Swans left waiting after late penalty
THE Europa League gets serious when a batch of Champions League rejects gatecrash the party after Christmas.
Swansea City have work to do secure their invite after victory slipped through their hands in agonising fashion against Kuban Krasnodar last night.
Michael Laudrup's men were short of their best, yet still looked on course for the victory which would have all but sealed their place in the last 32 after Michu's second-half goal.
But deep into the second minute of two minutes' added time, Ibrahima Balde chased a long ball and Gerhard Tremmel brought the striker down.
Djibril Cisse, as he did in a Champions League final shootout eight years ago, swept home from the spot to claim a draw at the last.
As Swansea are discovering, nothing comes easy in Europe.
And they now lead a resurgent Valencia — handsome winners over St Gallen last night — by only one point with three Group A games remaining.
Swansea face trips to Russia and Switzerland either side of a home game against the Spaniards, and they look like having to dig out one more win if they are to reach the knockout stages.
Laudrup had a miserable time during his stint as a manager in Russia, lasting a mere seven months at Spartak Moscow.
He also has previous when it comes to playing against Russian teams in cross-border competition, having been part of the Barcelona side whose reign as European champions was ended — against all odds — by CSKA Moscow.
That shock defeat was 21 years ago, but Laudrup had not forgotten the misery it caused.
He used it as a reminder to his players in the build-up to this one that the unexpected can happen.
Swansea began as heavy favourites to triumph against a Kuban side who have changed their manager twice in the last four months and arrived in dreadful form.
Viktor Goncharenko's first game in charge ended in defeat in Dinamo Moscow last weekend, making it one win in nine for his new club.
Yet Kuban did not look like a team struggling for confidence in a first half in which they gave as good as they got.
Not for the first time in recent weeks, Swansea stumbled out of the blocks and then struggled to get going.
And it was Kuban who threatened first, Igor Armas volleying over at a corner before their most recognisable face, Djibril Cisse, smashed wide.
Laudrup had made six changes to the side which started against Sunderland, and his new-look line-up did not control possession as the manager would have wished in the first period.
There were spells when Swansea looked good, with Nathan Dyer's energy causing Kuban problems.
The winger had the first home effort of the night, a half-hit shot which was comfortably saved, before Jonjo Shelvey combined cleverly with Wilfried Bony and Michu to carve the game's first genuine chance.
Michu's ball teed up Shelvey, whose first touch but his second was a left-foot drive which arrowed wide.
Kuban countered, Chico Flores rescuing Swansea with a clearance from under his own bar as Cisse readied himself for a tap-in.
Gerhard Tremmel shovelled out Maksim Zhavernchik's long-ranger as the home side wobbled, though Shelvey and Bony both fired wide as Swansea pressed again before the turnaround.
Even so, there was plenty of room for improvement in the second half.
Just like Sunderland, Swansea needed to up the tempo, to pass the ball with more pace and precision.
Unlike Sunderland, there was no noticeable shift through the gears come the restart. Hence Laudrup turned to the bench, sending Angel Rangel and Alvaro Vazquez for Dwight Tiendalli — who may have been lucky to be booked rather than dismissed for pulling back Lorenzo Melgarejo — and Bony just before the hour.
The changes lifted the home crowd, who were doing their best to drive the men in white forward.
But still Swansea struggled to open up the massed ranks of Goncharenko's rearguard. Taylor showed some enterprise, exchanging passes with Alejandro Pozuelo and feeding Michu in the penalty area.
But with the angle tight, the newly-capped Spanish international could only find the side netting with his left-foot shot.
Aleksandr Belenov, Kuban's captain and goalkeeper, conceded such a miserable goal in their previous Europa League tie against Valencia that he now features on YouTube.
But Belenov was getting an easy ride here as Swansea scratched around for a creative spark.
That all changed midway through the second half, when Shelvey found some space in midfield and rolled the ball forward for Michu.
He laid the ball off for Pozuelo, who took a touch before lofting a sweet ball over the top for his compatriot to chase.
Michu, typically, did the rest, reaching the ball before the advancing Belenov and poking it into the net.
Relief washed around the Liberty as Laudrup's men conjured some quality at last.
Shelvey tried to lighten the mood further after Dyer was chopped down 25 yards from goal, but the former Liverpool man's free-kick was gathered by Belenov.
Dyer was soon involved again, sprinting 80 yards down the right after Swansea cleared a corner and then feeding Vazquez in the box.
The substitute swivelled and shot in one movement, but his sliced effort was easy for the Kuban keeper.
It seemed as if the miss would not matter as the game meandered towards a conclusion, but Swansea were undone by a long ball right at the end. Cisse's penalty hurt last night. Swansea must now battle to ensure the pain does not last, starting in Krasnodar in a fortnight's time.