The UEFA Champions League is a playground for the rich and for the lesser lights of European football, those outwith the very elite, it is becoming increasingly difficult to qualify for the competition. There are several examples of this on show this week with ties such as Celtic vs. Rosenborg. It wasn’t that long ago that those sides were consistently in the Group Stage but now one will be eliminated in late July. Basel have been to the Group Stage ball before while PAOK have been regulars in the latter stages of qualification in years gone by but they have to deliver a fatal blow upon the other well before the tournament proper. It is the way it is and UEFA aren’t a sentimental bunch.
Basel travelled to Thessaloniki on the back of a 2-1 home defeat to St. Gallen in their Super League opener at the weekend. It was the first time since 1996 that they had lost their first home game of the season and it hardly inspired confidence ahead of a very tricky tie. PAOK and Greece provide one of the more intense atmospheres in European football and the Toumba Stadium was completely sold-out for the visit of FCB. Yes, this wasn’t your typical Second Qualifying Round game.
PAOK had been absent from Champions League qualifying last year and were eliminated the previous year by Ajax but their 2nd placed finish in the Greek Super League sees their return. Basel was one they probably wanted to avoid. Seasoned competitors at this level and a team that already have competitive football under their belt, that aforementioned game on Saturday. It was not lost on PAOK then that it would be wise for them to take a strong lead to St. Jakob-Park next week.
Before the game, a minute’s silence was held in remembrance of those that had lost their lives in the Greek wildfires and also to those affected, who have lost their livelihoods and those close to them. It would be remiss not to mention this tragedy as while football is something taking very seriously, events like the one in Athens currently is what is really important. I hope the situation improves there as quickly as possible and those affected get all the help they need.
This was a game that Basel really struggled in but they did have the first chance, a shot from Stocker after some link-up play with Ajeti but his scuffed effort went wide of the post and from then on, it was a game controlled by the hosts.
PAOK tested the waters with a header wide before forcing a save from Omlin but it was a moment of pure inspiration from Jose Canas to open the scoring and send PAOK on their way in the 32nd minute. The ball fell to the midfielder allowing him to control the ball before lashing the ball into the top corner. A truly stunning strike and PAOK were into a deserved lead.
PAOK continued to be wasteful after this and were almost made to pay with Ajeti sent through with seconds left in the half. He breached the defence but fired over the bar in a one-on-one situation. It was against the run of play and would’ve been a real kick in the teeth for the Greeks but they were able to breathe a sigh of relief.
It was more of the same in the second half with PAOK creating chances. The 55th minute saw a truly outstanding save from Jonas Omlin as the ball was whipped into the box and sent towards goal from just yards out but the keeper, impressive in his first competitive game at the weekend too, tipped it around the post to keep FCB in the tie.
The second goal was needed at this point. PAOK deserved it and if they allowed Basel to come back level, it would’ve been a huge injustice. They grabbed the goal with ten minutes to play as some poor defending from Basel allowed Aleksandar Prijovic, the man born in St. Gallen, to finish beyond Omlin and put the game and potentially the tie out of Basel’s reach.
What followed next, I’m not sure anyone was expected. Basel made a rare foray forward and one great ball into the box from Valentin Stocker was nodded in at the far post by Ajeti. The silence was eerie as a noisy Toumba Stadium fell completely silent. It had be questioning if the ball had went into the net but it most definitely had. Basel got what they came for, a crucial away goal. It was not deserved and PAOK could’ve been out of sight but Basel seized their chance and while they go home with a defeat, they have a real chance of turning it around at St. Jakob-Park.
There should be no doubt, this was not a good performance from Basel. They were under pressure for long periods, failed to defend well and struggled to create much. It was due to their goalkeeper and also the wastefulness of PAOK in general that they are still in this contest.
It simply has to be better next week and if they do turn this around, then this 2-1 defeat in Thessaloniki will be seen as a good result in the end. If they fail to do so though, the critics will be out in force, including me.
It sets it up for a huge, exciting second leg next week at St. Jakob-Park. Over to Basel to complete the turnaround.
Basel celebrate their away goal in Thessaloniki