Euro nights returned to Cherkizovo and Lokomotiv picked up a precious point that kept them at the top of Group H as 10 men held on against Besiktas on a chilly Moscow evening.
It has to be said that the support tonight was fantastic as 19,000 were on hand including a sea of Turks in the North Stand menacingly clad in black. Loko had to close 300 seats and display a 'No To Racism' banner as punishment for racist chants against Skenderbeu. As it turned out, this banner was located in my sector, 5 upper, and had no effect on my seat or attendance.
|"No To Racsim"|
As the players were coming out of the tunnels, all the fans shined the lights from their phones or flashlights in unison which beautifully illuminated the stadium before kickoff.
The first half was played cautiously to say the least as both squads appeared to want to play their defenders back to avoid any counter-attacking, so few if any real chances were created.
Things picked up tremendously in the second half, however. Loko opened the period with a flurry of attempts. The whole crowd sensed it was building up to something and their presumptions rang true in the 53rd minute when the particularly dangerous Niasse found Maicon at the mouth of the goal and he swiped the ball past both defender and keeper to give the red and green a deserved lead.
A chance or two to double the lead were missed and we were punished by the Istanbul men shortly after. In the 64th minute, Mario Gomez got the ball at the top of the box and moved right where he was cut off by Denisov, but Kolomeytsev over-committed right too, allowing Gomez to slip left and drill a shot past Guilherme who didn't even see it coming and stood motionless.
Despite being down to ten and without our defensive rock in the middle, Loko saw out the last 20 minutes with ease allowing Besiktas few opportunities and even looked dangerous on the wings, though no support coming down the middle of the field meant it was just a time wasting exercise. Gunes even remarked after the match that we were better with ten men.
This gutsy performance kept us top of Group H at the halfway point of the campaign with 7 points. Besiktas has 5, Sporting 4, and Skenderbeu 0 after Lisbon thrashed the Albanians 5-1. Playing around with some group permutations, I found that if all three top teams defeat Skenderbeu again, we only need one point at Besiktas to advance to the round of 32. A loss there and a point against Sporting would make a three-way tie with 11 points the worst-case scenario. So we're still sitting pretty, but there's a lot of hard work yet to come.