Cork City 0
Legia Warsaw 1
Paul Dollery reports from Turner’s Cross
DESPITE DELIVERING A highly-commendable performance at Turner’s Cross, Cork City will need to come from behind next week in Poland if they’re to advance to the second qualifying round of the Champions League.
A brilliant goal in the 79th minute from Michal Kucharczyk made the difference for Legia Warsaw as the Polish champions gained the upper hand in front of a crowd of 5,795 in this evening’s first leg on Leeside.
The SSE Airtricity League Premier Division champions, playing in Europe’s premier club competition for the first time in 12 years, will now have a one-goal deficit to overturn when they travel to the 31,000-capacity Polish Army Stadium next Tuesday.
In one of four personnel changes from last Friday’s game against Shamrock Rovers, Cork City manager John Caulfield was forced to leave out veteran goalkeeper Mark McNulty, who sustained an ankle injury in the closing stages of the goalless draw with the Hoops. Making his third competitive appearance for the club, Peter Cherrie started instead.
McNulty’s absence presented a major opportunity for Cherrie, who joined City from Bray Wanderers in January. The 34-year-old Scot was making his first European appearance since he featured for Dundalk in their Europa League tie against Hadjuk Split in July 2014.
Elsewhere, central defender Alan Bennett dropped down to the bench, which allowed Damien Delaney to make his first competitive appearance for Cork City since he departed 18 years ago for Leicester City. Delaney recently returned to his hometown club following a six-year spell at English Premier League club Crystal Palace.
The other two changes saw Jimmy Keohane and Barry McNamee selected as the wide attackers, with Kieran Sadlier and Graham Cummins named among the substitutes. Karl Sheppard switched to a central role from out wide, acting as a lone striker.
Although the visitors travelled to Cork without the services of several key players, their starting line-up still included five full internationals — including midfielder Krzysztof Mączyński, who scored in Poland’s 2018 World Cup qualification campaign — while four other players with senior international experience were named on the bench.
Fielding a starting line-up that seemed geared towards containing Legia, City sat deep from the outset in a bid to deprive the visitors of the space they desired to create an opening.
John Caulfield admitted in his pre-match press conference that his team were likely to endure long spells without the ball. It was an accurate forecast, although Caulfield’s side were economical on the break when possession did come their way.
Kasper Hamalainen headed narrowly wide when Legia attacked with less than three minutes played, but backed by a vociferous home crowd, City made it difficult for their opponents to settle into the proceedings.
The home side were gifted an opportunity to open the scoring on 13 minutes, which would have been a reward for the pressure they exerted on Legia’s back three, who were very nearly punished for their complacency in possession.
Inaki Astiz’s attempted pass across the face of his own goal fell to McNamee in the box. The ball came his way rather unexpectedly, but the former Derry City player will feel he should have done better after failing to get a decent connection on his effort.
City did earn a corner from that opportunity, which resulted in Gearoid Morrissey having a shot on goal from just outside the box. The ball appeared to connect with a Legia defender before going wide, but Romanian referee Radu Petrescu disagreed.
Morrissey was involved again when he ran at Legia down the right flank, before sending a low cross towards Keohane, who then went down in the box. Again, however, the referee’s decision wasn’t popular with the locals.
As the first half approached its midway point, Legia gradually assumed control and threatened repeatedly. Sebastian Szymanski, their 19-year-old midfielder who was named in Poland’s preliminary World Cup squad, saw a free-kick sail inches over the crossbar.
Szymanski went close again just over a minute later when the ball fell nicely for him off the head of Sean McLoughlin, who was attempting to clear the danger from a Marko Vesovic cross. City breathed a sigh of relief when Szymanski’s half-volley went too high.
Jose Kante, making his Legia debut following a summer move from Wisla Plock, then missed the target from close range, although Conor McCarthy did well to give the Guinean international little room for manoeuvre.
Kante headed straight at Cherrie directly from a Kucharczyk throw-in, before City eventually relieved the pressure by breaking and winning a free-kick in a dangerous position wide on the right, which was followed by consecutive corners. However, they were unable to ask any questions of 38-year-old goalkeeper Arkadiusz Malarz.
After a goalless first half, Legia signalled their intentions immediately after the restart as they resumed their dominance. Nevertheless, City threatened the visitors twice in the opening stages of the second period, firstly through McCarthy, whose close-range shot was smothered by Malarz after Delaney headed down a McNamee corner.
City lost Morrissey to a groin injury in the 52nd minute, which paved the way for Graham Cummins to enter the game. Cummins almost had an instant impact. McNamee’s delightful ball over the top sent the striker through on goal, but his tame effort was comfortably saved by Malarz.
With Legia redoubling their efforts to find a breakthrough, City worked tirelessly as they spent much of the final half-hour with 11 players in their own half. Finnish international Hamalainen blasted over on the hour-mark, one of numerous long-range attempts from Legia that failed to find the target.
Dean Klafuric’s side grew visibly frustrated at their inability to breach a stubborn City rearguard, as evidenced by a speculative William Remy shot from 30 yards, which ended up tailing off towards the corner flag.
Having replaced the injured McCarthy, Steven Beattie surged forward from right-back in the 69th minute and unleashed a shot that drifted just wide. There was another nervy moment for Legia shortly afterwards when Cummins got his head to Keohane’s corner, but the former St Johnstone forward couldn’t make a strong enough connection.
Just as it was beginning to look as though City were closing in on a valuable draw to take to Warsaw in seven days’ time, Legia hit the front. Again they tried their luck from considerable distance, but this time the strike was flawless.
Krzysztof Maczynski stood over a free-kick out on the right, seemingly with the intention of delivering it into the box. But instead he played it short and central to the unmarked Kucharczyk.
The Polish international’s exquisite first-time shot from 30 yards went beyond the reach of Cherrie, putting Legia Warsaw into the ascendancy for next week’s second leg.
CORK CITY: Peter Cherrie; Conor McCarthy (Steven Beattie, 61), Damien Delaney, Sean McLoughlin, Shane Griffin; Conor McCormack, Gearoid Morrissey (Graham Cummins, 52); Jimmy Keohane, Garry Buckley, Barry McNamee (Kieran Sadlier, 82); Karl Sheppard.
LEGIA WARSAW: Arkadiusz Malarz; Inaki Astiz, William Remy, Mateusz Wieteska; Marko Vesovic, Cafu, Krzysztof Maczynski, Sebastian Szymanski (Dominik Nagy, 76), Michal Kucharczyk; Kasper Hamalainen (Sandro Kulenovic, 82), Jose Kante (Adam Hlousek, 76).
Referee: Radu Petrescu (Romania)