The 2014/15 UEFA Champions League has already provided an unlikely hero in the form of FC Santa Coloma goalkeeper Eloy Casals.
Appearing down and out despite a valiant effort against Armenian champions FC Banants, Santa Coloma put together one last desperate attack in their first qualifying round second leg, with Casals making a foray forward. What happened next propelled the Lleida native into the UEFA Champions League record books, and his team into a second qualifying round meeting with Maccabi Tel-Aviv FC.
Things started well for the Andorran side in Yerevan, with Ildefons Lima's 20th-minute strike adding to their 1-0 first-leg advantage. However, Banants – reduced to ten men in the second half – managed to turn the tie around with a triple response, Rumyan Hovsepyan scoring either side of Garegin Mashumyan's 47th-minute effort.
With the game deep in injury time, and after midfielder Juvenal had struck a post, goalkeeper Casals looked to provide his side with one more attacking outlet. The Santa Coloma No1's gamble duly paid off as he latched onto Ibán Parra's header before sending the Principality team through on away goals after the tie finished 3-3.
"Our team-mate Marc Pujol knew who he had to look for in the area: it was striker [Ibán] Parra," Casals told UEFA.com. "We were aware that when he got involved up front, things generally happened for us. When I saw that the ball was then coming towards me, I moved in closer. I turned and was expecting to see four defenders on top of me, but I quickly realised there was an opportunity to shoot and I didn't hesitate."
The goal brought both joy and relief to Santa Coloma, who became the first Andorran team to advance past a UEFA qualifier since UE Sant Julià in 2009/10. "I felt that from the 85th minute on, if we got a corner or a free-kick, I had to go forward to add another body in the opposing box," Casals said. "In fact, I had already done so on a previous occasion before I scored."
After netting the crucial goal, the 31-year-old keeper – who also works as a trainer with the Andorran Football Federation (FAF) – said he was momentarily disorientated during the subsequent celebrations. "I started off towards the corner flag, not really realising where I was going," he explained. "
I was screaming like crazy and had no idea if anyone was following me, but within seconds I was swamped by my team-mates. I regret not running to the bench now but I'm a goalkeeper, I never celebrate goals."
Next up for the Andorran champions are Israel's Maccabi Tel-Aviv, and for Casals the two-legged tie represents another welcome opportunity to compete on the European stage. "We will take whatever comes our way now," he said. "We are realistic and know the difficulties we are about to face.
"Having said that, we are not going to go into the tie with a defeatist attitude. Our plan is to compete to the best of our ability in both games and to make things as difficult as possible for our opponents while trying to get to the second leg with our chances still intact."
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