The words "make the most of the few chances we create" were ringing in the players' ears as the took to the pitch in Lviv on Tuesday night to face Ukrainian heavyweights Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League Play Off second leg. The ruthless efficiency that had disposed of Ajax in the previous round would be required to negotiate this extremely difficult tie, trailing as the Green & Whites did 0:1 from last week's match in Vienna. Zoran Barisic opted to start Srdjan Grahovic after his immense performance against Shakthar last time out, with Stefan Schwab, available again after suspension, taking a place on the bench. The early exchanges belonged to the hosts, who looked keen to extend the margin of the advantage in double quick time. The early pressure paid off: the goal-scorer from the first leg, Marlos, was again causing problems as he weaved his way into the Rapid box before curling an unstoppable shot past Novota and into the far corner - 0:1 (10.).
Incredible Green & White repost
If the hosts thought the early blow would send Rapid under, they were to be gravely mistaken: Flo Kainz slipped the ball into Louis Schaub in the penalty area, whose shot was blocked by a defender in the first instance. The ball sprung up, and Schaub was quickest to react, forcing the ball over the line from close range with his head - 1:1 and Rapid had crucially proven they could pierce the Shakhtar defence in an away setting (14.). The celebrations of the travelling 1000 or so Rapid fans were about to go up a notch: Robert Beric drew a foul on the edge of the box, in very inviting, Steffen Hofmann like territory. The Rapid skipper stepped up, and as he has done so often in the past, clipped the ball perfectly into the top corner away to the keeper's right, handing Rapid the lead on the night and the lead on the tie on away goals - 2:1 and a mighty turnaround (22.).
End to end action
Jan Novota did superbly well to keep out an effort from Donetsk with his feet, but shortly afterwards he was unfortunately powerless to prevent the Ukrainians equalising: Christopher Dibon was straining to clear a cross with his head, but succeeded only in inadvertently flicking the ball onto the unmarked Gladkiy, who swept the ball into the net - 2:2 (27.). The frenetic end to end pace of the game was maintained by both sides in the remainder of the half as a true spectacle unfolded. Rapid nearly grabbed a third through efforts from Auer and Mario Pavelic, but the score remained two a piece going into half time.
Agonising at the death
With the restart the pattern of the game changed entirely. Having been apparently shocked by the enterprising Green & White football in the first half, a nervous Shakthar began dropping deeper, looking to deny Rapid room and preserve their slender advantage. The Hütteldorfers looked threatening when they managed to launch quick counters after Donetsk did venture forward, but concrete chances proved to be largely illusive. Rapid’s best efforts appeared to be coming to nothing, and the outlook got bleaker not long before full time when Mario Sonnleitner was harshly sent off after picking up a second yellow card for obstruction. But just as it looked like Rapid’s chance had gone, they nearly pulled a place in the Champions’ League group phase out of the fire: in the 91st minute substitute Philipp Prosenik crossed into the box, where he found an unmarked Robert Beric on the edge of the six yard box, but the Slovene striker, always so reliable from these positions, put his header inches wide of the goal (90.).
Despite that miss another golden opportunity again fell Rapid's way; this time Prosenik was on the end of the chance: Shakhtar goalie Pyatov failed to deal with a free kick from Thanos Petsos, pushing the ball back into the danger area after making a low save, where Prosenik turned the goal goal-wards, but with the goal gaping his effort smashed into the post and away to safety. Incredibly, Shakthar had survived ten-man Rapid’s onslaught through two huge slices of luck and were grateful to hear the final whistle.
Despite going out the team had delivered a performance all in the Green & White family can be proud of. Our European journey will now continue in the Europa League until the end of the year at the earliest.
Trainer Zoran Barisic: "I thought the Beric header was in, I thought the same about Prosinek’s shot, but I’m not going to criticise them at all. Quite the opposite, we can be so proud of our troop, they showed that they are good enough to go toe to toe with a side like Donetsk. In the first leg they hit the post and it went in, in the second we hit the post and it stayed out. Little things make big differences and I’m not convinced luck was on our side. Of course we are disappointed not to be in the Champions League, but my overriding feeling is one of pride in the team. You have to give them a huge compliment. We’re now looking forward to the Europa League and want to still be in European competition come the New Year".
UEFA Champions League, Play Off
Shakthar Donetsk - SK Rapid 2:2 (2:2)
Arena Lviv, Lviv, 28.417 Attendance, Ref Marciniak (POL)
Goals: 1:0 Marlos (10.), 1:1 Schaub (14.), 1:2 S. Hofmann (22.), 2:2 Gladkiy (27.);
Shakhtar: Pjatow - Srna, Kriwtsow, Rakizkij, Azevedo - Fred, Stepanenko, Marlos, Teixeira, Taison (87. Bernard) - Gladkij (83. Eduardo);
SK Rapid: Novota - Pavelic, Sonnleitner, Dibon, Auer - Petsos, Grahovac - Schaub (85. Prosenik) , S. Hofmann (63. Schobesberger), F. Kainz (70. Schwab) - Beric;
Yellow Cards: Dibon; Fred, Marlos, Srna, Gladkiy
Red Card (second yellow): Sonnleitner (88.);