By Jennifer Juneau (from St Jakob Park)
Alexander Frei, FC Basel’s aging striker, proved last evening that he still has it when he fired up the knockout phase by slamming the ball off a corner kick from Marco Streller past Spartak’s goalkeeper in the the 36TH minute of the Europa League match.
On a frigid night I sat in the press box flanked between Swiss radio commentators and Moscow photographers, imagining the game would only heat up within minutes—and it did. Five minutes later, in the 41st minute, Basel midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri delivered a flawless pass to Streller who rolled the ball over the goal line with ease.
Thorsten Fink’s side seemed certainly at home at St. Jakob Stadium throughout the first half. Decked out in wool hats and blankets, the crowd of Basel supporters broke into a chant as they watched their team spread out across the field demonstrating fluent passing that kept their opponents on the defensive.
Boisterous all around me, my senses only sharpened to gather the vision below me.
As I was positioned not too far up from the pitch, I observed how the lights beamed heavy on the pale face of a very despondent Valeri Karpin, who was desperate for his Moscow side to win. Pacing up and down the sideline, cold hands in coat pockets, little did he know he was less than an hour away from victory.
With a handful of Moscow supporters showing up for the match, after an eventful first half, the Spartak side delivered what proved to their fans worth it and played with a vengeance, stopping the magnificent Basel mannschaft in their tracks.
Without the aid of a commentator or the luxury of instant replay, it was difficult to see which Basel player cleared the ball within seconds after what appeared to become an inevitable goal by Spartak. Honing in on the tangle of men, I had journalists to my right claiming the ball was cleared by Markus Steinhöfer, but the radio announcer to my left confirmed that the ball was cleared by Behrang Safari.
This only made way for Dimitri Kombarov to seal the job, eliciting the first goal of the evening for the Moscow side in the 61st minute. Red and white banners waved and hearty applause rang out all the way from my left.
It proved worse for the Swiss side as less than ten minutes later Karpin’s team equalized when Artem Dzyuba demonstrated a superb balance of the ball from his thigh to his toe to flick it past Basel’s goalkeeper and captain Franco Costanzo in the 70th minute.
Moscow stepped up their game with a newfound confidence that brewed tight control of the ball for the latter part of the second half. Excellent defending by Basel’s Steinhöfer cleared what might have become a third goal for Spartak and another defensive play came seconds later by Streller as the Russian side hammered away shots.
Frei was substituted with the young Fwayo Tembo in the 80Th minute as the ref was pressured by a jeering crowd to hand a yellow card to Spartak’s goalkeeper for delaying a goal kick before he dropped the card on the pitch. As he scrambled to pick it up, the Swiss side scrambled for a last gasp win as two more substitutions took place on the Swiss side.
But to no avail. Three measly minutes of overtime proved generous to the Russian side as Jano Ananidze made those minutes useful and snuck around the Basel wall to clench the win for Spartak in the 90th minute.