Thursday, June 30, 2016

Liveblogging the UEFA Champions League

By Kevin Beane

That headline is no misprint. A month to the day from when the 2015-16 UEFA Champions League wrapped up with Real Madrid beating Atletico Madrid in a shootout, the 2016-17 tournament kicks off today. Technically, it kicks off less than a month prior to the last iteration being wrapped up, if we are counting by hours.

If you thought the NCAA tournament was excitingly egalitarian with their 68 teams, consider that the Champions League grants entree to 78 teams. That, however, does not make it more egalitarian, as the best of the best (your Real Madrids, Bayern Munichs, etc.) advance directly to the group stage. Prior to the group stage, there is a "playoff round" and three qualifying rounds, with teams joining anew in each round based on their UEFA ranking coefficient. So those that qualify directly for the group stage get, in effect, four byes.

Not so for the competitors of today's matches that kick off the first qualifying round, which contains the champions of the lowest-regarded leagues of UEFA. That means the domestic champions of countries like San Marino, the Faroe Islands, Andorra, and so on. The match I will be liveblogging today will feature Flora, champions of the Estonian League, hosting the Red Imps of Lincoln, champions of Gibraltar.

Estonia is home to over a million people, their domestic league is probably close to second-qualifying round status, and they are heavy favorites over Lincoln today.

Gibraltar, for upset connoisseurs like myself, is the more intriguing story. Gibraltar only became UEFA members in 2013, over the objection of Spain. The country boasts just 32,000 residents.

The Red Imps (what a cute little fella in their logo) are not only Gibraltar champions, but have ten players on the Gibraltar national team, which also came to UEFA life in 2013 and who played their first match in 2014 (in Euro 2016 qualification, they lost all ten of their matches). Additionally, Lincoln seems to have a long history of winning prior to their UEFA days, winning 12 straight Gibraltar titles between 2003-2014.

Wikipedia further informs me Lincoln has three players surnamed "Casciaro." I don't know if they are related, but I do know, thanks to dear old Wiki, that two of the Casciaros are cops and the third is a shipping agent, and that the eldest Casciaro, Lee, is known as "the King of Gibraltar."

With Iceland upsetting England yesterday, it's exciting to consider the same possibility for the Red Imps, but nothing will be settled today — this is a two-legged playoff, which Flora visiting Victoria Park, home of the Red Imps, next week. Victoria Park is also the home ground of every other team in the Gibraltar Premier Division.

1' The Flora crowd is sparse in Tallinn, but enthusiastic — besides the usual chanting, there are lots of drums, giving the game a bit of a high school football vibe.

1' All three Casciaros starting for Lincoln.

12' Unsurprisingly, Flora has comfortably controlled the run of play, but the Lincoln keeper hasn't been too severely tested, and his teammates have managed a few counterattacks and runs forward.

18' The Red Imps put it in the back of the net, but alas, the flag was up. There are no announcers in this stream I'm watching. That's refreshing, but also makes it harder to stay on top of everything, at least potentially. But in this case, even if the lack of celebrations and the score chyron remaining the same wasn't enough, my eyes were: the Red Imp in question (not sure who, probably a Casciaro) was offside by a mile.

23' Perhaps figuring they have nothing to lose, Lincoln has gone for two really low-percentage long range shots by my count.

27' Great chance goes begging by Lincoln, while the Flora fans chant something that sounds kind of like that '50s song that goes "I love him, I love him, I love him, and where he goes I'll follow, I'll follow, I'll follow..." The run of play is about even now.

35' Flora is on the board, courtesy of a worm-burner redirected by Rauno Alliku. Says here has been with Flora for eight years and has been capped by the Estonian national team eight times.

Halftime: Not a single second added on at the end, interestingly. As I made clear I'm pulling for Lincoln here, and I'm surprised that, for the most part, they've looked like Flora's equal, so it's too bad they find themselves trailing nonetheless.

After watching a bunch of Euro 2016 and Copa America Centenario matches, the level of play is noticeably different/worse. Passing percentage is a good deal worse, and long passes that are fairly routine in top-level football are scarcely attempted here, as are headers. Also, the game seems much less physical; not sure whether to praise or debit the teams for that. Maybe five or so fouls called in the first half.

46' First great save of the match comes from Red Imps keeper Raul Navas, who spent much of his career in the Spanish second division.

49' Another goal for Flora from another Rauno, this time Rauno Sappinen. He found himself on the receiving end of perhaps the first successful long pass of the game and beat a defender and the goalkeeper. Sappinen has also been capped for Estonia and is also a Flora lifer, if one can be called that at 20.

55' Now it's Flora keeper Mait Toom earning his paycheck, first with a leaping save off a Lincoln free kick, then on just barely beating a Lincoln attacker to the ball on a breakaway.

57' The Red Imps get one back on a beautiful run by defender and team captain Roy Chipolina. An important goal, too: if the game ends this way, a 1-0 victory for Lincoln at home will be enough to send them through to the next round, thanks to the "away goals" tiebreaker.

72' The Red Imps get very lucky as a Flora shot goes off the bar and the rebound shot goes off the keeper, but he's able to recover and pounce on it before Flora can see if the third time's the charm.

75' Technical difficulties mean the action has frozen on the screen. Seems to be on the broadcaster's end as I get the same result across different platforms.

80' And we are back, minus the chyron, so I'm estimating on the time.

88' The chyron is back, and another unnecessary low percentage long shot from Lincoln goes wide when they've shown they can play straight against Flora and don't need to take shots like that.

90' Four minutes of extra time added, but there might be more coming as the Irish ref stops play to deal with the possibly-injured Lincoln keeper (Navas). He is now clutching his shoulder but seems to be fine.

96' The ref blows the full-time whistle and the game ends with Flora beating Lincoln 2-1. I think I, for one, am on board to watch the second leg a week from today.

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