Estudiantes squeeze through against robust Red Bull.
Amid scenes of unbridled joy at the final whistle, the players of Estudiantes celebrated a 1-0 victory over Red Bull Salzburg that meant both sides escaped from the Group C "group of death" at the expense of the unfortunate Celtic.
In the previous games, the Austrians had defeated the Scottish outfit 3-1, while Estudiantes had suffered a 2-1 defeat to the same opponents. These results had left Group C wide open, with the Argentines needing to secure a victory to progress to the knockout stage.
Red Bull merely needed to avoid a defeat by four goals or more in order to go through.
The South Americans began the game determined to attack, but found progress slow against a well-organised Austrian side. Deep-lying central midfielder Dominik Stumberger had dictated the play for Salzburg against Celtic, and was equally influential here, combining assured positional sense with physical presence and great vision to more than compensate for his somewhat limited mobility.
With Red Bull content to contain, chances were few and far between in the early stages. However, on 25 minutes Salzburg won a free kick 25 yards out to the left of goal, and Stumberger stepped up to blast a low effort that goalkeeper Gustavo Cordoba could only divert into the path of Philipp Sturm, whose follow-up shot was gratefully gathered by the keeper.
Red Bull appeared to be in full control of the match, so it came as some surprise when, a minute later, Estudiantes went ahead. Franco Rodriguez sent a testing corner in from the right that keeper Lukas Fuchs only half cleared, with Renzo Fucile pouncing to smash the ball home from six yards. The Argentine bench celebrated as if they had just won the World Cup, providing an indicator of how seriously they were treating this match, and the competition.
There was more evidence of the South Americans' determination whenever a 50/50 ball was contested, as the Estudiantes players went flying into every tackle, attempting to knock Red Bull out of their stride and, just maybe, out of the tournament.
The Austrians remained unruffled, and stuck to their game plan as they worked hard to withstand waves of pressure and gradually wear their opponents down, just as they had done against Celtic.
With five minutes of the half remaining, Red Bull won a free kick wide on the right. There seemed little danger as Can Cakir stood over the ball but, with the Argentine defence expecting a cross, the midfielder went for goal, and his impudent looping effort rattled the crossbar before bouncing clear.
As the half-time whistle blew, both sides knew that they would advance in the tournament if the score stayed the same. But, five minutes into the second half, Red Bull almost levelled when the ball broke to Algin Aganovic just inside the area and he pummelled a powerful effort that Cordoba did well to keep out.
Estudiantes appeared to have altered their tactics, sitting back in the hope of preserving the lead that they knew would take them through. With such a narrow advantage, however, this presented a high-risk strategy, particularly against such a capable outfit as Red Bull.
After 63 minutes, the Austrians made a change, replacing the busy but diminutive Nikolas Meister with the physically imposing Dominik Szoboszlai, as they sought to nullify Estudiantes' physical approach. Shortly afterwards, Argentine coach Marco Rose replaced a midfielder with a defender in a further sign that they were looking to hold on to what they had.
Red Bull had a reasonable penalty claim turned down on 72 minutes when Szoboszlai fell under pressure in the area as he chased a loose ball into the area. Three minutes later the same player should really have scored. Stumberger produced an exquisite 40-yard ball over the top, which Szoboszlai brought down as he rounded the advancing Cordoba, but then momentarily hesitated, allowing the keeper to recover his position and gather.
Stumberger was now effectively playing as a sweeper, pulling the strings from behind the centre backs at times, as his teammates took up more advanced positions. By now, Estudiantes were living on their wits, as a series of half-chances came and went for Red Bull, and made for a nervy finale.
With two minutes remaining, Aganovic, unmarked and six yards from goal, just failed to get on the end of a cross from the left. Four minutes of injury time were signalled, as both sides seemed to lose their shape.
Both sides had shown enough in an engrossing game to suggest that they still have plenty to offer this tournament.
[c] Gulf Times Newspaper 2016 Provided by SyndiGate Media Inc. ( Syndigate.info ).