In a drab penalty shootout, RB Leipzig needed only one shot to beat Besiktas and get into the Champions League semifinals for the first time.
A bench against a wall, tucked behind the fans: It could have been a scene in a Borussia Dortmund stadium in the Bundesliga. Or at Highbury in London. Perhaps on the streets of Hansa Rostock, for a Super Cup match between FC Bayern and D.C. United.
But it was in Germany, at the Hartwell Arena in Bilbao, where Leipzig faced Besiktas in a quarterfinal shootout, and their two-man half-line celebrating that would not have been out of place in a soccer stadium overseas.
“We are so grateful to all Leipzig and our amazing fans,” winger Alassane Plea, one of Leipzig’s stars, told the crowd as they embraced.
The semifinal match was a hothouse of fouls and yellow cards. In the 52nd minute, striker Naby Keita dribbled down the left and chested a cross that Besiktas’ Max Gradel scooped up by pulling the ball back to himself to convert a penalty.
From that point, there were seven total of fouls in the match; three of them yellow cards. It was a match not to remember, or, as seen in images, laugh at.
After all, Besiktas is well-known for its youthful eagerness — particularly in training sessions. So Erkan Zengin, a 22-year-old playing in his first quarterfinal and failing to fire on target in penalties, had only what he said would make for fun to focus on.
The young forward had already heaped praise on his side’s dominant defense but he sang the praises of goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi, 26. “He is a great goalkeeper,” he said, through tears.
The result was worth the gloominess, all the scoring and the defensive heartbreak. Leipzig is aiming to join top clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona in moving from the Bundesliga to the Champions League.
Although Leipzig won by a score of 7-5 in a penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw, that scoreline could be misleading. As the referee bled in the stands, Nadir Ciftci was sent off after giving away the second penalty of the shootout.
Leipzig ended the season ranked sixth in the Bundesliga and third in Europe’s Champions League group stage. The combination of those two success stories made for a delicious irony that the semi-final contest didn’t always mirror the 70 minutes of unspoken sniping in front of the cameras.
“I just went for it,” Gulacsi said.
However, “we did our job and it will be revenge for next year,” coach Ralph Hasenhuettl vowed.
Besiktas, meanwhile, is no stranger to the fight for Europe’s top competitions. The match had been their first in the quarterfinals since they reached the final in 1997 before losing to Manchester United. This time, though, they were no match for a Leipzig side that started the match trailing Basel by 13 points in the Bundesliga standings.
They were a side with one eye and one moustache on next season. “If our structure works like that,” coach Senol Gunes said, “we have a real chance next year.”
Victory marks RB Leipzig’s rise to European football elite
Run like a grand old dog through tough fight to reach the Champions League semifinals