Thursday, December 01, 2011

The European adventure - it's nearly over

Yesterday was my birthday, and yesterday was also the day when Blues Europa League dream started to turn sour. It's important that I remember the context of this European adventure we've been on - a club perilously close to financial ruin, relegated in the worst possible way (with five minutes to go) and supposedly heading back to the dark times.
That may yet come to pass, but the skill in which Chris Hughton has fashioned the phoenix from the ashes meant this mid-table Championship side travelled to last season's Europa League finalists with confidence and a belief that, yes, we could get a result. After all, we've already secured five results in our six Europa League games so far.
Sadly it was not to be. Blues did start brilliantly, and after 15 minutes had contrived to miss a penalty and put the hosts under severe pressure. But then a Braga defender somehow escaped a second yellow card, and the hosts remembered who they were and started to grow into the game.
Even then they didn't exactly create much - and we still threatened on the counter attack. And then the blow: five minutes into the second half, Braga fashioned their first chance - a shot from outside the box that was going well wide until it ricocheted off the heel of a Blues defender and flew in the opposition direction past the despairing dive of our keeper into the net.
The game was up - it fizzled out from there, with Braga going close again to finish off 1-0 winners, despite not deserving of the win. Yet on 74 minutes, it didn't matter - news filtered through that the group's whipping boys Maribor were 3-0 up against FC Bruges. A Maribor win meant the result wouldn't matter, we'd have things in our own hands going into our final group game, a home tie with said whipping boys.
But this is Blues, and yesterday was my birthday, so not only did my team end up losing undeservedly, Maribor contrived to concede four goals in the last 16 minutes (evoking horrific memories of a day in April 1993 when Blues blew a 4-1 lead over Swindon Town in the last 25 minutes to lose 6-4).
Now Blues can only progress if Braga win in Bruges and we beat Maribor. We can beat Maribor, and I really hope we stuff them good and proper for what they did last night, but while Braga need to win to top the group to make themselves seeded for the first knockout phase, there's no guarantee they will.
My head tells me this is where the road should end - we've done ourselves proud so far. We first qualified for the group stage, and we avoided finishing bottom of our group. We need to concentrate on the league, where we're handily placed for a play-off push. But my heart whispers all the same: it was 50 years since we last played in Europe, and it could be 50 years - if ever - before we play again. This Europa League adventure - shunned by so many - is the stuff of dreams for us, and we don't want it to end. Not yet.

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