Kris Jack at Fir Park
Motherwell’s chances of progressing to the group stages of the Europa League suffered a massive blow as they fell to a 2-0 defeat at home to Levante.
Goals from Juanlu and Nabil El Zhar either side of half time leave the Steelmen with a uphill task if they are to get anything from the return leg in Valencia next week. A late red card for Shaun Hutchinson will also leave Stuart McCall with a defensive quandary for the away tie.
For the first of this season’s Europa League ties, Stevie Hammell returned to the starting line up having missed the win at Kilmarnock through suspension. Adam Cummins came in for the injured Simon Ramsden, with the impressive Zaine Francis-Angol going back to the bench. With Chris Humphrey, Henrik Ojamaa, Jamie Murphy and Michael Higdon all in attack, it was a very offensive minded side squaring up to Levante.
The visitors, minus Pape Diop through a Visa issue, wrung a few changes from the side which drew 1-1 with Atletico Madrid in their La Liga opener. In came Navas and Lell, for Munua, and Sunday’s goal scorer El Zhar. Greek forward Theofanis Gekas, fresh from starring at Euro 2012 was also given a starting berth, for Levante’s first foray in to European competition.
Despite having a decent amount of the ball, Motherwell almost fell behind in the first ten minutes when Gekas nipped in front of Hutchinson to steer a Juanlu cross just wide from eight yards. Motherwell’s reply was instant and Chris Humphrey had a great chance to set up one of four team mates after beating David Navarro to the byline but instead of squaring the ball, he opted to fire right at the keeper at his front post.
Defender Navarro was next to threaten for the visitors when he rose unmarked at a corner but his header was way over Randolph’s bar. Vicente Iborra then tested the Irish keeper form 20 yards with a low drive from the edge of the box, which the Well stopper got down to with ease as the La Liga side turned up the pressure.
Chances were sparse for Motherwell and Tom Hateley could have hit the target when the ball fell to him on the edge of the box but his volley was hit in to the ground, spinning wide and out of play. Down the other end and the tricky Michel then brought another fine save from Randolph after latching on to a pass and pulling the trigger just inside the box, only to see his dig punched away by the former Charlton stopper.
Finnish referee then brandished two yellow cards in quick succession, one to Lasley for a late lunge on Michel, who was also carded a few moments later for protesting to vehemently when bout down by Hateley.
A strong challenge from Adam Cummins prevented a great chance for Karabelas, who had to be replaced by El Zhar due to the force of the tackle. No sooner had he entered the fray than Levante took the lead just before half time.
A high ball forward to Gekas looked to find the Greek offside, but as the defence looked for the flag, they failed to spot Juanlu running from an onside position; bear down on Randolph and slot home for the opener. It was a sucker punch for the ‘Well, as despite gifting Levante so many chances, they had looked composed when in possession.
The second half started with El Zhar looking to make a mark on the game, and only a great sprawling save at the feet of the Moroccan by Randolph stopped him from doubling the visitors’ lead.
Henrik Ojamaa then had Motherwell’s best chances of the game. A nice reverse ball from Nicky Law saw the Estonian find space in the box, but his shot was expertly blocked by the sliding Ballesteros. Levante couldn’t clear the lines and the ball bounced back to Hateley, who squared for Ojamaa, but his side footed effort was to tame to trouble Navas.
Humphrey then hared up the right wing to flash across in to the six yard box, but a flick of the boot from Navarro deflected it away from both the on-rushing Higdon and Murphy. There was a swell in the crowd noise as Motherwell looked to level, and Ojamaa should have done better than blaze wildly over when space opened up in front of him at the edge of the box.
Instead, they fell further behind through an excellent team goal. Left back Christian Lell managed to get past Stevie Hammell and after cutting to the byline, squared for El Zhar to side foot him from 12 yards.
The stuffing was knocked out of The Steelmen after starting the half so well, and with a two goal away cushion, the visitors took their foot off the gas.
El Zhar still looked eager to create, and was unlucky to see an acrobatic effort bounce wide after a ball in to the box was headed up in the air. Bob McHugh and Fraser Kerr came on for Ojamaa and Humphrey, as McCall looked to change things up, but despite some neat play at times, neither could muster anything meaningful.
Motherwell’s misery was compounded when Shaun Hutchinson received a straight red card for a last man challenge on Gekas at the edge of the box. It was harsh on the young stopper who had played so competently alongside Cummins, but by the letter of the law he had to go. From the resulting free kick, Randolph pulled off a great reaction save, as Barkero’s free kick took a wicked deflection on its way through.
The game was over as contest, and as the final whistle blew, the home fans acknowledged the efforts of their side against a superior Spanish team full of quality and ability.
The 0-2 score line means that Motherwell need to be much more clinical and offensive in Valencia next week, if they are to progress to the next stage of the Europa League.
[tab:As it happened]
Alastair Reilly at Fir Park
FULL TIME: Motherwell 0 – 2 Levante.
90mins: Entering the final minute now….
85mins– Motherwell sub- Carswell on for Law.
83mins: Sorranno tests Randolph with a left footed effort from 15 yards. He spills it but collects at the second time of asking.
79mins: Hateley booked for a late challenge on Iborra.
