Motherwell 0-2 Kuban Krasnodar: Popov dents hopes

Motherwell failed to make it a hat-trick of Scottish victories in Europe this week although they cannot be accused of letting anyone down, least of all themselves. Opponents FC Kuban Krasnodar showed just why they are considered to be one of the emerging forces in Russian football as they made an accomplished European bow.

Motherwell's James McFadden next to Kuban Krasnodar goal scorer Ivelin Popov. Picture: PA

Scorers: Kuban Krasnodar - Popov (52, 77)

The size of Motherwell’s task was summed up by the fact that FC Kuban could afford to leave a European Cup winner on the substitutes’ bench. The recently signed Djibril Cisse was not included in the starting XI, although he made a late appearance. Instead, manager Dorinel Munteanu used the impressive 23-year-old Ibrahima Balde in the lone striker’s role.

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Abundant talent ran throughout the Russian team but it was the tall, skilful Balde who stole the show, setting up Ivelin Popov’s brace of second-half goals. It was enough to draw a generous round of applause from the sporting Motherwell fans when Balde was replaced by Cisse with just over ten minutes remaining.

Motherwell now face an arduous mission to south-west Russia next week as they seek to make-up the aggregate deficit. Manager Stuart McCall’s aim had been to ensure that the tie remained alive after the first leg. It is hard to see how it can be considered salvageable now, particularly after the second of Popov’s goals following another lightning quick counter attack.

Motherwell did come close to making the prospect of turning the tie around seem slightly more realistic when John Sutton saw a header crash off the post in injury time.

Although the hosts had looked sluggish in the opening minutes, they recovered to compete well. However, it was clear which side had already started their league season. The Russians were very nearly handed a dream start. A long ball from Christian Kabore caught out Shaun Hutchinson and Balde, wearing the No 99 shirt, very nearly hooked the ball into the net past Lee Hollis, who had rushed out from his goal-line. Fortunately for Motherwell, the ball ran wide of the post.

It was an early warning. Motherwell were restricted to long-range efforts, although Iain Vigurs, making his debut after signing from Ross County, will feel he should have made a better connection after a Sutton lay-off. Instead, his 20-yard effort trundled weakly past a post.

Rather than curse their luck Motherwell had cause to thank their lucky stars after 22 minutes when Balde struck a fierce shot that rebounded back off Hollis’ left-hand post. Stephen McManus, another making his debut for Motherwell, was being tested in the air, and he was often coming up short against the frisky Senegalese striker.

Still, Motherwell stuck gamely to their task and it was a boost to reach the break at 0-0. It at least gave the hosts a foothold in the match. Indeed, they might have even have finished the first half in front had referee Alain Bieri – or his near-side assistant Remy Zgraggen – been minded to award the home side a penalty after Sutton looked to have been tugged in the six-yard box by the Brazilian centre-half Xandao as he sought to reach a

McFadden chip into the box.

Balde continued to show how to lead the line on your own after the break, although he turned provider on 52 minutes as Kuban scored the goal they had been threatening since shortly after the first whistle. Although scored by Popov, it owed everything to Balde. Every step in a mazy run down the left had seemed to anticipate a goal as he turned the Motherwell defenders inside out, before cutting the ball back across goal. Popov showed the most determination to get to the ball and converted into the corner of the net from about six yards.

While deflating for Motherwell, the goal was greeted with understandable glee by the small pocket of about 100 fans of the Russian side who were clumped in a corner in the same end. It was their side’s maiden goal in European competition and they were obliged to mark it in a suitably raucous manner. Tops had already been removed long before but for once on a balmy evening in Lanarkshire, this seemed almost reasonable.

It got better for the Russians, who delivered what must surely count as a knock-out blow to Motherwell after 77 minutes. Again Balde was the architect, skipping past Steven Hammell who had misplaced a pass and crossing for Popov, who only had to stroke the ball past Hollis. It was confirmation of Kuban’s class and only more heroic defending from Hutchinson prevented the visitors grabbing a third at the end, although Motherwell, too, were left frustrated, when Sutton’s header hit the woodwork in the final seconds.

Motherwell: Hollis, Ramsden, Hutchinson, McManus, Hammell, Francis-Angol, Lasley, Vigurs, McFadden (Kerr 82), Lawson (Anier 80), Sutton. Subs Not Used: Nielsen, Cummins, McHugh, Carswell, Moore.

Krasnodar: Pelenov, Kozlov, Xandao, Dealbert, Bugaev, Popov, Tsoraev (Fidler 79), Sosnin, Bucur (Urena 85), Kabore, Ibra (Cisse 82). Subs Not Used: Karyakin, Armas, Bezlikhotnov, Zhavnerchik.