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Aug 8, 2012

Nervy Dynamo survive De Kuip trial

There is something joltingly stark about a potentially season-shaping Champions League qualifier being played with the new season just hatching from the egg. That this one unfolded between the two historic names of Feyenoord and Dynamo Kiev in front of a sold-out De Kuip made it even more so. It is hard to say whether Ideye Brown's winner for Dynamo, emphatically finished in the sixth minute of stoppage time and almost the last kick of the match, was cruel in its extinguishing of Feyenoord's hope or clement in finally putting them out of their misery. So little unfolded as expected over the two legs of this fascinating tie.

That Dynamo landed the decisive blow so late was perhaps the least of all the surprises. Yuri Semin's side came to the Netherlands having already played four, won four in the Ukrainian Premier League. Three of those four wins have been nailed with goals in the final five minutes, showing there is substance behind the feverish spending that has left the experienced coach with an impressive-looking squad.

Friday's win at Kryvbas had been a case in point, with one substitute (Artem Milevskiy) laying on the winner for another (Andriy Yarmolenko) in the 86th minute. It's little wonder that Semin shrugged that his team's fitness was "fine" with trademark nonchalance in the pre-match press briefing.

Yet while that latest league victory might have followed a statistical pattern, it also betrayed desperation; before carving out a result in extremis, Semin's team selection showed a man pinning every importance on the Champions League. Only three starters from the match at Kryvbas were in the XI that took the field at De Kuip. After heavy investments in the fees and wages of Niko Kranjcar, Marco Ruben and Portugal's Euro 2012 lynchpin Miguel Veloso, a return to Europe's premier club competition for the first time since 2009 is not optional.

The demand to keep Kiev in European football's spotlight, 37 days after its Olympic Stadium hosted the keynote performance of a generation by Spain against Italy, is significant. So in this instance, the expectation was not with the side that had been European champions before.

The welcome glow of nostalgia was apparent in Feyenoord's city centre club shop earlier in the day, with queues snaking in to browse and buy products ranging from the simple, split scarves celebrating the meeting with Dynamo all the way through to BMXs branded with the Rotterdam club's crest. Next to the queue, a glass plinth contained a yellowing copy of local newspaper Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad from the day Feyenoord were in the European Cup final; May 6, 1970. "Per trein naar San Siro" ("To San Siro by train"), read the headline, detailing the club's journey to only the second continental showpiece containing a Dutch club.

Victory was clinched that night by a dramatic winner of Feyenoord's own, scored by the legendary Swede Ove Kindall a few minutes before the end of extra-time. Such is the repute of the Ajax sides of Rinus Michels and Stefan Kovacs that won three successive European Cups (in the three years following the Milan final, in fact), it is often overlooked that Feyenoord reached the holy grail before any of their domestic counterparts.

These days, getting to within sniffing distance of Europe's elite is an achievement on reduced terms. It has been a decade since Feyenoord were in the Champions League, and the chance to reach the group stages this (pre-) season had been a bonus presented by a phenomenal finish to last season, with eight wins and a draw in the final nine games snaring second place. It was a personal triumph for coach Ronald Koeman in his first season after his reputation had been so badly damaged, in particular by a disastrous spell at Valencia.

Today, the man who was central to PSV's 1988 victory and Barcelona's maiden win in 1992 as a player has had his modest means further reduced since the thrilling climax to 2011-12. Stalwart defender Ron Vlaar and midfielder Karim El Ahmadi both went to Aston Villa, with Otman Bakkal and the outstanding John Guidetti (of Manchester City) leaving after completing respective loan spells.

Returning with a 2-1 defeat from Kiev had therefore been - as Koeman admitted pre-second leg - a victory of sorts, particularly in the view of the battering they suffered in the final half-hour at the Olympic Stadium. That had been the period in which Dynamo underlined the difference between the two teams. After Ruben Schaken gave Koeman's men a shock lead, two Dynamo goals in 13 minutes opened the door to a maelstrom of pressure, emphasising their greater individual quality and superior match sharpness.

De Kuip promised to redress the balance. Behind both goals and in the lower tiers all around the ground, not a seat was used. Everybody was on his or her feet. It is not hard to imagine a wry grin or two among the Dynamo contingent, used to the advantage of the hostile wind of the river Dnieper blowing over the sparse concrete bowl of the Valeriy Lobanovskiy Stadium, before the recent move to the vast new arena.

Suitably spurred on, Feyenoord showed guts and courage despite lacking Dynamo's polish. In the event, it was lucky for Semin that he had probably the bravest player on the pitch in 19-year-old goalkeeper Maksym Koval. He first caught the eye two years back, valiantly keeping Ajax at bay in a similar Champions League situation - in vain, as it eventually transpired. Here, he dived to push Schaken's piledriver onto a post early on, kept the same man's header out with a sprawling save and then improbably denied Immers from point-blank in the second half. Koval is clearly made for this competition.

So, when Ideye smashed home Denys Garmash's cutback after the substitute wriggled to the line, Dynamo's players formed a relieved and joyous pile in the south-east corner of De Kuip's pitch. The volume of projectiles launched by cheesed-off home fans was enough to see Dynamo defender Goran Popov prise his hands together and ask for them to stop. The high stakes mean that the Champions League's qualifying stages are rarely pretty, even in a tie with as much pedigree in the names as this one.

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