"A sensation for Finland and European football" was how the Tampere United coach Ari Hjelm described his side's shock UEFA Champions League second qualifying round victory against PFC Levski Sofia.
Jari Niemi scored the only goal at the Vasil Levski National Stadium in the 39th minute when he gave goalkeeper Georgi Petkov no chance with a crisp finish from close to the penalty spot, completing 1-0 home and away triumphs for the Finnish challengers. "It's a very big surprise as we knew that we were the underdogs," said Hjelm. "It was very important that Levski didn't score in the first game; it helped us a lot. I'm happy because we got it right tactically in both games. We knew Levski's style very well and were well prepared for them and that played a major part in the success."
Niemi also scored three times in the first qualifying round defeat of San Marino's S.S. Murata and will today be setting his sights on Rosenborg BK - the Norwegians lead Kazakhstan's FC Astana 3-1 going into their home second leg tonight - as the club dream of emulating HJK Helsinki's qualification for the group stage in 1998/99. Hjelm praised his players' character in Sofia, and knows two similarly steely displays will be needed in the penultimate round as the riches of the group stage beckon.
"My players showed real character in an important match like this - in a tough situation experienced players often take a leading role and that was the case tonight. Mikko Kavén made a few crucial saves and players like Jarkko Wiss, Antti Pohja and Jari Niemi all had great games. That's not to forget the others, the whole team played well and this is a historic moment for us. We've beaten a team which played in the Champions League group stage last season and we are absolutely delighted."
Levski eliminated the likes of Udinese Calcio, Olympique de Marseille and AJ Auxerre in reaching the UEFA Cup quarter-finals in 2005/06, before tackling the might of FC Barcelona, Chelsea FC and Werder Bremen in Group A last term - experiences which they have not built on. "The fairy tale is over and at the end of the day I'm the one who has to take responsibility for the failure," said coach Stanimir Stoilov. "It's easy to say what we should have done afterwards, but I really was without options. We lack a class centre-forward and that was obvious in the game. This is a sad moment for us, a lost season in Europe, and now we must focus on the domestic front."
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