After a turbulent few weeks in Scottish football, Thursday brought a welcome sight to fans north of the border – the return of competitive action. St Johnstone traveled to Turkey to take on Eskisehirspor in the Europa League second qualifying round. The Saints qualified for Europe despite finishing 6th in the 12 team SPL due to Rangers financial troubles costing them their European place and Hearts winning the Scottish Cup, which allowed the team from Perth to claim Scotland’s fifth and final European spot.
In preparation for the match, there was much talk of getting a positive result in the away leg to take back to McDiarmid Park next week. Keeping a clean sheet would have been a huge bonus; an away goal would have been crucial to giving themselves a chance of glory in the second leg. However, none of these were to arise. They may have talked a good game but the failure to deliver this on the pitch will likely result in an early exit from the competition next week.
They did go into the game as underdogs; Eskisehirspor boast a number of internationals, including Brazilian wing-back Dede and central defender Servet Cetin. They have an annual budget of £20 million and are planning on moving into a new 33,500 seated stadium. They are a team on the up in the Turkish game.
The difference in quality of the two teams was evident in a largely one-sided first half. St Johnstone were happy to allow their opponents to keep the possession of the ball whilst trying their best to close down as the attacks came towards their goal. A minute in and the Turks carved out a chance when a cross was volleyed by Patrick Malecki and landed just wide of the Saints’ goal. Veysel Sarı headed Dede’s free-kick over when well placed on 15 minutes as the Turkish onslaught continued. Despite their dominance, the Turks couldn’t find the breakthrough and were restricted to long range efforts for the rest of the half. The Saint’s gameplan was working – but just before half-time came the killer blow.
Alper Potuk scored with a long range effort which came via the fortune (or misfortune from a Saints perspective) of a lucky deflection off the back of Batuhan Karadeniz in the 41st minute. If ever there was a poor time to concede a goal away infront of an atmospheric Turkish crowd, it was in the five minutes before half-time. The Saints would probably have taken a 1-0 deficit on the balance of the first half but would have to make sure they got on the scoreline in the second period.
Unfortunately this didn’t happen. In fact it got worse. Eskişehirspor continued to boss the game in terms of possession and attempts on the Perthshire club’s goal after the break. This pressure eventually told when Veysel Sari scored a vital second goal for the home side in the 64th minute. Cruelly for the Scottish team it came from another deflected goal.
The second half was an improvement for St Johnstone as they came out with a more positive outlook on the match they still only managed two attempts on goal for the whole 90 minutes. They will certainly need to improve on this next week as they must score 2 goals, at least, to keep their European adventure alive.
Although this may be a fleeting visit into Europe for St Johnstone (their first since they played Monaco in 1999), their fans will turn out to support their side in the second leg. It may be a tough task for them to overcome this defeat next Thursday night but with Scottish football showing recently that nothing is certain then you just never know. Perhaps new signing Nigel Hasselbaink or Sean Higgins could go down in Saint’s folklore just like Nick Dasovic and John O’Neil did with their goals against Monaco nearly 13 years ago did. The cruel luck that St Johnstone suffered in the first leg will perhaps go their way in seven days time.