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FC Viktoria Plzeň's European campaign looks set to continue into the new year after a 1-0 victory allowed them to leapfrog FC BATE Borisov in Group H.
With AC Milan and FC Barcelona already through to the UEFA Champions League knockout stages, this was effectively a shoot-out for third and a UEFA Europa League spot. BATE had been in the box seat but were supplanted after an enterprising Plzeň performance that brought its reward when Marek Bakoš fired in on 42 minutes.
With so much at stake both teams could have been forgiven a tentative start but there was nothing of the sort. The game was just two minutes old when Václav Pilař carved out a fine chance, exchanging passes with Daniel Kolář and slaloming past Aleksandr Yurevich before aiming a shot towards the far corner.
The alert Aleksandr Gutor palmed away, grateful the ball fell to a yellow shirt; but Plzeň had served notice of their intent. Kolář, their midfield pivot, exemplified the approach. A waspish presence off the ball, hurrying and harrying, when possession changed hands he immediately sought to release Bakoš, Milan Petržela and Pilař on the break.
By half-time the tactic had earned nine corners to BATE's one and, more importantly, the opening goal. Petržela was the instigator, outstripping Marko Simić on the inside right channel before pulling the ball back to Bakoš. Three metres out, with six goals in his last seven games, the man coach Pavel Vrba had warned was in "brilliant form" duly converted.
BATE, who had mustered a solitary effort dragged wide by Renan Bressan until then, flickered into life. It took a committed David Bystroň block to keep the Belarusian champions at bay before the break, though a half-time rejig from Vrba ensured the visitors were rarely so exposed after the restart.
Maksim Bordachev's cross grazed the bar after Marek Čech flapped at a high ball, but for the most part it was Plzeň, on the counterattack, who posed the greater threat. Gutor stood up tall when František Rajtoral and Kolář were sent through, but the hosts could not make them pay for their profligacy.
BATE will travel to Barcelona in a fortnight needing victory to have any hope of avoiding the wooden spoon; Plzeň's maiden UEFA Champions League win means a draw at home to Milan would make it academic.
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