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Grasshoppers keep European dream alive

Grasshopper goalscorer Nunez (left) looks for a way past Ibarra

(Keystone)

Grasshoppers Zurich appear in good shape for a place in this season's European Champions League, after drawing 2-2 away to Portuguese giants Porto in the first leg of competition's final qualifying round.

A fantastic second half performance from Grasshoppers' Uruguayan star Richard Nunez has given the Zurich club a strong chance of qualifying for the continent's biggest club tournament, even though the match could hardly have begun in worse fashion for the Swiss champions.

With less than seven minutes played, a nightmare backpass from the usually dependable Grasshoppers defender Boris Smiljanic handed the Portuguese side a dream start.

Smiljanic's loose ball allowed Porto striker Carlos Paredes to pounce, the Paraguayan international greedily snapping up the backpass before firing it past a hapless Peter Jehle in the Grasshoppers goal.

The rest of the first half saw the Zurich club come under almost relentless pressure from their hosts. Just two minutes after the opening goal, Brazilian midfielder Deco crashed the ball against Jehle's post. Then in the 35th minute Deco's compatriot Pena went close with a header.

But despite living up to their reputation as underdogs in those first 45 minutes, Grasshoppers went into the break just 1-0 down and were soon able to capitalise as the second half got underway.

Just six minutes after the restart, Nunez had put his side back on level terms, finishing a typically clever display of footwork with a superbly placed left-footed strike into the bottom of the Porto net.

Having played a major part in last season's league championship win with nine goals in his nine games for the club, Nunez was showing more than enough ability for the European stage. And it was thanks to the Uruguayan that with another five minutes played, Grasshoppers found themselves unexpectedly in the lead.

A devastating break down the win from Nunez was followed up by a perfect pass towards Mladen Petric, who hurled himself and the ball across the Porto goalline to put Grasshoppers 2-1 up.

Sudden hopes of a dramatic win over the former European champions weren't to last long, though.

After another three minutes of hectic football, the home side grabbed what could yet prove a vital equaliser, with substitute Hélder Postiga skilfully lobbing the ball over a stranded Jehle.

With half an hour still to play, both sides had further chances and further frights, and it needed a stunning injury time save from Jehle to keep out a deadly looking long-range strike from Portuguese midfielder Costinha.

Moments later, though, the final whistle was accompanied by jeering from the home fans and satisfied smiles among the Grasshoppers team. With two away goals to take into the return leg in Zurich in two weeks time, a place in this year's Champions League is clearly still within reach.

by Mark Ledsom

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