78mins: Barkero curls a free-kick from just outside the box goalbound. Great reaction from Randolph though to make the save.
RED CARD: Hutchinson is sent off for a last man challenge on Gekas. Right decision and you can feel Fir Park suddenly becoming very deflated indeed.
75mins: Levante sub – Juanlu off for Sorranno
71mins: Iborra booked for a shirt tug on McHugh
69mins: Another dangerous looking free-kick. Levante play a clever offside trap and the chance is gone.
67mins: Motherwell subs – McHugh on for Ojamaa, and Fraser Kerr on for Humphrey.
65mins: Levante Sub: Michel off for Pallardo.
62mins: GOAL- Levante make it 2 through El Zhar. A bit of a sucker punch. We were coming right back into the tie but they break and El Zhar is left free to slot well past Randolph from 10.
58mins: Motherwell upping the “Levante” now. (pun of the night?) The Steelmen are all over their Spanish opposition.
56mins: Fir Park has reached it’s loudest all night! Law slid in Ojamaa who found himself in a great position to shoot. His effort was Goalbound until Navarro slid in to clear. Straight after, he found himself in the same position but dragged it just past. Seconds later, Humphrey drilled a teasing ball across the face of goal and Higdon missed out by inches as he slid in.
54mins: Free-kick in a dangerous position out wide for Motherwell….delivery cut out at near post as 3 waited to nod home.
52mins: Randolph to the rescue again! This time he just beats Gekas to the ball and manages to slide the ball to safety.
51mins: From our own free-kick we lose possession cheaply and get hit on the counter. Thankfully El Zhar’s pass is over hit.
50mins: El Zhar booked for tugging on Cummin’s shirt.
45mins: Second half is underway.
HT: Levante just shading the game so far. With a big push in the second half, there is no reason why Motherwell can’t score tonight.
HALF-TIME: Motherwell 0 -1 Levante (Juanlu 42)
45mins: 2 minutes added on.
42mins: GOAL: Levante have opened the scoring through Juanlu. A harmless looking ball over the top found it’s way to Juanlu who was aided by Gekas appearing to be offside. Finished well.
38mins: Levante sub: Karabelas off for El Zhar. Hopefully not as bad as it looks for Karabelas.
35mins: It’s actually Karabelas that was down. Stretchered off and doesn’t look to be coming back on.
34mins: Solid, solid challenge by Cummins leaves Iborra writhing in agony. Great tackle though and no foul given.
32mins: Michel booked for waving his imaginary yellow card at the ref after he thought Hateley should have been punished harsher.
28mins: Levante hitting on the counter now. Juanlu had plenty of time to swing ball in to Gekas but passed it to Randolph instead.
23mins: Booking for Lasley. First tackle of the night buts finds his way to the refs book after he tried to regain possession.
21mins: Another good chance for Levante. Lell found himself in the box with acres of space and saw his placed effort slide just past.
17mins: Bit of a scare there. Randolph has to look lively to beat away a left-footed Michel effort. Just before that though, Tom Hateley had a decent crack on goal from 25 yards. His bouncing effort sailed past though.
13mins: Deligthful delivery there from Hateley. It’s right in the danger zone but with no takers yet again.
11mins: Levante win the first corner of the night. Navarro has a free header but it ends up well over the bar.
8mins: Very healthy crowd here tonight. Already seems far louder than previous games. Great vocal backing thus far!
7mins: ‘Well are right up for this! Humphrey again down the right wing causing problems. Just lacking the final ball as yet.
6mins: Fir Park beginning to rock now. Murphy sprints down the wing, buoyed b the vocal East Stand, but his delivery can’t quite find Higgy.
1mins: And we’re straight into the action. Humphrey causing some problems down the right and when the ball falls to Lasley, his effort is neither a shot nor a cross and the keeper saves. Up the other end, a half chance for Gekas, who ends up shooting harmlessly wide.
Kick-off: The first half in now underway. ‘Mon the ‘Well!
Motherwell manager Stuart McCall:
“I thought they were better than Panathinaikos, technically they were excellent on the ball, but we never reached the heights that we did against Panathinaikos.
“I came and sat here after the Panathinaikos game and was proud and thought we played particularly well.
“There is a sense of disappointment tonight because as good a side as they are, we didn’t pass the ball as well as we could. We started off okay, we had a few crosses early on, and had a decent tempo, then after about 20 minutes they took control.
“On saying that we were looking to get to half-time goalless then maybe change it a bit.
“It’s the way we lost the goal that deflated us. There’s no doubt it’s a fair goal. The lad in the middle was offside but in fairness we didn’t react to the winger running from an onside position to score.
“We had to lift them and we got a good reaction for 15 minutes, great bit of defensive work when Ojamaa had our only clear sight of goal, and thereafter we didn’t defend the second goal. They got in behind us and they showed the quality with the cutback. We had a couple of opportunities to pick better passes and we didn’t, and they did.
“We can have no complaints, they were far better than us on the night.”
Levante U.D. manager Juan Ignacio Martinez:
“It was a tight game and they put us under a lot of pressure. At times it looked like it would have been more like 1-1 than 2-0,” he said.
“We have certainly made a giant step towards qualifying. We played an excellent game, and a fantastic first half.”