What many had hoped would be a comfortable evening at McDiarmid Park turned out to be a night of disappointment in the Europa League for St. Johnstone.
Over 5500 fans were at the match to witness continental football return to Perth, with many enjoying the atmosphere at the various pre-match parties being hosted throughout the city. Saints fans were confident that they would have enough to see off their Lithuanian counterparts and take a lead over to the Balkans next week. However, supporters were left deflated after the home side slipped to a 2-1 defeat to FK Trakai – leaving them with an extremely difficult challenge to overcome if they want to progress to the next round.
The away side started the match brightly and it looked as though being midway through their domestic season was giving them a big advantage when it came to match sharpness. It was the visitors who carved out the first opportunity, when Aliaksandr Bychanok’s header crept wide of ‘keeper Zander Clark’s right-hand post. Dangerous striker Maxim Maksimov did put Trakai in front a short time after that though, rounded off a cleverly worked move by the Lithuanians to silence the boisterous St. Johnstone supporters.
Tommy Wright’s men rallied though and began to grow into the match which in turn began to re-energise the home crowd, with the fans in the East Stand creating a fantastic atmosphere to spur the players on. Blair Alston missed a glorious opportunity to level the match when he fired his shot straight at Trakai’s ‘keeper, before Graham Cummins missed two subsequent rebounds. It would be a set-piece that would get Saints back into the tie, when Irish defender Joe Shaughnessy headed home from close range on the 32nd minute to level the score at 1-1.
That goal looked as though it may have galvanised Saints and there was a great feeling of positivity around the stadium. However, it was short-lived and just four minutes later Trakai had regained the lead. Sloppy play from the home side allowed Vaidotas Silenas time and space, and he unleashed a magnificent strike right into Zander Clark’s top left-hand corner to make the score 2-1 and stun the Perth supporters.
The Lithuanians looked comfortable throughout the first-half and looked assured in possession, sending the sides in at half-time with the visitors leading 2-1.
There was an improvement in the second half from Saints, particularly when Tommy Wright made use of his substitutions. The home fans got to see new signing Stefan Scougall in action for the first-time in a St. Johnstone shirt, and he almost made an immediate impact. Within moments he found himself in the Trakai box and floated an inviting cross into the middle but Liam Craig blazed the ball over the cross bar in what was a fantastic opportunity to level the match.
Scougall was involved again when a fortunate break of the ball allowed him the chance to drive a shot low towards the goal which beat the ‘keeper but cannoned back off the post.
Saints did have the ball in the net again after Blair Alston’s shot was deflected for a corner. Shaughnessy again met the ball with a thumping header but the referee deemed that Steven MacLean had fouled the away ‘keeper and disallowed the goal. They will need to improve on last night’s performance, but they did very well away from home last season and that should give fans travelling to Lithuania on Thursday some hope.
There was more agony for Saints’ fans as Graham Cummins missed a golden opportunity late on when his shot caught the trailing leg of the visiting goalkeeper Ignas Plukas when it looked like he had given his side an equaliser. Trakai’s goalscorer Vaidotas Silenas was red carded in the closing stages for a second yellow card, meaning he will miss the return leg in Lithuania next week.
Although it was a bitterly disappointing evening for Saints, you’d be foolish to write them off just yet. They will need to improve on last night’s performance, but they did very well away from home last season and that should give fans travelling to Lithuania on Thursday some hope that Tommy and the boys can turn the deficit around and progress into the second round of qualifying.
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