A superb late strike from substitute Mauricio Pinilla gave Sporting Clube de Portugal a narrow victory in the first leg of their UEFA Cup semi-final against AZ Alkmaar after a resolute display by the visitors.
The striker capitalised on an unusual lapse in the Dutch side's defence ten minutes from time, the visitors backing off and allowing the 21-year-old to unleash a powerful 25-metre drive that gave Henk Timmer no chance. Sporting had earlier fallen behind to Denny Landzaat's 36th-minute strike before Roudolphe Douala equalised 60 seconds later.
The Cameroonian striker passed a late fitness test to take his place in the side, although with Carlos Martins injured and Beto suspended, Joseph Enakarhire started at centre-back. Alkmaar also fielded an inexperienced defence as injuries to Joris Mathijsen and Jan Kromkamp forced coach Co Adriaanse to give 20-year-old Ron Vlaar a first European start.
Any hopes the youngster may have held about being eased into the fray were soon eliminated as the home side penned Alkmaar into their own half and barely six minutes had elapsed when Custódio created the first opening. The midfield player rose unmarked to meet Fabio Rochemback's left-wing corner but failed to keep his header down.
The chance proved indicative of what was to follow as Liedson and Douala constantly harried the visitors who struggled to break out of their own half. Barry van Galen managed to do so on 13 minutes, but no sooner had he narrowly failed to reach a deep cross than Ricardo launched a counterattack. After cutting inside Tim de Cler, Douala crossed to Liedson, but Michael Buskermolen, who will miss the second leg after picking up a second-half booking, covered well at the near post.
Rochemback tested Timmer with a swerving free-kick minutes later, before Liedson forced the veteran Alkmaar goalkeeper into another save. After arching to meet Rui Jorge's cross, the 27-year-old managed to get a lot of power behind the ball, but directed it straight at Timmer.
The move typified the opening half-hour for Sporting, with good approach play spoiled by poor final balls and so it proved again on 34 minutes when Douala took up a position on the right flank for a change. The result was the same, however, as he ghosted past Kew Jaliens but with team-mates in the box, he fired wastefully across goal.
Jaliens was far more composed two minutes later though, as he advanced down the right wing before supplying a cross to Landzaat, who neatly guided the ball inside Ricardo's near post to put Alkmaar in front. But Sporting were level inside a minute. Vlaar was helpless as a hopeful long-range shot bounced off his legs and into the path of Duoala, and the Cameroonian duly levelled.
Van Galen hesitance
Alkmaar started the second half on the attack and after Olaf Lindenbergh hit a swerving shot just wide, Van Galen ghosted behind Anderson Polga twice in two minutes. Having fired his first effort straight at Ricardo, the veteran midfield player opted to square his second attempt and Adil Ramzi was crowded out.
The Dutch side could ill-afford such profligacy and Sporting soon wrested back the initiative, although it required Pinilla's stunning strike to find a way through. The youngster could have doubled the advantage in added time after a one-two with Liedson but could not get his shot away so Sporting will take a one-goal lead to the Alkmaarderhout next week – where the Dutch side have never lost a European match.
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