Alan Burrows at Ciutat de València
A brave Motherwell side bowed out of Europa League with their heads held high despite a 1-0 defeat to Levante at the Estadio Ciudad de Valencia.
The Steelmen thought they had taken an early lead when Michael Higdon’s early header flashed past Navas in the home goal but it was ruled out for offside.
Jonathan Page, Stevie Hammell and Keith Lasley all had first-half chances but couldn’t force Stuart McCall’s men in front.
The home side went up a gear or two after the half-time interval and only super saves from Darren Randolph denied Juanlu and Nabil El Zhar.
After ‘Well had thrown caution to the wind in an attempt to chase the tie, Theofanis Gekas swept in a half-volley on 72 minutes to give the Spaniards a 3-0 aggregate lead and effectively kill the game. It stayed that way, allowing the Spaniards to progress to the group stages of the competition.
McCall opted to make two changes from the side that drew 1-1 with St Mirren on Sunday. Jonathan Page and Stuart Carswell both started in place of the suspended Shaun Hutchinson with Chris Humphrey forced to accept a place amongst the substitutes.
‘Well always faced an uphill task after going down 0-2 at Fir Park last Thursday night. The job was made even harder with a crippling injury and suspension list which made for a very young starting eleven; six players under the age of 21 including four teenagers.
In contrast, the Spaniards were packed full of experience with the likes of Ballesteros, JuanFran and forming part of the defensive unit.
But it was McCall’s men who produced a mature display against the La Liga side, matching the hosts for much of the opening 45 minutes and creating the best chances.
‘Well fans would have dared to dream when the visitors had the ball in the net inside three minutes; Higdon escaped his marker to head home Steven Hetherington’s free-kick. However, the assistant referee was early with his flag and TV replays show it was a correct call from the French official.
Another Hetherington free-kick shortly after produced another free header, but Page steered the ball wide from the penalty spot. It was a glorious chance for the young defender as the home side nervously negotiated the opening exchanges.
Keith Lasley got two shots on target, none of which really forced Navas into serious action, while Levante’s Jose Barkero blasted a stinging long-range strike wide and goal-getter from the first leg Juanlu saw his curling effort drop a yard wide of Randolph’s post.
Motherwell hearts were in mouths just after the half-hour when Stevie Hammell over-cooked a pass at Page along the back line. The former Portsmouth centre-back, after initially chesting the ball down, then underhit his attempted header back towards Randolph.
Juanlu intercepted but shot wide from 18 yards with only the keeper to beat.
Hammell almost atoned for that error a minute later when, after a surging forward run, smashed a 30-yard shot that zipped narrowly wide of the right hand post.
It was the last action of an otherwise positive first period for the Fir Parkers but Levante burst out the traps after the break and threatened when JuanFran’s cross found Juanlu, but Randolph got down brilliantly to stop his header, which had taken a slight deflection off the marking Page.
The Republic of Ireland International made another great block on the hour, blocking from El Zahr after the Moroccan had run on to Barkero’s pass through the middle of Page and Hammell.
El Zahr missed another great chance, shooting over after turning inside Hammell in the penalty box.
A goal for ‘Well might have gave the hosts something to think about in the closing but Levante made their second-half possession count.
Herrero Michel was introduced in place of the otherwise ineffectual Bakero and his movement caused problems for the Steelmen rearguard. It was his run that opened up space for Juanlu on the left wing and Gekas got in front of Adam Cummins to steer the cross inside Randolph’s near post from six yards.
‘Well battled for the remainder of the game and could, and probably should have squared the game in the dying seconds. Antiguan international Zaine Francis-Angol, who had been introduced in place of Stevie Hammell, whipped in a tantalizing cross that bamboozled the home defence. Humphrey nipped in ahead of the otherwise excellent JuanFran but could only steer his close-range shot over the bar.
Motherwell are out but didn’t disgrace themselves in any Euro matches this campaign. The standard of both Panathinaikos and Levante proved the undoing but an exceptionally young squad will have gained invaluable experience which will hopefully percolate into the current season.
[tab:As it happened]
Alastair Reilly at Ciutat de València
FULL TIME: Levante 1 – 0 Motherwell. Gekas with the only goal of the night sends Levante through.
93mins: Great chance there for a consolation goal! Francis-Angol crosses in right in front of goal. Humphrey meets it but skies over.
91mins: Pallardo tries his luck from 30 yards. He’s unlucky as it curls just over the bar.
90mins: Into added on time now.
