
As has been the case for more than decade, Cherundolo lined up from the start on the right side of the defense, and with the captain's armband on display led his team into one of the biggest nights in their history to date.
Despite having the comfort of a one-goal advantage from their 2-1 win in the first leg one week before, the Madrid-based club arrived in Hannover with fairly heavy concerns in their squad, which was missing the starting trio of Gabi, Arda Turan and Juanfran due to yellow card suspension.
Nevertheless, they still took the field with the lethal tandem of Brazilian maestro Diego and Colombian striker Falcao leading the attack - the latter of the two having already added one score to his competition tally of seven goals during last week's meeting in Madrid.
The onus was clearly more more on the hosts to turn around their deficit, which clearly showed throughout the game with then holding the majority of possession and making the more regular advances towards their opponents' goal.
Their first close call came after ten minutes when left back Christian Pander hit a long, precise diagonal ball into the area from the left side, halfway between the midfield stripe and the edge of the penalty area. The ball flew towards the outer edge of the six-yard box where Mame Biram Diouf was storming in, however the Senegalese striker was just a step too slow to effectively control it, allowing Atlético keeper Thibaut Courtois the time to grab it safely.
Diouf was at it again one minute later, taking advantage of a rare moment of loose defending on the right side to pick the ball off of Filipe Luis and make his way towards goal, where his attempt to the far post was well wide of the mark.
A well-hit Pander free kick originating roughly 15 yards inside the Atlético half of the field forced Courtois to simply punch the ball clear in the 21st minute, however Hannover's best chance of the half came three minutes later in a play which would have benefited from better execution.
Didier Ya Konan picked the pocket of Diego just inside the Atlético half and stormed towards goal with Mame Biram Diouf alongside and Jan Schlaudraff off to the left. As he powered through a pair of defenders, he made the decision to take the chance himself, but hit the ball poorly, sending it weakly dribbling just right of the upright.
Diouf was close to putting his head on an inswinging Pinto corner moments before the half-hour, then one minute later, Atlético winger Adrián wastefully snapped an open-header from a Diego cross wide right of goal in his team's best chance up to that point in the game.
By the final ten minutes of the half, Atlético's largely lackadaisical approach was abundantly clear; avoiding any obvious time-wasting antics that might draw the ire of the referee, but holding back at every opportunity and consistently forcing the game to the speed of molasses in a Siberian winter.
The sold-out home crowd of 44,000 jeered this tactic at every opportunity, but did have one brief moment to express their satisfaction with three minutes left in the half, as the widely-booed Diego was shown a yellow card for a foul near the midfield on Cherundolo - his second of the knockout round.
After the halftime break, all the pressure was on Hannover to produce, who stepped onto the field with 45 minutes to either score and have a chance to continue their run, or fail to do so, and hope to give it another go the next season.
Nine minutes into the second half, English referee Mark Clattenburg finally had enough of Atlético's time-wasting tactics, and brandished the yellow card for midfielder Koke when he took too long to tee up a free kick.
Then two minutes before the half, Cherundolo was called for a handball one yard outside the left edge of the penalty area, setting up a potentially dangerous free kick, however Diego's attempt to the near post was punched clear by Ron-Robert Zieler.
At the hour, Hannover had their best chance of the half, as Konstantin Rausch stormed in up the left and tried to pick out Diouf with a low cross to the middle forcing the Atlético defense to make an emergency clearance, then on the ensuing corner, Emanuel Pogatetz got his head on Sergio Pinto's inswinging corner, but had no zip on the ball, making it an easy save for Courtois.
Three minutes later, the Spaniards silenced the stadium with an opening goal that showcased the individual brilliance of Adrián. The winger received a long ball from Diego at the edge of the area, worked his way forward, and kept possession under heavy pressure from Pogatetz. Seeing his teammate in trouble, Zieler came off his line and lunged twice to take the ball off the player's foot, however Spanish youth international amazingly kept control as he rounded the Hannover keeper on the right, then fired a low shot to the middle of the net.
The goal took the wind from Hannover's sails, and the team needed another 15 minutes to regroup, pull momentum back to their side, and make one final run to net the two goals now needed to even force overtime.
