By Aidan Elder | Chief sports writer
There are some vintage European memories being rekindled thanks to matchday five of the Champions League. The Paddy Power Blog has taken a stroll down memory lane to pick five of the worst venues to play a European match.
Manchester United’s first taste of Champions League football Turkish style clearly left more scars than a handshake from Edward Scissorhands. Over 19 years ago, Fergie’s team arrived in Istanbul to a torrent of hate and intimidation that would make the most heated trip to Anfield look like Free Hugs Day.
The infamous second leg of United’s Champions League 1993/94 second round tie in Istanbul and its aftermath gets extensive coverage in the autobiographies released just in time for Christmas of several of Fergie’s first golden generation.
The United boss later described it as being exposed “to as much hostility and harassment as I have ever known on a football expedition”. Gary Pallister, who having spent most of his career in Middlesbrough and Manchester was no stranger to bleak environments, called it “a terrifying business which had nothing to do with sport, and can be categorised objectively as an absolute disgrace”.
The intimidation began even before United arrived in Turkey After the first leg at Old Trafford, Galatasaray manager, Reiner Hollmann said, ominously: “They’ll be waiting for you at the airport.” And, true to his word, the fans did form the least welcome of welcoming parties, complete with ‘Wellcome [sic] to hell’ banner. What happened next was a cacophony of disgraces and that nearly 20 years later have yet to be fully explained featuring a corrupt referee, abysmal security and aggressive local policing.
Apparently, the stadium could only accommodate 35,000 at the time, but clearly they were a 35,000 of Turkey’s most vocal fans with anger management issues. These days they play at the impressive, but far less intimidating Turk Telekom Arena. It opened in 2011 with a capacity of 53,000 and it’s much more hospitable. Madonna even played there earlier this year and you’re not likely to see any disturbing scenes at a Madonna concert. Providing she doesn’t get one of her tits out.
What’s at stake now?
Thankfully United go there with little to play for. They’ve already booked top spot in Group H and Fergie will probably take the chance to give a host of young players the futile notion that they actually have a future at the club. Galatasaray didn’t win any of their first three games, but they can still qualify. For that to happen, a win tonight isn’t essential, but it would make life a lot easier.
That didn’t stop local fans bringing back memories of 1993, giving United a welcome that’s slightly less shocking when you know you already have qualification booked and rooms booked at the local Four Seasons.
A visit to Turin has lacked the same passionate vitriol of Istanbul. When the Old Lady played at the Stadio delle Alpi, both fans and the club’s hierarchy had an antipathy towards the ground that Italian men usually reserve for monogamy. The running track created a disconnect between turf and terraces and despite large crowds, the stadium lacked atmosphere.
The distance was something architects were acutely aware of when they designed the Juventus Stadium. Opened in 2011, it’s a smaller, much more intense venue with the first row of seats less than eight metres from the pitch. It’s also built to conserve energy and have a minimal impact on the environment. The laudable feature of a ‘reduction of at least 50 per cent of water needed for irrigation of the field’ doesn’t compare with ‘bottle in the head’ in terms of intimidation.
It’s a difficult trip for other reasons. We can’t go throwing around too many accusations, but let’s just say even if you do manage to put in a performance of real quality, you can have the result snatched away from you faster than you can say ‘hey ref, would you like this free Rolex?’
Juve have 28 Serie A titles to their name and that makes them the most successful team in the country. It also makes them the most suspicious team in the country according to anyone who doesn’t support them. The club suffered the biggest punishments after being identified as one of the major players in the Calciopoli scandal revealed in 2006. Long before that Juve were accused of benefiting from phantom penalties, non-existent offsides and general favourable judgments.
What’s at stake now?
For the most part, suspicious decisions have been limited to domestic football. Chelsea will be on an even playing field when they visit on Matchday Five and that’s hugely important because they find themselves in a tricky situation in Group E. Lose tonight and the the prospect of Thursday night football moves closer. Avoid defeat however and they should be OK to claim a place in the knockout round.
Most visiting footballers aren’t likely to have their heads buried into a book about the history of the Mestalla. And that’s a good thing for the sake of their beauty sleep.
There’s a few reasons the Mestalla isn’t a nice place. For one, the steep terraces and passionate local support make it a deeply claustrophobic environment. For two, it is located close to the city’s military barracks and port, so when the Spanish Civil War came, someone spotted the potential to use the ground a concentration camp. Nice. Political prisoners and an arsenal of weapons were housed at the stadium during the conflict and the stands suffered extensive damaged during the fighting.
Today the Mestalla is a European fortress the same way Made In Chelsea is an exploration of intellect and depth. It isn’t. Due to the club’s debts, they’ve had to sell off pretty much any player who looks like he can kick a ball straight. It leaves them with a team of far lower expectations than the Rafa Benitez and Hector Cuper eras who won leagues, reached Champions League finals and won UEFA Cups.
What’s at stake now?
BATE Borisov started the group stage like bullets, but since then the established giants of Valencia and Bayern have flexed some muscle and asserted their authority. The two teams sit on nine points and have qualification within their grasp. Bayern hold the tie-breaker after beating Valencia in September, but los Ches can nullify that by winning 2-1 tonight and swing it in their favour by winning by more than one goal.
Zenit Saint Petersburg
With a capacity of just over 20,000, the decibels generated within the Petrovsky Stadiumare unlikely to send opposition players into a state of paralysis. Stand too still for too long however, and the freezing cold might do the job for you.
Located a polar bear’s stroll from the Arctic Circle, Saint Petersburg isn’t a nice place for a Champions League game. Generally, we treat the snood and gloves combination with the contempt we usually reserve for Katherine Heigl movies, but in this case, we’ll make an exception.
The average temperature in this part of northern Russia at this time of year is one tenth of a degree above freezing (0.1 Celsius). This week, it’s going to be comparatively warm, with the mercury generally staying above zero, but next week that’s due to change with the minus figures starting to kick in. Add in the fact you’re playing a moneybags team who’ve been improving dramatically in recent seasons and you’ve got yourself one of the least appealing trips in European football.
What’s at stake now?
With two games to go, Zenit need a minor miracle to qualify. Only two wins will get them through and anything less drops them into a world of bleak permutations. Despite selling their best players in the summer, Malaga have taken to Champions League football surprisingly well. A point from their trip to Russia will book their place in the knockout phase.
The Allianz Arena lost a lot of its street cred when Bayern Munich, with home advantage, against a crappy Chelsea team couldn’t managed to win the Champions League last May. To somewhat excuse that performance, it was nominally a neutral venue and Bayern couldn’t take the lion’s share of the tickets in the way the would a normal home game. Yeah, it’s still not much of an excuse.
Middle class Germany isn’t the most frightening of potential destinations. In truth, the worst thing a travelling fans is likely to encounter in the build-up to a match is a bad joke. But once the game starts, the generally affable Bavarians find their voice and generate quite some volume. It’s an intimidating venue, with the 71,000 capacity stacked tightly around the pitch. Despite having lacked the usual amounts of silverware in recent seasons, they’ve got a star-studded squad and they can tear you apart if you’re too focussed on Europe’s biggest underground car park, located under your feet.
What’s at stake now?
The game in Valencia is crucial and tonight’s result will dictate how important next week’s game in the Allianz Arena is. BATE Borisov will be the visitors and most European giants would fancy not screwing that up in front of their own supporters. Even Bayern.