Danish delight as OB fairytale continues
Odense Boldklub are Denmark's darlings after a memorable week of European competition for the country's clubs.
OB stunned Villarreal 1-0 on Wednesday night in their Champions League play-off first leg. The boys in blue-and-white stripes held off their highly fancied Spanish opponents with a solid game plan and plenty of enthusiasm. In a week that saw three Danish clubs play at home in European play-offs, OB's was easily the standout performance.
Odense's Champions League campaign started in the previous qualifying round. The club that finished second in the Danish Superliga last season beat Greece's Panathinaikos 5-4 on aggregate including a see-sawing 4-3 win in Athens in the second leg.
Against Villarreal it was obvious OB had learnt from that dramatic match. Henrik Clausen's side put in the perfect David performance against their Spanish Goliath. The Yellow Submarines dominated possession as expected but OB kept their shape throughout the match, pressed high up the park and counter-attacked at speed.
It was fitting that the winning goal was caused by OB's pressure. The hosts' best periods of the match were when they didn't give Villarreal time to pass the ball out from defence.
In the 84th minute, Villarreal goalkeeper Diego Lopez knocked a short goal kick to Christian Zapata but Danish winger Bashkim Kadrii's pressure forced Zapata to return the ball first time. His pass was well short and OB's attacking midfielder Hans Henrik Andreasen nipped in to steal the ball and thump it past the advancing Lopez. It was Andreasen's fifth goal in eight matches this season.
The goal sparked huge celebrations in Odense and that continued through to the final whistle. OB are now in a great position before the return leg in Spain next week. Champions League football in Odense would be the kind of fairytale the town's favourite son, Hans Christian Andersen, would be proud of. But OB's captain Chris Sørensen was keen to stress that there is still plenty of work to do.
"It's only the first part of the project that's finished," Sørensen said to local paper Fyens Stifstidende. "We still have the second half, so in that way there's a long way to go yet. But it was a fantastic victory because the odds were against us."
Villarreal had more chances but couldn't find a way past OB's goalkeeper Stefan Wessels, with their best opportunity coming 15 minutes into the second half when Nilmar received the ball on the edge of the box. He slipped between two OB defenders but Wessels came off his line to smother the ball at Brazilian striker's feet.
While OB's performance was very much a team effort, the same could not be said of 2010-11 Danish champions FC Copenhagen. Before this week, most Danes would have picked Roland Nilsson's side over OB if asked which club they expected to have the best chance of progressing to the Champions League proper.
But Copenhagen, who had a good run in the Champions League last season and made it all the way to the second round before Chelsea proved too strong, were outplayed by Viktoria Plzen. There was plenty of expectation that the nine-time Danish champions would breeze past the unheralded Czech outfit but it they were destroyed by Plzen, who ran out 3-1 victors.
The scoreboard read 0-0 at halftime but Plzen quickly changed that after the break. In the 52nd minute a brilliant headed pass from Viktoria's captain Pavel Horvath caused panic in the box and FCK's central defender Solvi Ottesen managed to prod the ball past his goalkeeper for an own goal. Just seven minutes later, Vaclav Pilar doubled Plzen's advantage after another rapid counter-attack.
Ottesen gave the home side a glimmer of hope with 21 minutes left when the Icelandic international scored from a corner but it didn't last long. Martin Fillo finished the match, and most likely the play-off, with a sublime goal in the 79th minute. The substitute brought down Horvath's precise long ball with his chest, cut inside his defender and blasted the ball into the far top corner.
FCK boss Nilsson admitted to Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten after the match that he was disappointed with how his side reacted to the first goal. "There was panic on the field," Nilsson said. "We tried to attack immediately after the goal instead of building ourselves up slow and steady like we usually do. That meant we lost our balance, which we'd had until then."
On Thursday night, 2011 Danish Cup winners FC Nordsjælland, based just north of Copenhagen, produced what was almost a carbon copy of OB's performance to hold Sporting Lisbon in their Europa League play-off first leg. It is the second season in a row that the two clubs have met at this stage of the Europa League.
Sporting have been very active in the summer transfer window and were clear favourites, but Kasper Hjulmand's charges kept Lisbon's stars quiet in the 0-0 draw. In a dull match with few chances, FC Nordsjælland came to life late on thanks to substitute Tobias Mikkelsen. Mikkelsen set up two team-mates with crosses from the left wing in the last half an hour but neither could hit the target.
The underdogs were also controversially denied a winner in the 77th minute when Andreas Granskov, bearing down on goal after an impressive run, was cynically pushed in the back just outside the penalty box by defender Alberto Rodriguez. The ball went loose and Andreas Laudrup reacted first by slotting the ball into the net but referee Mark Courtney didn't play an advantage. To rub salt into the wound, the Northern Irish official followed that decision with only a yellow card for Rodriguez.
Winning away to Sporting would likely see Hjulmand labelled a genius but a repeat display will certainly ensure the minnows have every chance of securing an upset. Should Odense and FC Nordsjælland both overcome their odds next week to progress, a new chapter may yet be written in this Danish fairytale.