SK Slavia Praha thought they were in for a spot of bother last night when their UEFA Champions League tie with MŠK Žilina went to a shoot-out.
Having been inept during penalty exercises in training, the Czech hosts had every right to be worried after 210 minutes of football over two legs against their Slovakian visitors had failed to produce a goal. Slavia coach Karel Jarolím said: "I was afraid before the shoot-out as we had not been confident in practice at all." To make matters worse, the experienced Vladimír Šmicer, who scored from the spot in Liverpool FC's final triumph in 2004/05, was no longer on the pitch.
Jarolím need not have worried as his men ultimately won through 4-3 on spot-kicks to earn a dream tie with AFC Ajax for a berth in the group stage. “The players believed in themselves, I didn’t even have to urge anyone to step up,“ added a relieved Jarolím. Yet it was not all straightforward for Slavia as Ladislav Volešák missed their first kick while Marek Suchý also spurned his opportunity. Thankfully for the crowd packed into the Evzena Rošického Stadium, Žilina were denied on three occasions.
The home hero was the 36-year-old goalkeeper Martin Vaniak, one of six summer newcomers. He was equal to the decisive shot from Czech full-back Peter Štyvar but like his outfield colleagues had not been in the best of spirits before the shoot-out. "It was not easy as I was chilly in the rainy evening,“ he said. “I hadn't practised penalties at all. You must have luck in that lottery and we had it.“ That good fortune also extended to Tomáš Necid as his effort hit the post before going in.
The only negative for Slavia was the booking for Šmicer which ruled him out of the first leg of their tie in Amsterdam next week. "I feel bad about it, the yellow card was needless,“ he said. “Nevertheless I hope my team-mates will get a promising result at Ajax and I will help them in return leg.“ Having lifted the famous old trophy and scored from the spot when it mattered most, Šmicer may well yet be the best hope for Slavia's dreams of making it through from the third qualifying round for the first time in five attempts.
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