With 11 minutes left, Cherundolo finished an attack on the right with a long probing cross from the flank targeting Schlaudraff on the far side of the area, whose one-timed shot back to the middle of goal was hit weakly, giving Courtois an easy time to make the save.
Then two minutes later, the stadium erupted as Diouf gave them hope with his fourth goal of the knockout stage in the 81st minute.
Defender Diego Godín's errant clearance of a long Pander throw-in into the middle of the area landed at the foot of the Senegalese striker ten yards out and slightly left of goal, and his low shot on the turn bounced well out of the keeper's reach and went it just inside the left upright.
The goal enlivened the hosts, as they put everything into the final attack, with the five-forward set of Diouf, Ya Konan, Schlaudraff, Mohammed Abdellaoue and Artur Sobiech all on the field.
Five minutes before the fulltime whistle, they were close to netting that goal, as a Schalaudraff pass to Abdellaoue at the edge of the six-yard box was well-placed, however the Norwegian was unable to control the ball and shift it over to Diouf before it was cleared by Godín.
Two minutes later, the visitors removed any last vestiges of hope from the Germans, with Falcao adding his eighth goal of the competition and 28th overall in all competitions this season.
At the edge of the Hannover 18-yard box, Diego cut left and picked out the Colombian striker with a short pass to the left, which he chested down and rocketed into the left side of the net on the turn for a highlight-reel score.
Despite essentially needing the insurmountable total of three goals in the final three minutes of regulation and added time, the Hannover players and crowd still made the most of the last minutes of their European run, however Clattenburg's whistle sounded after 93 minutes, confirming Atlético's semifinal matchup against countrymen Valencia.
Cherundolo was not made available to the press following the game, however his teammate Pogatetz summed up the game very succinctly: "I think we held with them really well, but we lacked a little something going forward. In the two times when they had the opportunity, they got the job done in front of goal and that was the difference."
Rausch, who is usually instrumental in the Hannover attack agreed on the sentiment. "I think we stood really well against them," he stated. "We definitely could have done better going forward, normally we're much more dangerous."
As for the slow style of the visitors, Pogatetz admitted that this did affect Hannover's ability to build any sustained attack.
"They were really good at holding onto the ball well," the Austrian noted, "and it was difficult for us to build a consistent attack against them when we were regularly having to start with counter-attacks."
He was quick to point out the support of the fans that filled the arena, and feels that they have been an instrumental factor in pushing them deeper than they have ever been before in European competition.
"The fan atmosphere was really fantastic," he beamed. "The fans have been a huge support for us this entire season. It's a shame for htem that we were knocked out, but It was a huge experience for all of us."
The Brazilian attacking midfielder Diego, who previously has spent the better part of his career in Germany with Werder Bremen and Hannover arch-enemies VfL Wolfsburg, and who was instrumental in setting up both of his team's goals, was quick to point out Hannover's quality, but feels the better team did advance.
"I think it went very well," he grinned after the game. "We played against very tough opponent since Hannover is a very good team. But we won the two games because we played better, we are in the semifinal and I am very happy about that."
He felt that Atlético's slow approach to the game was the smart way to play, although not for the sole purpose of wasting time but also waiting patiently to take their chances whenever the Hannover defense allowed them room to operate.
"I think we were just playing intelligently," he concluded. "In the first half, we could have done better attacking and offensively, but in the second half we were more precise on the last pass and that was the difference."
"When we had the chance, we scored. It's also difficult for Hannover to defend for the whole 90 minutes, so we knew that we were going to have more space in the second half than in the first, and we were very intelligent to score when we had the chance."
Despite the victories in both legs, he is not yet ready to anoint Atlético as favorites or even evaluate their chances to lift their second piece of Europa League silverware in three seasons, as they must now face fellow Spanish team Valencia, who were responsible for knocking out Jozy Altidore and AZ Alkmaar also on Thursday.
"We have a big chance [to win], but I think it's too early to say if we can be champions or not. We must play very well now to beat Valencia since they are a really good team."
"Of course we have our objective to be champions. We can do that but we must go step by step and just concentrate on the next game. If we play well, then I think we have a big chance."
Hannover now returns their focus to the waning Bundesliga season, where they currently lead the pack of teams seeking Europa League qualification in fifth place, however will face a second straight Champions League-bound opponent when they visit Schalke on Sunday afternoon.