A new era at Park Hall began with disappointment, as Welsh Champions TNS were defeated by Gibraltarian side Europa FC 2-1 in the First Round of Qualifying for the Champions League.
For the first time in five years, it wouldn’t be Craig Harrison in the dugout for The New Saints, but instead Scott Ruscoe and Steve Evans.
However, in their first competitive game in charge, all did not go to plan.
It was the visitors who opened the scoring after just seven minutes when they had the whole goal to aim at. Despite a strong first half by the away side, a marvellous Scott Quigley goal equalised before the break.
However, it was a tale of two halves as in spite of the Welsh side’s dominance in the second half, a brilliant curled effort by Gomez Bernal leaves the Welsh Champions needing two away goals when they travel to the Algarve for the second leg next week.
The New Saints came back at the visitors, with a well-placed freekick sent floating into a dangerous area by Ryan Brobbel on 11 minutes, but there was no one on the end to apply the finishing touches.
Ryan Pryce darted his way through the gap between two Europa defenders after some neat footwork, however despite tumbling to the ground, Pryce was booked for simulation.
Brobbel proved to be a thorn in the side for Europa FC, and the midfielder swung a corner in which brought the goalkeeper rushing out, but the stopped made a hash of the punch and it fell kindly for Adrian Cislewicz, but the former Wrexham wide man sliced the ball wide of the goal as a good chance went begging.
Later in the half, Connell Rawlinson brought down Banal after Spender darted forward. The free kick was whipped into a good area, and caused havoc in the TNS box, before it was deflected over for a corner. The home defence cleared its lines as the away side started to pile the pressure on.
Europa proved to be a tough test for the Welsh side in the first half, and former Portsmouth man Liam Walker tried his chances from range after gliding past the TNS midfield and looping a shot towards goal, but it just fell onto the roof of the net, as they imposed themselves and gained control of the game.
However, despite the lacklustre first half performance from the Welsh champions, their quality began to shine through at the end of the half as they began to press the Gibraltarian side.
With time running out in the half, they seemed destined to go in 1-0 down. However, just before the interval, Scott Quigley struck out of nowhere, as he flicked the ball over the Europa defender and fired home with vengeance from 12 yards to equalise.
After the interval, TNS’ possession based game continue to be their faltering point. It almost proved costly too as the ever menacing Bernal latched onto a misplaced pass by Steve Saunders, and darted towards goal but run out of space at the byline, leaving TNS on the rocks.
Walker again tested Paul Harrison from range, but the TNS goalkeeper was more than capable of dealing with what was a tame effort the visiting side’s midfielder.
The game intensified as the second half continued, with both sides exchanging a series of biting challenges, with Europa being cautioned for their tough tackling, as they sought to maintain their away goal advantage heading into the second leg.
Moya Tornay whipped a ball to the back post with 20 minutes remaining, but the ball was blasted high over the bar despite being well placed, in what was a rare opportunity for the away side.
Two TNS changes in Alex Darlington and Greg Draper brought a sense of energy to this early season encounter, as the Welsh side began to take a stranglehold in the game. Brobbel remained a threat with some neat footwork, but even from the set pieces the hosts failed to truly pose a menacing effort to worry the Gibraltarian side.
And then the counter attacking ability of the Europa FC side, who had sat back on their heels all half, crushed the hopes of the dominance of the TNS fans and players alike. With just 12 minutes left, Bernal, who had proven to be a real threat to the TNS defence throughout the match, cut inside from the left on the edge of the area and curled into the top corner leaving Harrison rooted to the spot.
Things almost went from bad to worse for the Welsh side as substitute Carrẽno lobbed an effort goalward from the right hand side of the area and if it wasn’t for the bar, Harrison would have been picking the ball out of the net for a third time in the match.
But, they held on to claim a vital victory away from home against the favourites TNS.
Ruscoe and Evans head into the second leg in Portugal knowing a victory may not just be enough. They require two goals in order to overturn the deficit against the Gibraltarian side.
All is not lost for TNS just yet, but they require what will be a mighty performance next week to ensure they don’t fail to qualify for the Second Qualifying Round for the first time since their 2009-10 Europa League campaign.
(Featured Image: C CORREA PHOTOGRAPHY )