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Aug 8, 2014

Aluko keeps European dreams alive

Sone Aluko's goal sealed a 2-1 win for Hull City over AS Trencin to keep their European adventure going on Thursday night.

Just as a thousand fingers were typing AS Trencin into search engines last month, on Friday lunchtime it was KSC Lokeren's turn to be the latest hot topic across East Yorkshire.

Hull City supporters have been introduced to another of European football's outposts following the draw for the playoff round of the Europa League, and now plans can be hastily made for a trip to northern Belgium later this month.

Lokeren and Hull City have been a popular pairing. For fans who felt Slovakia was out of reach last month there is a short-haul flight or an overnight ferry to make travel comfortable, while Steve Bruce and his players will also appreciate the logistical ease.

In between the Premier League opener against QPR next weekend and the home game with Stoke City eight days later, the Tigers could feasibly have been sent to Kazakhstan, Romania or Croatia. A kind trip to Belgium, by contrast, could now see them home before the night is out.

Lokeren, last season's Belgian Cup winners, are all that stand between City and the potential for fixtures with Inter Milan, Lyon and Sevilla in the group stages.

Yet without Sone Aluko's late inspiration on Thursday evening, all those fanciful trips could have been dashed. City were just 10 minutes away from an embarrassing exit against Trencin. An unthinkable defeat to the Slovakian minnows was a very real prospect on an anxious first night of European football at the KC Stadium.

The Tigers were again a ring-rusty imitation of the side that advanced to the FA Cup final last season. From the moment Tomas Malec put Trencin into the lead after 91 seconds, City struggled to impose their Premier League class on a plucky underdog. Ahmed Elmohamady's headed equaliser drew them level before the half hour mark but not until the closing stages was progress finally confirmed.

Elmohamady's cross from the right was nodded down by Robert Snodgrass and Aluko was on hand with a cool right-foot finish. Not since scoring for Aberdeen against Bayern Munich in 2008 has the forward scored a European goal, and this one was celebrated with no less enthusiasm.

All within the sell-out crowd were fully aware City had dodged a bullet. Relief jostled with pride as the overriding emotion. The better side had advanced over two legs but only just. The courage of Trencin coupled with the Tigers' profligacy drew to the two sides uncomfortable close in a qualifier that most had envisaged being a walkover. Perhaps it would have been had Tom Huddlestone's penalty miss in Zilina not ended up high in the stands.

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Nonetheless, a first European home game was still special in the end. Somehow it felt different to the hundreds of games that preceded it at the KC Stadium, and the standing ovation afforded to Trencin's players as they trudged off the pitch heartbroken vied for the night's abiding memory. All of those in attendance will surely be tempted back for the visit of Lokeren on August 28. In the meantime, Bruce will attempt to forget about the Europa League and concentrate on more pressing matters. A trip to newly promoted QPR next weekend is looming large, and only Sunday's friendly away to VfB Stuttgart offers the chance to sharpen up.

This weekend's game sums up what an awkward month it has been for Bruce, a spell he will not wish to relive any time soon. The two ties with Trencin will have been beneficial for those involved, but for the other members of his squad, there has been no action since the friendly at Barnsley on July 26.

Maynor Figueroa and Nikica Jelavic, for example, have not started a game since the World Cup. Given the circumstances, QPR would be wasting their time scouting City in Stuttgart. Most of Bruce's favoured 11 are likely to be rested at the Mercedes-Benz Arena with the friendly coming so soon after Trencin. Instead it will be a stage for the likes of recent arrivals Andy Robertson and Harry Maguire.

The challenges of Europe are already being felt by Bruce, but the sense of relief etched across his face on Thursday night suggests he wouldn't want it any other way. Overcome Lokeren in the playoff round next month and another six Europa League group games will be added to the calendar.

Then it really will get interesting, in more ways than one.

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