Well, I guess nobody wanted Zilina’s Champions League adventure to end like this. Following Slovak football, we’re never short of talking points. Zilina fan James Baxter witnessed a very unsavoury night at the Stadion Pod Dubnom:
What happened on the field in Žilina last night was fairly insignificant but the evening does raise one or two questions. First, was there really no better choice of 2018 World Cup hosts than Russia? Second, what on earth is the point of having six match-officials?
Regarding the first question, after the Birmingham City-Aston Villa league cup semi-final last week had ended in crowd violence, the English media were asking whether the incidents would have any late bearing on England’s 2018 World Cup bid. The question could be seen as pointless, even motivated by self-interest, but I do think there was an attempt there to understand how outsiders might view certain aspects of English football culture. I trust that, following the antics of a section of Spartak Moscow fans in Žilina, there’ll be similar hand-wringing in the Russian media. There should even be a certain sense of relief that the trouble came too late to harm Russia’s bid.
The bare facts are that there was sporadic fighting before last night’s match and that, just three minutes into the game itself, play was held up for around 25 minutes because visiting fans were throwing flares. Some people believe that flares add greatly to the atmosphere at football matches. I respect that view but don’t pretend to understand it ; flares are burning, explosive objects that can be especially lethal among large, concentrated groups of people. Those who throw them are showing a lack of consideration for the safety of others, those who throw them in the direction of players of their own side, as at least one Spartak fan did, need their brains checkin.
While the players were off the field, some visiting fans attacked stewards and even started threatening the poor ball-boys. It was all pretty unsavoury and unpleasant. Hopefully, it will be publicised, as the Blues-Villa trouble was, and people will be aware that the country chosen to host the big event in 2018 is one that still has an unsolved hooligan problem. After all, if Russian fans can cause a meaningless Champions League game to be delayed, you dread to think what they might get up to on their own soil when large numbers of visitors from all over the world are around for a major tournament. No doubt, police and security officials on duty at last night’s game will come in for criticism. They almost certainly made mistakes but were not the cause of the trouble, since a number of away fans were clearly intent on it.
After all that, a discussion of match officials seems fairly trivial. To be fair, the referee’s action in taking the players off the pitch was entirely sensible as was bringing them back on when he did. The remaining 87 minutes were, after all, played out in relative calm. My problem, trifling though it is, is that three officials can’t seem to spot at close-range what I can clearly see from 80 yards. There was an absolutely blatant handball by Alex last night which kept a Spartak attack going. It was on the edge of the Žilina penalty area and Alex’s hand was above his head. I find it hard to credit that the referee and linesman didn’t see it but, even if they didn’t, the goal-line official must have. If he didn’t, or if he did but didn’t have the authority to draw the referee’s attention to the offence, what’s he doing there? It isn’t the first time Žilina have been on the wrong end of a non-decision from a goal-line official either. Remember the foul on Ceesay in the opening minutes of the Marseille away game? These extra officials are nothing but a waste of time and money.
As for the game itself, well (Lenka informs me) it was perfectly summed up by Milan Lesický, one of the wise old men of Slovak football, in his post-match analysis for TV : ‘Žilina did all they could, Spartak did all they needed to.’ Spartak’s ball-retention was eye-catchingly effortless during the first-half but they created few real chances except from a couple of Aiden McGeady crosses. Both coaches made a half-time substitution. Pavel Hapal’s was probably a tacit admission that he’d made an error in his starting line-up. Pavol Poliaček, a youngster who’s shown flickers of promise but hasn’t yet performed consistently over 90 minutes, was replaced on the left of midfield by Emil Rilke. Valerij Karpin’s change was close to genius. He took off lone-striker Kozlov, pushed Alex forward from attacking midfield and Ibson from the holding position. Drinčič, the substitute, played in the position vacated by Ibson. Six minutes after Majtán had headed Žilina in front, a perfectly weighted long pass from Drinčič sent Alex clear to equalise. That goal also demonstrated a recurring shortcoming in the Žilina defence ; the tendency to leave vast open spaces for attackers to run into. Moscow’s second was another gift, again accepted without fuss. McGeady intercepted a poor pass out of the home defence and advanced before finding Alex, whose unselfish first-time pass was easily converted by Ibson. There was time for an encouraging cameo from Ceesay, on in place of the injured Jež, and for Mr Blom to rather harshly deem that an Ibson challenge on Rilke was deserving of a straight red card. Even with the Russian side down to 10 men, it was clear that, in their inability to hold a lead or even maintain equality, Žilina had lost their best chance of earning a positive result. They never gave up but the quality simply wasn’t there.
As a summing-up of Žilina’s whole Champions League campaign, Lesický’s words can’t be bettered. When the players have done all they could, they still haven’t been (quite) good enough. When they haven’t done all they could (at home to Marseille) they’ve been humiliated. They talk about learning lessons from the whole experience. Hopefully, they’ll have the chance to show what they’ve absorbed in next season’s competition.
More importantly, and in the nearer future, I’ll be very interested in what, if anything, happens to Spartak and the idiots who, in the name of that club, made yesterday evening a rather miserable one for more than a few people.
By James Baxter – Britski Belasi