AC Sparta Praha's 3-2 away victory in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League third qualifying round tie against FK Vardar proved decisive as tonight's 2-2 draw in Prague saw the Czech challengers reach the group stage.
The 5-4 aggregate success means Sparta return to the last 32 after an absence of one year. They fell behind to Slavco Georgievski's strike on the half-hour before Karel Poborský levelled soon after. Vardar were within a goal of progressing after Bless'ng Chinedu Anyanviu restored their lead but Libor Sionko prevented a shock with the final goal in the 82nd minute.
Vardar were the only side from the first qualifying round to advance to the final one, and they showed the form which helped them eliminate PFC CSKA Moskva in the previous round in the early stages here. A series of rapid counterattacks saw them force home goalkeeper Jaromír Blazek into a number of smart saves, particularly from the prolific Brazilian forward Oliveira.
Blazek could do nothing after 30 minutes, though, when Georgievski looked up to find himself free in the Sparta area before drilling in the opening goal. If the Macedonians had hoped to build on their lead they had not accounted for the skill of Poborský, who took his tally in the tie to three goals with a ferocious shot from 20 metres three minutes later.
The visiting goalkeeper, Gogo Jovcev, who was standing in for the suspended Muarem Zekir, was also kept busy in an entertaining match. He denied Igor Gluscevic just after the restart before being beaten by Sparta defender Petr Johana on the hour, only for the goal to be disallowed for a foul on Jovcev.
Confusion at the other end led to Vardar retaking the lead in the 67th minute, Anyanviu taking advantage. Vardar pressed in search of the goal which would have put them ahead on aggregate but the fourth goal of the night was scored by Sionko, who headed in a Poborský cross eight minutes from time.
Sparta live on
Vardar dominated possession as time ticked down, yet could not find the goal which would have forced extra time and kept their dream of reaching the group stage alive - something which is now a reality for Sparta ahead of Thursday's draw.