Bayern Munich cruised into the group stages tonight thanks to an early goal from last week's goat, Mario Gomez, to down FC Zurich in Switzerland 1-0 (3-0 on aggregate.) Bayern were joined by Villarreal, the Belgians from Racing Genk, Cypriot side APOEL Nicosia, and first-timers Dinamo Zagreb, who withstood a late onslaught by Malmo to eke out a thriller.
Munich seem to court drama. They are relentlessly criticized by their fans and their former greats when the chips are down and are despised by large sections of the German population in exactly the same way as our baseball fans love to hate the New York Yankees.
Some of this however, is self-inflicted.
In the pre-game run up, the tabloids were speculating that club president Uli Hoeness had invaded the changing room last week to dress down his players (he hadn't); digesting Franz Beckenbaur's take on Phillip Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger (not captain's material, Der Kaiser sniffed); and inspecting Lahm's new autobiography (in which the defender and Germany captain ripped none other than Jurgen Klinsmann for lacking tactical acumen).
So, when it took Gomez only seven minutes to wash his bitter showing of last week away, scoring on a counter attack in cutting fashion, it seemed like a relief. We could all finally get away from the dreary business of the actual games and chat about Lahm's remarks on former manager Louis van Gaal.
It's no wonder the actual game in Zurich seemed almost an afterthought. The Germans held a 2-0 lead and despite the cackling of some of Germany's more outre media outlets, never seemed in danger from this struggling Swiss side. Not even the absence of Arjen Robben -- another tasty tabloid nugget -- from the starting lineup Tuesday night would change things.
The chatterers now get to move on to the next bit of gossip. Those of us who got to sit through 83 torpid minutes plus stoppage on the other hand can consider themselves lucky. At least they didn't have to pay for it like the poor folks in Zurich.
Elsewhere tonight, it was laborious for 50 minutes, even with Giuseppe Rossi in outstanding form, but the Italian-American from New Jersey finally scored twice and lifted favored Villarreal into the group stages as expected, 3-0 on the night (3-1 aggregate). OB Odense defended well but always was hanging on in the near 100-degree Spanish heat which seemed to slow everybody except Rossi and the Brazilian ace, Nilmar.
Both of Rossi's goals were carbon copies, Nilmar advancing down the right, then crossing with precision to the streaking Villarreal attacker. Both times Rossi ran straight down the gut and both times he met the cross perfectly, getting his club on the board in the 50th minute, then scoring the tie-winner in the 67th. Carlos Marchena made it completely safe in the 82nd minute when he slipped as he shot from 18 yards, the weaker-than-expected drive deceiving Stefan Wessels in the Danish goal.
Villarreal was always expected to get through but the fact that they lived on the edge for most of this tie suggests that they may not be a force in the group stage. The performance of Rossi, however, makes one wonder how long he will remain at one of La Liga's wildest game of the night was in Sweden where first timers Dinamo Zagreb outlasted a withering fightback by Malmo to triumph 4-3 on aggregate despite losing 2-0 on the night.
It was all square and Malmo looked to be bowing out meekly until Zagreb's Sime Vrsaljko was tossed for a vicious tackle. Malmo then got two goals in 15 minutes from Daniel Larsson and Wilton Figueiredo and might well have won on the away goals rule had the match gone any longer. In the end, the Croats were saved by keeper Ivan Kelava, who made a series of brilliant stops to deny Larsson, Wilton and Jiloan Hamad in the closing stages.
Referee Nicola Rizzoli was a busy bee, dishing out eleven cards during the match, an excessive number for what was a frantic, unskilled but entertaining match. This was a classic case of fussy refereeing for no reason. It bodes ill for the rest of this year's tournament.
In Cyprus the home team got two vintage goals from their Brazilian striker Ailton and eliminated Wisla Krakow . The combined skills of Ailton and his running mate up front, Ivan Trickovski, finally got APOEL home 3-1 (3-2 on aggregate) with three minutes to spare on a nervous night, their dominance nearly going for naught.
It was a near thing for APOEL because a fine goal from Cezary Wilk with 19 minutes remaining had Wisla in position to advance on away goals despite being widely outplayed. APOEL's inability to translate all of its possession into real scoring chances offers evidence that the Cypriots will not be able to stand the heat in the group stage.
Wisla fell behind in bizarre fashion in the 29th minute when Gustavo Manduca curled a corner to the near post. Sergei Pareiko boxed it off the underside of the bar, flopped to keep the ball out but succeeded only in putting it behind him and over the line.
Ailton's first was a simple striker's finish to Trickovski's cross after the Wisla defense collapsed on the left, his winner a nicely-taken shot on the turn from eight yards that sped past Pareiko's hand in the 87th minute. That made it 3-1 on the night, 3-2 on aggregate, and canceled Wilk's effort.
In Belgium, a torpid final 75 minutes followed a fairly inventive first half, then Genk goalkeeper Laszlo Koteles produced two saves in the penalty shoot-out to get his unlikely club into the group stage.
Maccabi Haifa will kick themselves, first for allowing a late goal in the first leg that threw Genk a lifeline, then for fiddling and diddling far too much in a dominant second half when they probably should have gotten a tie-winner against a home team that played like defense was the only thing they understood.
In the shootout Koteles kicked out the first Israeli attempt, then brilliantly one-handed away the next, Genk made all four of theirs so the one Maccabi shot that beat Koteles didn't matter. He'd better plan to be just as good next month when the big boys come to town.
Whether that is a prize remains to be seen. Yes, Genk will surely take the money, but they look a far cry from a side that is going to worry anyone over six group matches. For Genk's triumph -- like that of APOEL and Dinamo's -- is likely to be short-lived. Candidly, these are poor teams displacing many European betters. While UEFA's policy of spreading the wealth is admirable -- and politically advantageous -- it does not make for riveting soccer.