89mins: 2 minutes left of Motherwell’s European tour for this season. Hopefully we’re back bigger and better next season!
87mins: Michel floats a ball into the back post. Could have dropped in but Page heads clear.
85mins: 5 minutes left and the ‘Well fans are on their feet chanting again. They’ve been fantastic tonight.
80mins: Stat of the night: The ‘Well side on the field right now has an average age of 20.45 years.
79mins: Levante Sub: Iborra off for Pallardo
75mins: Levante sub – Rodas on for Ballesteros
74mins: Motherwell Sub: Hammell off for Francis-Angol
73mins: GOAL: Gekas converts Juanlu’s cross at the front post.
69mins: El Zhar should have burst the net there. He chopped inside Hammell and only had Randolph to beat. Somehow scoops over from 12 yards.
67mins: Motherwell subs: McHugh and Humphrey on for Ojamaa and Carswell.
63mins: uncertainty in the Levante defence. Ojamaa pressing Ballesteros who pokes it back to Navas. He slices clear for a throw.
61mins: Randolph to the rescue! El Zhar nicks in and is clear through but as he shoots, Randolph gets enough on it with his foot to divert wide.
58mins: Frustration for Motherwell as Carswell appeared to be hacked down by Diop but ref waves play on.
56mins: It’s delivered low by Hetherington and El Zhar clears.
56mins: Free-kick in a great position for Motherwell. Ballasteros body-checking Ojamaa.
52mins: Great hands from the big man. Levante on top so far this half.
51mins: Great save from Randolph! Juanlu whips it in and Gekas meets it with a bullet header which deflects off Cummins.
45mins: Barkero and Gekas get us under way for the second half.
HT: Teams are back out. Who knows what could happen if we can nick that first goal….
45mins: HALF-TIME – Levante 0 – 0 Motherwell
43mins: Gekas inches away from being slid straight through. Thankfully Page is there with a last-ditch slide tackle and clears the danger.
42mins: Into the closing minutes of the first half. Motherwell acquitting themselves admirably against their La Liga opponents.
35mins: Game opening up. Carswell does brilliantly to clear from Barkero after a great jinking run.
33mins: Up the other end, Hammell springs Navas into action with a 30 yard drive. A fraction wide from Motherwell’s number 3.
32mins: A let off. Page tries to head back to Randolph but falls well short. Juanlu picks up but slides it just past when goal looked certain
28mins: Twice in as many minutes, Ojamaa has tried to thread the ball through to Murphy. Very nearly succeeded on both occasions
24mins: Great chance for Levante. Juanlu cuts in on his weaker foot and curls beautifully towards the back post. Flashes just past.
22mins: Free-kick 10 yards inside their half see’s the ball land at Murphy’s feet. He squares to Lasley whose shot is straight at ‘keeper.
21mins: Higdon’s header is blocked to Lasley whose own effort from 20 yards is straight at Navas.
20mins: Great run from Murphy wins our first corner
19mins: Ojamaa gets to byline but his cross is just not powerful enough to reach Murphy at the back post and Navas mops up.
17mins: Game is starting to slow down. Decent spell of possession there for ‘Well without any end product.
11mins: After two good early chances for The Steelmen, Levante are now starting to boss the game. A succession of corners and crosses.
10mins: El Zhar tried to be a bit too clever there. They had a chance to drive at ‘Well but he thankfully opts to slide it through to nobody.
9mins: Half chance for Gekas again. This time with a header from a Barkero cross. Doesn’t trouble Randolph though.
7mins: First corner of the match for Levante. Barkero delivers….Higdon batters it clear.
5mins: Another good chance for ‘Well there. Hetherington floats in a free-kick and Page peels off his man to win the header. Well past the post though.
4mins: Bit of a heart-stopping moment as Gekas finds himself 12 yards out but sclaffs the ball well wide.
2mins: And the ball is in the net! Unfortunately it’s offside as Higdon nods home. Positive signs though!
2mins: Hard tackle on Carswell wins ‘Well a free kick 35 yards from goal in a dangerous position.
1min: And the game is under way. Murphy and Lasley kick off.
Kick-off: The first half in now underway. ‘Mon the ‘Well!
Motherwell manager Stuart McCall:
“We’ve had three good European performances. I was disappointed with the home one against Levante, we could have done better.
“I’ll have to see Michael’s goal again, I don’t think he was offside.
“We should have scored late on and that would have been nice for the fans. But I thought the fans were outstanding and the players were terrific, and they both lifted each other at times.”
Levante U.D. manager Juan Ignacio Martinez: