RECAP: EUROPA LEAGUE ACTION
Clint Dempsey celebrated his return to European play with a pair of goals for the Fulham faithful while Steve Cherundolo's Hannover got a leg up on Sevilla in their first leg game.
Bursaspor 1 - 2 RSC Anderlecht
Sacha Kljestan went the distance for Anderlecht on Thursday night as they scored an important victory at Bursaspor which put them in prime position to reach the Europa League group stage.
Kljestan continued his run in the Anderlecht starting lineup, and an overall strong performance by the team against one of the recently strongest teams in a formidable Turkish league will help to cement his place going forward.
Neither team stamped their ownership on the proceedings immediately after the opening whistle, with with neither proving to have enough bite to fully exploit their early chances.
After 36 minutes, the Czech referee had seen enough and left his own mark on the game, which created an early air of controversy.
As Anderlecht captain Lucas Biglia and Bursaspor striker Teteh Bangura both went for a header in the area, the ball clearly grazed the outstretched hand of the attacker for a clear infraction which should have ended the attack.
The referee, however, apparently felt that Biglia had grown a third arm extending from somewhere near the top of his head and pointed to the spot, with Gökcek Vederson converting form the spot after much argumentation from the Anderlecht players.
He was, however, feeling merciful when he returned the favor and awarded a spot kick to the visitors in the 54th minute when Bursa captain Ömer Erdoğan tripped up Kanu on a challenge, and Jonathan Legear evened the score with his well-placed drive to the left side of goal.
Unhappy to simply settle for the draw, Anderlecht netted an important second away goal with 13 minutes left in the game, with Fernando hitting a tight angled shot from the right which was parried by the keeper, but directly to Milan Jovanovic who easily put it away into the open net for 2-1.
Bursaspor's chances for the second leg were dealt a blow in the final minutes when defender Ibrahim Kas was shown his second yellow of the game, ruling their new signing out for the return game in Belgium.
With both the win and two away goals in hand, Anderlecht simply need to win or draw the return leg at home on Thursday to leave no question, although a 1-0 loss would also send them through to the group stage.
Beforehand, they will host RAEC Mons in league play on Sunday, with an eye on moving into first place.
NK Maribor 2 - 1 Rangers FC
Both Maurice Edu and new Ranger Carlos Bocanegra played the full 90 minutes on Thursday evening, as an injury-time score by NK Maribor put the Glasgow team in a tough position ahead of next week's return leg at Ibrox.
Barely a day after signing a contract to join the Glasgow outfit, Bocanegra was inserted into the defense, and will not be pleased with the team's performance after they wasted an early lead.
Rangers had the lead one minute past the half-hour, as Kirk Broadfoot gained some space on the right edge of the box and sent a low cross through the defense which Juan Manuel Ortiz did well to flick into the far side of the goal for 1-0.
This lead held up until early into the second half, as Agim Ibraimi picked up a ball near the outside right corner of the penalty area and fired a low shot that Allan McGregor couldn't save at the near post in the 52nd for the equalizer.
The hosts held the upper hand and pushed hard for a winner, finally coming up with the goal the craved on the stroke of full time, as Dejan Mezga's run in from the right edge left Lee Wallas, Ortiz and Bocanegra all helpless, and his short centering pass was flicked in by Etien Velikonja with a nifty back-heel, giving his team the victory.
Rangers now need to win the home leg at Ibrox on Thursday to even force overtime and avoid the humiliation of a season without any further European play. First, however they will visit FC Motherwell in Scottish Premier League action on Sunday afternoon.
CD Nacional 0 - 0 Birmingham City FC
Jonathan Spector made his first appearance for Birmingham FC, playing the full 90 minutes in midfield as they held their Portuguese hosts Nacional to a scoreless draw.
Playing in their first European action in close to 50 years, Birmingham did well to hold their own on Portuguese soil and could have won the game on several occasions.
Steven Caldwell's header in the 24th minute off of a corner from Jean Beausejour bounced teasingly off the woodwork, then Chris Wood saw a shot go off the Nacional crossbar moments before the half.
Wood was again close in the 48th minute when he headed a cross by Chris Burke off of the upright, and in the end, Nacional can count themselves lucky that they were able to hold their visitors scoreless.
The draw does give slightest of advantages to Birmingham, as any kind of win in Thursday's return leg in St. Andrew's will see them through to the group stage, although a scored draw will favor Nacional on away goals.
Birmingham will temporarily return to league action, where they will visit FC Middlesbrough on Sunday.
FC Nordsjaelland 0 - 0 Sporting CP
Michael Parkhurst continued his spell at left back for Nordsjaelland, helping the defense hold off Sporting CP to send the series back to Portugal knotted at zero goals apiece.
Sporting central defender Oguchi Onyewu was on the bench for the visitors, but did not take the field.
The first half was a cat-and-mouse game between the Nordsjaelland defense and Sporting's possession-oriented presses forward, in which the hosts were able to absorb the pressure while keeping their visitors at bay for the first 30 minutes.
Sporting turned on the gas past the half-hour mark, and the stellar play of keeper Jesper Hansen saved the hosts on multiple occasions from entering the break with a deficit.
Nordsjaelland's front slowly got their footing as the second half wore on, and were able to turn the tide in their favor for the last 20 minutes, with a controversial decision in the 78th potentially robbing them of their best opportunity.
Andreas Granskov was free through on goal, however was pulled down from behind by defender Alberto Rodriquez just outside of the penalty area. Rather than play advantage to the hosts which would have seen the loose ball roll directly to Andreas Laudrup for what would have been a sure goal on an open net, the referee stopped play for a free kick to the hosts, on which they failed to capitalize.
Adding insult to injury, Rodriguez was only shown a yellow card even though he appeared to be the last defender and should have seen red, which would have given the hosts a man-advantage for the final minutes.
The two teams did hold onto the scoreless result, however, setting up a tense return leg next week in Portugal.
Even with the draw, Nordsjaelland still have an uphill battle to reach the group stage, as they now must go to Lisbon and either come away with a win or scored draw, or stick around to get the job done in overtime or penalties should the teams once again produce goose eggs.
In the days between, Nordsjaelland must make a short trip to the mainland to visit FC Midtjylland in Superligaen play on Sunday.
Fulham FC 3 - 0 Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk
Clint Dempsey had an inspired night in his return to European competition, netting a goal on each side of the half to help Fulham surge past Ukrainian team Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk to all but assure a group stage berth.
From the opening whistle, the game was clearly in the hands of the Cottagers, as they had little troubles to subjugate their Ukrainian visitors, who failed to register a single shot on goal until the final minutes of the game.
Fulham went ahead in the 38th minute when Matthew Briggs sped to the touchline and worked his way into the area from the left, before sending in a low, short cross that Aaron Hughes redirected towards the far post for 1-0.
Dempsey showed he was ready for another heroic European campaign, crashing into the left side of the area two minutes before the half to poke in a diagonal cross from Steve Sidwell to the center of goal.
The American then made the result all but certain four minutes after halftime, leaping high in the center of the six-yard box to nod home a high cross from Pajtim Kasami to bring the score to 3-0.
Fulham could have increased the score on several occasions in the final 40 minutes, and while the Ukrainians finally found their start button and pushed hard for an important away goal after the 80th minute, the scoreline held until the final whistle.
Fulham must simply avoid a total collapse in Ukraine on Thursday to reach the group stage, taking some pressure off of the team heading into their weekend Premier League game at Wolves on Sunday.
Aalesunds FK 2 - 1 AZ Alkmaar
Jozy Altidore played the final 15 minutes for AZ, but was unable to help them turn around their one-goal deficit as they left themselves with some work to do in next Thursday's return leg in Holland.
Much to the surprise of the Dutch team who likely expected to walk over the relative Norwegian minnows, they were down within a quarter-hour after AZ captain Niklas Moisander was whistled for a handball just inside the penalty area in the 14th minute.
Costa Rican international Michael Barrantes took the subsequent spot kick, sending his shot to the right side, well above the reach of his former Saprissa teammate and current international compatriot Esteban Alvarado for the 1-0 lead to the hosts.
AZ were able to pull even one minute past the half-hour mark, when a shot from outside the area by Johann Gudmundsson was punched down in front of goal by Sten Grytebust, in perfect position for Maarten Martens to rush in for a powerful header that the Aalesund keeper had no chance of stopping.
The tied scoreline held up until the 74th minute, when the hosts showed the fighting spirit that would give the series lead, as Enar Jääger battled to bring the ball into the area from the right side and popped a short pass to the center of the six-yard box which Barrantes flipped past Alvarado for the final 2-1 lead.
All hope is not lost for Alkmaaar, as an entirely possible multi-goal margin or a 1-0 win in the home leg on Thursday will put them through. They first must return their attention to Eredivisie play, where they host NEC Nijmegen on Sunday.
Hannover 96 2 - 1 Sevilla FC
Steve Cherundolo returned to the Hannover lineup on Thurdsay, as they notched a historic win over Spanish team Sevilla FC thanks to the brilliance of forward Jan Schlaudraff and his two goals on the night.
While few would have given the plucky German overachievers any chance against a Sevilla organization which has made a habit of excelling in Europe, they were clearly up to the task, and struck early to put the pressure on their guests.
In the seventh minute, a fast break saw Norwegian international Mohammed Abdellaoue charge up the middle then slide a pass over to Jan Schlaudraff on the left side. The one-time Bayern striker showed finesse in striking it on the first touch with his right foot, sending the ball just inside the near post where the diving keeper had no chance.
An unforced error by Cherundolo opened the door for a Sevilla equalizer 30 minutes later. After the American gave up the ball just ouside his team's own penalty area, both Frederic Kanoute and Alvaro Negredo were sprung into the area, with the former drawing the keeper's attention then sliding the ball to Negredo on his left for an easy finish into an open net.
Hannover were unfazed, however, and were back in the lead moments before the half when Manuel Schmiedebach lobbed a short pass from just outside the box to Schlaudraff, who was rushing in from the left side, and the striker added his second of the night with a powerful volley that bounced across the six-yard box and just inside the far post.
Sevilla pushed throughout the second half for yet another equalizer, but the Hannover back line did well to show their mettle and hold the lead, with the final whistle confirming a memorable victory for the team.
The result puts pressure on the Spaniards to win the second leg in their home stadium on Thursday outright, while a draw would see Hannover through. Cherundolo and his teammates will next take the field on Sunday when they host Hertha Berlin.
Brad Friedel watched from Tottenham's bench as soon-to-be backup keeper Heurelho Gomes collected his Europa League green ribbon during their 5-0 road thrashing of Scottish team Hearts.
Celtic third-string keeper Dominic Cervi was not in uniform on Thursday as the Hoops looked lifeless in their scoreless draw at home to Swiss team FC Sion.
Jermaine Jones is lucky to have not been in uniform on Thursday night, as he was spared the humiliation of being schooled by far superior Finnish world powerhouse HJK Helsinki in the 2-0 win to the Finns.