Welcome to the Champions League, KAA Gent!

No-one will forget this most dramatic of debuts for KAA Gent in the Champions League as the Belgian champions had the better of a 1-1 draw with French giants Olympique Lyonnais. Despite having survived two red cards and being indebted to a stunning late penalty save from Matz Sels, Hein Vanhaezebrouck’s men were the better side and can even feel hard done by with just a point.

Vanhaezebrouck named his strongest side with the exception of the injured Swedish defender Erik Johansson, who was replaced in defence by Stefan Mitrovic, making his full debut. Indeed, the biggest surprise pre-game was the choice of Gent kit as the home side eschewed their traditional blue and white for a fluorescent yellow strip.

De Buffalo’s began on the front foot with Simon playing in Dejaegere early on ; Antony Lopes saved from a tight angle. Gent then opened Lyon’s defence up when Samuel Umtiti was caught the wrong side and Laurent Depoitre was in the clear. He shrugged off the defender only to hit the crossbar. It would have been a dream start and Depoitre was warming to the task of Champions League football even against his highly rated marker.

Moments later, Scottish referee Willie Collum decided to hand OL midfielder Jordan Ferri a yellow card for a high tackle, which unfortunately did not set the tone as we would later see. Gent continued to play positively and commit bodies forward, staying true to their positive and forward-thinking philosophy that has taken them so far. Depoitre was off celebrating but this time it was the offside flag that denied him but it was a further sign of Gent’s ascendancy in the game.

Disaster struck four minutes before the break when Brecht Dejaegere went in over the top on Maxime Gonalons ; Collum couldn’t wait to give the red card when earlier he had only cautioned Ferri. The Scot returned to his dressing room at half-time against the backdrop of a chorus of booing but only after Renato Neto had missed his kick when it looked harder to miss.

OL coach Hubert Fournier replaced Rafael with Christophe Jallet at the break, conscious of the threat Moses Simon was posing down the left. It proved to be an inspired choice as the ex-PSG and Saint-Etienne rightback opened the scoring just before the hour mark with a near post header across Sels’ goal from Valbuena’s corner (which should never have been awarded). With ten men and a 0-1 deficit, lesser sides would have crumbled under the bright lights of Champions League football. Not KAA Gent.

Gent survived a nervy period to hit back through Danijel Milicevic. Earmarked before the game as one of the team’s major attacking threats, he received a piercing pass from Sven Kums and placed his shot to perfection beyond Lopes and two desperate Lyon defenders. Cue wild scenes in the crowd and an Usain Bolt style celebration from the Swiss attacking midfielder. It was nothing less than Gent had deserved for the fruits of their labour in the face of adversity.

Despite their numerical disadvantage, Gent retained a positive outlook but were hit by another catastrophe less than four minutes from time. This time, it really should have been fatal. Thomas Foket was red carded for a professional foul inside the penalty box. Up stepped Alexandre Lacazette, who though out of form, scored 27 times last season and earned himself a lucrative new contract. 20,000 fans held their breath. Nails were bitten down to the quick. We needn’t have worried. Matz Sels dived to his right and with a strong right hand, pulled off a heroic stop to deny Lacazette and prevent an undeserved defeat. Nine men and still holding on – Shakespeare couldn’t have written this script and the Ghelamco was the Globe Theatre.

Gent more than deserved this draw and were the superior outfit in spite of every hurdle they had to overcome tonight. Their mental strength was a testament and a tribute to their coach who espouses such qualities and who has succeeded in forging a Gent team in his own image. And while Heintje is very much a team first coach, it would be remiss not to pick out some outstanding individual performances:

Laurent Depoitre led the line magnificently. He rode the crest of the wave and embraced the fervent atmosphere in the stands. Now surely established as the best forward in the Pro League, he was powerful, intelligent and a goal threat. Already proven at the domestic level, this performance will not only be character-building but will make many more people sit up and take notice.

If I have likened Depoitre to a poor man’s Depoitre then as the above tweet suggests, Sven Kums produced a masterful display in the heart of midfield worthy of the great Italian. He commanded the midfield with his probing passing game, proving instrumental in the equaliser. I also thought Lasse Nielsen and Asare were very strong in defence, holding their nerve under pressure when Lyon threatened with Stefan Mitrovic looking short of match sharpness. Plaudits also have to go to Sels, who had experienced a couple of hairy moments earlier in the game but he will have done his international claims no harm with his late penalty save.

Before the game, I wrote that it was churlish to begrudge KAA Gent their place in the greatest club competition in the world by devaluing their maiden championship win. Tonight, they proved that emphatically and did their talking out on the brand new, €100,000 pitch. Their refreshing, progressive approach allied to a never-say-die attitude will have won them many new fans. De Buffalo’s acquitted themselves superbly and les Gones could not have complained had they returned home empty-handed. With this display, Gent have shown they deserved their title win and are worthy of their place. Their maiden group stage game will live long in the memory.

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